Mother Nature and the U.S. Army add to the scenic adventures as Route 66 winds through Missouri.
By Bill Langer
Cause we got a little ol’ convoy rockin’ through the night.
Yeah, we got a little ol’ convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight?
From ‘Convoy,’ sung by C.W. McCall, 1975
If you remember this song, you might also remember ‘Rubber Duck’ talking about rolling up on Interstate 44 ‘like a rocket sled on wheels.’ Today, as we follow old Route 66 across Missouri, we travel along Interstate 44. Maybe we will see one of those convoys.
Route 66 originally was a gravel road that followed a much older trail through Missouri, the Great Osage Trail. Before the Civil War, the trail was known as the St. Louis to Springfield Road. During the Civil War, a telegraph line was strung along its length, and it locally became known as the Wire Road. That moniker lasted until 1926 when, at Springfield, Mo., officials first named that section of road, as well as the rest of the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway, U.S. Route 66.
Our previous stop (last month) was at an underground storage facility created in a limestone mine. About an hour west of St. Louis, and a couple of miles off I-44, we will visit another underground limestone ‘mine.’ But this time, Mother Nature was the miner.
The ‘mine’ began forming in limestone bedrock about 400 million years ago. Rainwater, combined with carbon dioxide given off by decaying vegetation, formed carbonic acid that percolated through fractures in the limestone. In doing so, it dissolved the rock, creating solution-enlarged openings. Over geologic time, these openings enlarged, forming caverns with ceilings and floors liberally bejeweled with stalactites, stalagmites, rimstone dams, and draperies. Iron and manganese impurities and tannic acids stained the otherwise snowy white features with shades of red, orange, brown, gray, and black. That geologic process is responsible for the thousands of caves and springs that form a part of southern Missouri’s natural beauty.
One such cave system is known as Meramec Caverns. In 1935, Lester Dill opened the caverns as a tourist attraction, possibly making it the oldest tourist stop along Route 66. My college roommate and I visited the caverns during the summer of ’65. When we returned to his Triumph TR4, someone had slapped a bumper sticker on it. It turns out that Dill also pioneered the use of bumper stickers. The adhesive used to attach stickers to cars had not yet been developed, so Dill would have “bumper sign boys” tie Meramec Caverns signs on the cave visitors’ cars giving the visitors a free souvenir and Dill free advertising.
As we head west back on I-44, we don’t want to miss Hooker Cut. We take Exit 169 and turn west on County Highway Z, a back road that, at one time, was the most modern part of Route 66.
During 1940, the U.S. Army broke ground for Fort Leonard Wood. Two years later, a new four-lane stretch of Route 66 was excavated through Hooker Hill in order to move equipment more efficiently to and from the Fort. It is said that the new road saved a full day’s travel for oversized loads of military equipment. It was a magnificent engineering feat. At 94 feet, Hooker Cut was, at the time, the deepest earth cut ever attempted in Missouri and was believed to be the deepest road cut in the country.
We push on down I-44 and stop at Joplin near the western boarder of Missouri. During dinner, the locals regale us with stories about the record-breaking 234-truck Special Olympics truck convoy held in Joplin during September 2013. Now that would give C.W. McCall something to sing about.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business.
He can be reached at