66 Through St. Louis: Maplewood Business District

This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.

Color photo of Route 66 signs in Maplewood, MOSignage in present-day Maplewood reflects the community's Route 66 heritage. Image courtesy of Flickr user astaebell.

For anyone trying to drive Route 66 through St. Louis, the path of the world’s most famous highway isn’t so clear. You could take Watson Road, known as Historic 66, but not the road’s original path. You could get on Lindbergh Boulevard, which was sometimes the main Route 66, sometimes 66 Bypass, and sometimes not a part of Route 66 at all. You could cross five Mississippi River bridges, drive on nearly a dozen major St. Louis streets, and chase various alignments—all without ever leaving the Mother Road. How can this be? In contrast to small towns where Route 66 was often the one and only “main street,” Route 66 shifted, twisted, and turned through big cities such as St. Louis. 

For the highway’s first seven years (from 1926 to 1933), Maplewood, one of St. Louis’s earliest suburbs, was lucky enough to have the Main Street of America running through the heart of its business district. Transportation had long been the town's lifeblood. In 1853 the Missouri Pacific Railroad began running between St. Louis and Webster Groves, with a stop at Maplewood (then described as “[at] the River des Peres, a little beyond the Sutton’s”). The town’s main thoroughfare, Manchester Avenue (now Manchester Road), was also heavily traveled because it served as the connector between St. Louis and Jefferson City. By the time Maplewood was incorporated in 1908, the town also hosted the Manchester Line, one of St. Louis’s electrified streetcar lines. It turned around on Sutton Avenue (at today’s Sutton Loop Park) and offered direct, no-transfer service to downtown St. Louis.

Sepia-toned image of Manchester Avenue in 1909Manchester Avenue, 1909. You can see the streetcar tracks in the middle of the muddy street. Missouri History Museum.

This crossroads of movement meant plenty of opportunity, and the intersection of Manchester and Sutton quickly grew into the heart of Maplewood. A railway station, post office, churches, schools, banks, grocery stores, confectionaries, drug stores, and even a Woolworth’s could be found in the town's growing business district. The St. Louis County Mirror wrote of Maplewood: “Commercially, Maplewood doesn’t take a back seat for any city in the country. There are about 250 retail stores, handling every line of merchandise to be desired.”

As the 1910s progressed, more and more automobiles joined the horses, streetcars, trains, and pedestrians coursing through the town’s muddy streets. By 1921, Manchester was completely paved—one of few roads around with this distinction—and highway boosters began eyeing it as a great candidate for a federal highway. When the federal highway system became a reality in 1926, Manchester Road became St. Louis County’s first Route 66. Maplewood got a huge boost from this, but it was a temporary solution for the soon-to-be-famous highway.

Color photo of Sunnen Products promotional spinnerPromotional spinning machine bearing made by historic Maplewood business Sunnen Products Co., ca. 1940–1960. Missouri History Museum.

When most people think of Route 66 in St. Louis today, they think of either Watson or Lindbergh roads. Watson was the planned path of Route 66 from the beginning, but it had a big problem: In 1926, Watson wasn’t paved through St. Louis County and parts of St. Louis City. So although many things about Route 66’s path were uncertain in those early days—it changed some part of its course nearly every year until 1933—it always left the city on Manchester Road.

In 1928, Missouri voters approved a road-bond amendment that added 300 miles of new road and provided $11.5 million for urban-traffic-relief roads, including Watson. In August 1932 the State of Missouri began paving Watson Road, starting at Brannon Avenue and heading west. (It was the first time the State had ever paved a road within St. Louis City limits.) This was great news for the highway boosters but terrible news for Maplewood business owners, who protested that Watson should become Optional 66. Their proposal was rejected, and Manchester remained a temporary routing for Route 66 until Watson was fully paved.

Color photo of Kalb Electric testerElectrical circuit tester made by historic Maplewood business Kalb Electric, ca. 1934–1965. Missouri History Museum.

By August 1933, pavement was complete on Watson through Valley Park, Times Beach, Eureka, Allenton, and Pacific, ready to meet the previously paved stretch at Gray’s Summit—namely Manchester. The signs on St. Louis County's first Route 66 came down that same year.

When you walk along Manchester today, you can see commemorative plaques celebrating Maplewood's connection to the historic Mother Road. Some are for famous Route 66 places from around St. Louis; others are for Maplewood businesses, such as Kalb Electric and Sunnen Products Co., that have been around since the years when Route 66 ran past their door.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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