I-55 marks 50th; construction changed course of development in Cape

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Men and machines near the end of paving of the divided Interstate 55 from Fruitland south to Highway 74 in Cape Girardeau County. This Sept. 18, 1962, photo shows the paving crew, headed south nearing the Bloomfield Road overpass. ((Missourian archives, G.D. Fronabarger photo))

Fifty years ago this week, the first bucket of cement was poured on the Cape Girardeau County section of Interstate 55. The roadway did more than let people and goods move from place to place. It determined the direction of the city's growth.

Before I-55, Cape Girardeau's commercial activity was concentrated along the Mississippi River, but a series of floods in the first half of the century and the opportunity the interstate promised drove development westward.

"The interstate became the new river. People moved in that direction because it provided easy access to places north and south," said Dr. Frank Nickell, a professor of history and director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University.

I-55 was a part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, considered by Nickell to be the greatest public works project in U.S. history. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, set into motion the first national transportation network.

"It took awhile to get all of the pieces together. A lot of those early years were spent building in high-priority areas. This was not a high priority," Nickell said.

On July 17, 1962, R.B. Potashnick Co. began paving work on a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 55 from Fruitland to Scott City, beginning work just north of Old McKendree Chapel. This section of pavement opened Sept. 8, 1963, but it wasn't until 1972 that the final concrete was poured, just north of the Route FF overpass east of Fruitland, to complete I-55 between Scott City and St. Louis. In all it took 11 years and three months of construction to build I-55 from Scott City to St. Louis.

"I-55 has meant a great deal to the city of Cape Girardeau and the entire region. Having that north-south thoroughfare attracts industry and makes it easier for people to get to and from Cape as we serve as a retail hub, a health care hub and an education hub. Without that north-south access we wouldn't be the regional hub that we are today," said Jeff Glenn of Glennview Strategies, a consultant for the Transamerica Corridor Corp., a not-for-profit organization focused on infrastructure issues.

Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Mehner said being on an interstate is a key piece in economic development. "Access in today's mobile society is important, and that's where the interstate comes in," Mehner said. "Being on one puts you ahead of the game in trying to develop."

But having interstate access isn't a guarantee a community will thrive, he said.

"It's not the goose that laid the golden egg," Mehner said. "There are a lot of places that are on an interstate and don't grow. You still have to have all of the other pieces, which we do here. We have a university, we have a medical system, we have great employers and retail trade, and all of that brings people here."

Four-lane divided interstate highways were seen as not just a faster mode of transportation but a safer mode, Nickel said.

"We forget how dangerous those two-lane roads were. Cars were getting faster, cars were getting bigger, but the roads remained the same," Nickell said.

U.S. 61, which stretched from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, was often referred to as "Bloody 61," Nickell said. "Bloody 61" was even the topic of a Bob Dylan song.

One of the most dangerous spots along U.S. 61 was the narrow iron bridge over Apple Creek in Old Appleton, Nickell said.

"The bridge was at the bottom of a hill that cars would be speeding down, and there were horrible accidents there," he said.

The shift to safety was accompanied by a shift in the primary mode of commercial transportation from railroad cars to trucks.

"We had railroads everywhere, so we were in a good position for that, but when it changed to a trucking economy, all at once we just had one north-south route and that was it," said Earl Norman, CEO of Benton Hill Investment Co.

Norman has long advocated for the Transamerica Corridor's Interstate 66 project, which would provide a route from Cape Girardeau east to connect with Interstate 24 in Paducah, Ky.

Norman said Cape Girardeau has lost several trucking and distribution businesses over the past 20 years to Sikeston, Mo., because it offers north-south access on I-55 as well as east-west access on U.S. 60.

Interstate 66 is estimated to cut the time it takes to get from I-55 to I-24 in Paducah down to about 45 minutes. The trip from Cape Girardeau to Paducah currently can take more than an hour and a half.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved $3.6 million for a study to evaluate the most feasible route for a road between Cape Girardeau and Paducah. Work on this study, coordinated by the Illinois Department of Transportation, is expected to begin this fall, Glenn said.

"Providing better access from the east can only continue to help our city grow," he said.



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