“There is nothing in machinery, there is nothing in embankments and railways and iron bridges and engineering devices to oblige them to be ugly. Ugliness is the measure of imperfection.”
H. G. Wells
The westbound span of the “Bird Creek Bridge” on Oklahoma 66 near Catoosa, Oklahoma, is gone.
We had driven under those historic steel trusses many times over the years on those trips from Vinita through Claremore and back to Tulsa.
I had stopped on a whim, that day in October 2008, determined to photograph those two old spans, one of which — the westbound lanes built in 1936 — had carried travelers all the way to California as part of the original Route 66.
Pulling off the highway and taking our Jeep down a rutted, trash-strewn path, we stopped in the shade beneath the traffic.
The arguments had been ongoing for years, whether to repair the bridges or replace them. Repairs would cost more than Oklahoma wanted to spend, and as the bridges deteriorated, costs went up. More than 40 emergency repairs were made in recent years, and when we stood beneath it, the westbound span had been reduced to one lane because of gaping holes along the edges of the concrete deck.
As heavy trucks rumbled overhead, their tires clattering over the seams in the deteriorating concrete deck, rusting steel creaked and tiny fragments of crumbling concrete drifted down.
Shortly after I took that photograph, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation condemned the narrow and crumbling westbound span. Rather than perform long-overdue repairs, the state decided to simply replace it.
Protests by the Route 66 Association, historical societies and others who loved those old bridges were ignored, and within a few years it was demolished.
The replacement was a simple, modern, most would say ugly, concrete span.
The surviving bridge, built in 1957, was a bit wider but also in dire need of repair. The state announced it too would soon be demolished, but this time the protests swayed the state, which reversed its stance and agreed to repairs rather than replacement.
In a partial but less-than-celebratory victory for Route 66 advocates, the six historical pony trusses taken from the oldest bridge were preserved after the demolition.
Two became an impressive entrance to the nearby Rogers Point Public Park. The other four were moved a short distance to the west, where they now flank the long entryway into Molly’s Landing, a popular eatery on the edge of the old course of the Verdigris River.
It’s not the same. Somehow, the highway feels lopsided, with the old steel trusses enclosing the eastbound lanes and low flat concrete railings corralling westbound traffic. I suppose, in terms of safety, it’s progress. But in terms of history, it’s a loss.
Preservationists say that 50 percent of America’s historic bridges have been lost in the past 25 years. Most historic Route 66 bridges are in Oklahoma. And now another is gone.
So, the next time you find yourself cruising south and west from Baxter Springs, Kansas, toward Tulsa on Route 66 … check out Waylon’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami, the Afton Station and Buffalo Ranch, and Totem Pole Park in Foyil.
Somewhere beyond Claremore, after you cross the McClellan-Kerr Channel, watch for the steel trusses that lead to Molly’s Landing. Try the Tecate fried mushrooms and mesquite grilled ribeye.
As you leave through the decorative entryway that was once part of America’s history, look to the east at the half-bridge and try to imagine the steel trusses where they once stood.
Then, turn right and head west again, past the old Blue Whale swim pond on your right, toward the Woody Guthrie Museum in Tulsa.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.