Book review: “Route 66 Crossings”

Route 66 Crossings cover

Because so many Route 66 books have entered the marketplace over the past three decades or so, one initially wonders why Jim Ross’ new volume about historic bridges on the Mother Road hasn’t been done before.

But as one dives deep into “Route 66 Crossings” (hardback, 200 pages, color photographs, University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95), becomes clear why no one else has attempted such a book. Namely, it takes a lot of research and field trips into sometimes-perilous areas.

Ross, who’s done plenty of yeoman’s work on “Oklahoma Route 66” and his “Here It Is!” map series (with Jerry McClanahan), reveals in the book it took him months to even figure out how many bridges are  on Route 66. The answer: More than 700.

From there, he whittled the list to a bit less than 300. The bridges that didn’t make the cut were simple culverts or structures that held minimal historical value. From there, it required about a year of travel for him and fellow Oklahoma Route 66 aficionado Shellee Graham to photograph those bridges. Even so, Ross received plenty of help from the Route 66 community with photos or new discoveries.

The result is “Route 66 Crossings” — a book with more than 600 color images and dozens of maps that’s elegant enough to take its place with coffee-table volumes. It also is a comprehensive look at bridges on Route 66 — the majority built between 1912 and 1955 — that will prove valuable to historians, preservationists and travelers who will find plenty of new excuses to take a road trip to find an obscure landmark.

Ross divvies up the bridges into chapters. “Bearing the Load” are spans still being used for regular traffic. “Exiled” are bridges closed to vehicles. “Crossed Over” are ones that no longer exist. “Afterlife” includes protected bridges.

“Route 66 Crossings” also includes useful maps. And the bridge types section provides easy-to-understand illustrations; you’ll soon know the difference between a Pratt Truss and a Pennsylvania Petit.

A few other notes about “Route 66 Crossings”:

— With Route 66 entering its 90th year, one would think all the bridges had been discovered and cataloged. However, researcher Frank Maloney — with the help of a Google Maps satellite view — found a bridge near Elk City, Oklahoma, that served as Route 66 from 1926 to 1928 until the highway was realigned. The road was closed, and vegetation and a manmade lake encroached. But the Warren Pony Truss bridge is still there.

— A stone culvert over Workman Wash near Needles, California, built for the railroad in 1890 is the oldest Route 66 bridge still in use.

— A remarkable number of wood timber bridges in New Mexico, especially between Glenrio and San Jon, remain in use, mainly because of light traffic and slow decay in the arid climate.

— The Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, California, is rightly praised for its elegance. But the Bueva Vista Bridge on Broadway over the Los Angeles River also is startling for its beauty. It carried Route 66 from 1926 to 1931.

— During their field research, Ross and Graham encountered rattlesnakes, barbed wire, bugs, thick brush, law enforcement, homeless squatters and suspicious land owners. But no one was bit, shot or attacked, and no one was injured, save a scratch or two.

Despite these bridges existing on the best-known road in the world, Ross says many are “edging toward destruction with alarming frequency.” Most of the bridges were designed to last only 75 years, and many can’t meet the demands of modern traffic standards. And bridges built in the latter half of the 20th century to replace them are inexpensive, low-maintenance and utterly lacking in distinction.

“Route 66 Crossings” can stand alone as a beautiful book. But perhaps it will inspire preservationists to add more of these bridges to the National Register of Historic Places and spur efforts to stem their decay — much like Pulaski County did with its Devils Elbow Bridge in Devil’s Elbow, Missouri.

Highly recommended.

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