Highway 54 Bridge will soon be 54 years old

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fifty-four years ago, Nevada initiated some dramatic inner city business highway route changes. The new business highway paths for both U.S. Highways 71 and 54 were to enjoy new wide concrete roadways that bypassed the old railroad underpass on East Walnut Street. An arching overpass, part of a newly created East Austin Boulevard, would now carry four lanes of traffic over those same tracks. That now familiar bridge, like so many other aging public edifices in America, is approaching a vulnerable decline.

The idea for this article resulted from observations during a recent traverse of the bridge. I noticed that the Missouri Department of Transportation was once again completing some patchwork repairs to the bridge's surface. I also felt, as I am sure many of you have as well, multiple jolts of bone jarring roughness, as we passed over the bridge.

I remarked to my traveling companions that this wonderful bridge was like me, beginning to show it's age. I related to them, my memories of both the building of the bridge, and also its dedication.

Work on the new Austin Boulevard going east from Washington Street began in 1963. I found a front page picture from the Halloween edition (Oct. 31, 1963) of the Daily Mail, which showed the construction work as it progressed.

As many of my fellow seniors will remember, the old business highways were actually the official highways. There was no Interstate 49 bypass, nor did the four-lane Centennial Boulevard that is now Business 54 exist.

Highways 71's route in those days came to Nevada from the south on what is now the outer road that passes beside Camp Clark. It made a wide and somewhat thrilling curve near a motel (if my memory is correct called the Toll Motel). It followed the current route, until it turned north on Subway Boulevard, where it passed through our famous underpasses. It turned north in front of the White Grill and from there followed what is now Osage Boulevard through Nevada on its way to Rich Hill.

Highway 54's route from the east was much the same, but there was no Centennial Boulevard. Instead it followed the roadway that still exists that passes along the west side of the 54 Cafe, before also entering the underpass.

The Business Route of Highway 54 was especially memorable for the teenage drivers of that era, because it became what we knew as the 'cruise' route. Once you passed under the underpass, Business 54 followed Walnut Street all the way to Washington Street.

At that intersection, there was a four-way blinking red light that required a stop and yield. If you followed the highway, you had to make a left turn on Washington, (However, you could go straight ahead to the Square). One block south on Washington, there was a stoplight that hung from cables over the center of the Cherry/Washington street intersection. Business 54 continued one more block south (on the east side of that block was the former location of the old Nevada High School, which had burned six years earlier). At the intersection with Austin Boulevard, Business 54 turned west and followed the same route it does today, but it was only a two-lane road (Austin Boulevard, did not exist going east from Washington as one currently finds it, and I am uncertain if there was actually a street back then).

The "cruise" I referred to followed a familiar passage to all teens of that time. One left the White Grill and proceeded to follow the above listed Business 54 all the way to College Street. There was another blinking light at that intersection with Cottey College, and the cruise turned south on College. We would make the circle turn at the bottom of Radio Springs Park, and then retrace the same route to the Grill.

As in past stories about this cruise, there were unwritten rules that we followed. Honking your horn at friendly cars filled with other teens passing on the opposite side of the road was considered a friendly custom. If one did not honk at a certain car, they might assume you had an 'issue' with them. As you circled the White Grill, it was also a normal practice to stop and visit from car to car, seeing your friends. If you wanted to get together with a teen of the opposite sex, inviting them to go on a cruise was an initial step in the Nevada teen's beginning dating ritual.

In the early fall of 1964, I was in the 10th grade at NHS, and also a member of the high school band. Our band led a procession type parade down Osage Boulevard, from Walnut Street to the intersection with Austin Boulevard. There were dignitaries from many levels of local and state government on hand for the grand opening of the new business highway routes and the bridge.

In the years since, there have been many changes in Nevada. Teens no longer follow the cruise, and the White Grill is not the "American Graffiti" type teen hangout that it was in my time. More importantly, that bridge, like so many things that America built during that era of expansion, is beginning to show its age.

There has been a lot of discussion over the past 10 years in Washington, D.C., about initiating some vast infrastructure legislation that would help to repair and replace old bridges like ours.

Unfortunately, both political parties have for several decades been as the old adage says "mostly all talk!" I am holding out a small bit of optimism, but frankly folks, I will believe it when I see it, when it comes to actually getting anything done.

Both our bridge and the underpass are well past their time. I don't do politics often in my articles, but this time is an exception. If there was ever a time to contact your Congress member, tell them we want our cruise FIXED!

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