PRESERVATION © www.rt66pix.com
Above: The Erie Canal made Buffalo NY a major city. This building, now home to a preservation group, still proclaims that glorious past.
This page includes preservation success stories and failures, and original magazine articles. Many examples are taken from photographs in the 20+ city galleries. Material of wider interest appears in The Blog.
Permission is granted to link. Written material may be reproduced for non-commercial use only with appropriate credit.
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A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Walking downtown street grids with a camera gives me new optimism about American cities.
Three places linked by the Ohio River--Wheeling WV, Madison IN and Cairo IL--form a study in contrasts. They offer lessons in how to hold on, how to succeed, and how to fail. (All have city image galleries.)
Wheeling seems to be muddling through a very long downturn. The city peaked in importance between 1820-50, ancient history by American standards, and still retains some of its former charm.
There's gentrification in spots, and despite extensive gaps downtown many historic buildings remain in various stages of upkeep. Wheeling is definitely worn, but not worn out.
The waterfront includes a pleasant park, concert venue and walking path under an iconic suspension bridge. (It makes a cameo appearance above at left during Capitol Theatre repairs.) And I found relatively little graffiti or vandalism.
The location has always been picturesque, but troublesome. Downtown and other areas along the river are subject to flooding, while steep hills (mountains to some) constrain growth.
Wheeling was the original 1818 terminus of the National (Cumberland) Road. In 1849 the suspension bridge replaced ferries, and the National Road continued deep into the Midwest. Eventually, with improvements, it was turned into US 40.
A century later, I-70 plowed through downtown Wheeling, followed by I-470 on the south, with 13 local interchanges in total.
Yet with all these assets, the population is down more than 50% in a century to just 27,000. The once-big local industries of steel, iron, stogies (cigars) and chewing tobacco are mostly or entirely vanquished.
In a way, Wheeling has a number of Sister Cities downriver. When early National Road travelers reached Wheeling, frequently their next trip segment was by boat or raft, propelled by new steam technology or the Ohio River's current. Madison IN (halfway between Cincinnati OH and Louisville KY) was a frequent jumping-off point.
Established in 1809, Madison is seven-years older than the state of IN and was once its largest city. It peaked in the Steamboat Era of the mid-1800s with an industrial waterfront that included slaughterhouses and a glue factory. Since it's surrounded by hills, it must have been one stinky place!
A lengthy period of stagnation and flooding washed away Madison's unpleasant past, but preserved the old downtown built on higher ground. Going there today is like time-travel to a century ago. 133 contiguous blocks are on the National Register. There are scented soap purveyors, sidewalk cafes and an independent bookstore (cat included)...but also Subway and Dollar General. A modern steamboat calls once a year.
Madison has built on its good luck. No parking meters exist, and the city has restored and enlarged a classic mid-century Main Street gas station for public restrooms. Wonderful ideas, both. They should be shamelessly copied elsewhere.
The population hasn't suffered any serious declines. It's been stable around 12,000 for half-a-century.
Madison is 25 miles (40 km) from the nearest Interstate...but it was never bypassed. This is another piece of good luck. It was always a river town accessible first by water, then by rail, and finally by two lanes of blacktop.
And then there's the third Ohio River city, Cairo IL (pronounced KAY-row), done in by White racism and a Black boycott that produced no winners. (I simplify greatly but that's the bottom line.) Cairo's population has plunged by more than 80% in the past century. Periodic floods and getting bypassed by the Interstates didn't help either.
Of those who remain, 44% are below the poverty line. A few years ago, a local bank repossessed the Sheriff's patrol cars. Most of what I photographed along Commercial Street is gone now...including this:
Cairo is probably the worst-looking city I've seen in the USA, surpassing even Detroit and the place many Detroiters look down on: Flint MI.
Other places have been hit hard by other woes. The pottery-making city of East Liverpool OH, along the Lincoln Highway, looked significant on the map, but I was unprepared for the largely-vacant downtown. And then there's mournful Depew OK (profiled on the HISTORY page), which still hasn't recovered since Route 66 bypassed it...back in 1928.
I've been positively surprised by Pittsburgh, Nashville, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and a host of smaller places like Ligonier PA, Minerva OH, Casey IL, Woodbine IA, Kearney NE, Kaysville UT, Carson City NV and Auburn CA. (They're all here in various galleries.)
It seems to be a universal law: Get a good mix of people enjoying downtown and many urban problems will solve themselves.
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ROUTE 66: OPPORTUNITY LOST
"Do not provide general advice aimed at discouraging travelers from visiting certain places...we delete all these comments and ban some authors." --Historic Route 66 Facebook group "Administrator's Note" from Marian Pavel, February 2022
I'm not on Facebook etc. If this is what's being censored, they're too late:
Parts of Route 66 are being trashed. The problem can only grow and spread in the years ahead. It has no solution. Deleting, banning, and attempting a cover-up are not likely to work. You can't keep something secret when the pictures are already out.
Perhaps you want to quit reading now because this is reality...and it's depressing.
Route 66 across TX and eastern NM straddles the road's mid-point and includes attractions like the Cadillac Ranch. This had long been my favorite segment of the Mother Road. You could drive original narrow concrete, scrawl then e-mail birthday greetings on a half-buried 1959 Caddy, explore and photograph ruins, sample Dust Bowl scenery (with real Dirt 66 dust!), then enjoy a Tex-Mex dinner and comfortable motel room. It was American history close-up and interactive, a blend of serious and stupid, artifact and artifice.
But outside the towns this section has now become seriously degraded. The Fun Family Roadtrip travelers have been led to expect no longer exists. This may foretell the fate of other segments in the not-so-distant future. Out here, what isn't economically viable and hasn't been saved in the little towns is being lost.
The decommissioning of US Highway 66 was more than a third of a century ago. If you're being generous, the Mother Road Era lasted from 1926-1985. In many locations the real ending was in the 1970s 60s or 50s, when a new bypass took the traffic away and business vanished.
If time and the elements are not enough to doom something, just add in the wrong type of tourist, packing spray paint or other weapons. Thanks to opposable thumbs and trigger fingers, the human touch is now ruining many ordinary but historic and increasingly rare structures well before their time.
The graffiti and vandalism crowd has discovered these isolated and abandoned buildings, seriously degrading the trip for others. Crude markings and damage are scattered all along this stretch.
Where Route 66 is not a mere I-40 frontage road across this open vastness, it frequently cuts through areas with little economic value and habitation. They call this the "High Plains" but "desert" applies too--many desert plants grow here--and the elements alone are substantial foes. It's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, flat and windy year-round. Only hailstorms, tornadoes and blizzards break the monotony.
In the lonely 285 mile (460 km) stretch between Amarillo TX and Albuquerque (or Santa Fe) NM, the biggest place is Tucumcari NM, population 5,000. Many towns have fewer people than they did in Route 66 days, and some have none at all. This is one of the most unpopulated sections of the road, and it has a substantial number of abandoned buildings.
The "Cold Beer" ruin at Montoya NM (a personal favorite) has been tagged with graffiti on the front and side. Stone back walls have been knocked down to provide an I-40 "vista" for scribbling. This is actually second-generation vandalism sprayed over an earlier missive.
The collapsing adobe of Wilkerson's gas station at Newkirk NM has received fresh blue spray-paint on the front, apparently from local lovers. In the near-ghost town of Cuervo NM, abandoned buildings have been hit by spray-paint and other vandalism. A building cluster outside Santa Rosa NM near the Frontier Bar-Museum has suffered the same fate. All these locations appear in the EZ66 Guide and are frequently visited by tourists.
There's generally nobody around to see anybody doing anything out here, so the outlook is not good.
Some vandalism is outright destruction. The quirky VW Bug Ranch near Conway TX is along an I-40 ramp. Adjoining it are three abandoned Interstate-era buildings that have hosted either a party or a war. Beside the usual broken glass and spray-painting, ceiling tiles and insulation have been yanked down (first image). What fun! The site also appears in the EZ66 Guide and might be someone's first impression as they pull off the Interstate.
And it's not just the buildings. A 90-year-old bridge on Dirt 66 has recently been vandalized by two blotches of graffiti. This historic reinforced concrete structure spans a gully on private property between Adrian and Vega TX. It is clearly visible at 75 MPH (120 km/h) near the westbound I-40 Picnic Area. Vandals thought painting it with their initials or gang logos would be an improvement. It may remain defaced now for decades.
Route 66 sites along this stretch are being ruined in legal ways too:
. NO TRESPASSING and KEEP OUT signs have been mounted right on the front of the 1952 Little Juarez Diner at Glenrio, spoiling a photo-op for responsible tourists.
. A high chain-link fence has been installed around another former photo-op: the Richardson Store ruin at Newkirk.
. More original 1930s Route 66 concrete pavement has disappeared under a rough and noisy Chipseal coating, making it into just another I-40 frontage road.
Most of this damage is recent, but an exact timeline misses the point. The effect is cumulative--things are worse with every visit.
With the exception of what remains in the towns, the Conway TX-Santa Rosa NM stretch is far inferior to what I photographed between 2000-2015. This key section of the Mother Road is decaying rapidly.
There are also significant recent losses outside this zone, already reported. You can't see or photograph what isn't there anymore, and notable entries in this dismal category include:
. John's Modern Cabins near Arlington MO. Just one cabin remains. Neglect, rot and termites got the others.
. The Ludlow Cafe in Ludlow CA. Hit by squatters, vandals and arsonists, then demolished.
. The Sidewalk Highway in OK. Crude grading destroyed some original narrow asphalt around the time a commemorative marker was installed.
. The Henning Motel in Newberry Springs CA. An appearance in the movie Bagdad Cafe wasn't enough to save it. Metal thieves got the roof and pipes, a demolition crew took care of the rest.
The problem can only get worse as vandalism combines with time and the elements. It's already extensive and visible now, even from the Interstates.
The Mother Road is entering a new phase. In the harsh four-season climate of TX and NM especially, vandals are accelerating a process that is natural, well underway...and inevitable. What has been saved is largely in the towns and cities, in the hands of good owners, and both structurally and financially viable.
All this is far from the impression a prospective traveler would glean from books and photographs (including my own) produced years ago. Or from a censored Facebook site.
New Route 66 attractions and spruced-up older ones get plenty of attention, which they fully deserve. It's tough out there--the road business is highly seasonal and tourism is entirely discretionary.
Although new things attract visitors and flesh out the road experience, they cannot compensate for old things that are being lost. Eventually the word gets out. Travelers, including foreigners who have paid big money for The Trip of a Lifetime, will discover they're years too late and much of the good stuff has been destroyed.
Will tourists still come to look at graffiti, broken glass, fences and KEEP OUT signs? Can the Mother Road be experienced through re-creations and museums? Will travelers be satisfied visiting new attractions based loosely on old things that are no longer there? Can anyone Get Their Kicks on a Chipseal frontage road?
We're about to find out.
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Republished in the Federation News by the National Historic Route 66 Federation in 2019 and updated. Images are from the gallery "Route 66: Going Going GONE."
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REMEMBER THE ALAMO?
Preservation can be a long and lonely effort.
San Antonio, where I photographed during Christmas weekend 2016, offers inspiration from a long-delayed preservation story, The Alamo, and a flood-control project, the River Walk. Both now seem so...obvious. But they took decades to catch on.
"Remember the Alamo!" was used as a battle cry just six-weeks after the old mission fell to Mexican troops in 1836. But physical preservation of the shrine to Texas independence took six-decades. Meantime the scarred ruins served as an Army depot and wholesale grocery warehouse. (The famous building above is the chapel, the entire Alamo complex included what is now this plaza and street--an irregular city block.)
Today, more than 180 years after the famous battle, the site remains a work in progress. There's tacky stuff right behind this vantage point and a bright sign desecrates the nighttime scene.
A couple blocks away is San Antonio's River Walk (Paseo del Rio), begun as a downtown flood control project after a deadly 1921 storm. The original plan was for a paved sewer! While that tragically awful idea was flushed, the river still languished until much later. It became a success story of development, not preservation, proving that the two can be complementary.
The first riverfront restaurant, one floor below street level, opened in 1946. But it wasn't until the 1960s that paved walking paths, lighting, landscaping and other elements of The Good Life (like Tex-Mex food) really began attracting locals, and then tourists, to enjoy the river.
These two legendary sites came about from determined efforts by lone individuals with vision. The Alamo can be traced back to Clara Driscoll and the River Walk to H. H. Hugman. (Their stories are readily available on-line.) The causes they fought for are today among the nation's top tourist attractions with millions of visitors a year. San Antonio is lucky, because the rest of downtown is nothing special.
We can't save everything. But I'm broadly sympathetic to preserving the best. The River Walk, especially, shows that new construction can improve, redefine and reinvigorate the past. I hope images in the San Antonio and other city galleries will help inspire local causes.
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Over the years, several groups tried but failed to preserve privately-owned John's Modern Cabins along Rt 66 in MO. In early 2014, well aware of these efforts, I joined the list.
By then the site had become hopeless from neglect, but one idea still had not been explored: off-site preservation of some key elements. While less than ideal, "some" beats "none" by precisely 100%.
And so I offered the absentee owner cash for the two signs and a cabin...for display elsewhere along Route 66. He would receive an immediate payment for the signed contract (I even enclosed a stamped envelope)...or no payment if he continued to let things rust and fall down. He chose the latter.
I'm out $2 or so for phone calls, postage, paper and envelopes, but if all life's failures had a guaranteed maximum $2 downside I'd gladly fail more often.
Interestingly, digital cameras offer a similar risk-reward profile if you take enough shots. The cost-per-failure eventually approaches zero, and a success occasionally appears when you...push the envelope.
This image from John's is a successful failure. Shot into the sun as a vertical, it originally included unnecessary flare, sky, trees, and foreground debris. It was such an ugly and confusing mess that I went on to other images. Months later I had another look. Extensive cropping at top and bottom brought out this evocative shot, my favorite in the gallery.
50 images of John's Modern Cabins may be overkill, but this place is vanishing. Soon failure will be a complete success.
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That's not a bad ending, so I'll just add this postscript. Volunteers shored up one crude building, the others were lost--so the site technically is John's Modern Cabin. It and the signs remain exposed to the elements including huge overhanging tree limbs. Normally, I'd strongly prefer leaving things in place rather than moving them to a museum...John's is an exception.
It's an imperfect world, and "some" preservation beats "none" by precisely 100%.
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GROUPS AND LINKS
These associations help preserve and promote much of what appears on the site and I belong to them. Membership typically includes a printed or on-line magazine, events calendar, and access to travel information etc.
ROUTE 66: National Historic Route 66 Federation http://national66.org
LINCOLN HIGHWAY: Lincoln Highway Association http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org
PONY EXPRESS: National Pony Express Association http://www.nationalponyexpress.org
Santa Fe Trail Association http://www.santafetrail.org
DONNER PASS: Donner Summit Historical Society http://donnersummithistoricalsociety.org
NATCHEZ TRACE: Natchez Trace Parkway Association http://natcheztrace.org
Some of these groups also have Facebook pages.
The National (Cumberland) Road currently has no national organization, but there are several state groups.
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