The Route 66 alignment that never was - Edwardsville's Route 66 history #8

Here's #8 of Edwardsville's Route 66 history. This story originally ran in the April 2013 issue of the Prairie Land Buzz in my "Along Route 66" column.

The Route 66 Alignment That Never Was:
Alternative Edwardsville Route Opposed by Local Businessmen
by Cheryl Eichar Jett

It was 1938, and life on Route 66 flowed through Edwardsville. The highway brought heavy traffic from the northern part of the state up Mooney Hill northeast of Edwardsville and from St. Louis and points west through Mitchell in the American Bottom up onto the bluffs southwest of Edwardsville. Once in town, travelers and tourists found plenty of local services to entice their tired bones out of their automobiles and trucks.

No matter which direction they were coming from, motorists found plenty of local establishments along Hillsboro Road, Vandalia Street, St. Louis Street, and West Street to fill their gas tanks and their stomachs and perhaps stay a night or shop for snacks or sundries. Bucks Tourist Home and the Edwardsville Hotel were right on the route awaiting the traveler, as were the Hi-Way Tavern, Cathcart's Cafe, West Side Service Station, and blocks of other services and shops.

Some sections of the famous highway through town were in serious need of repaving due to the volume of traffic. It was anticipated that in 1938 there would be federal money available to repave Route 66 through Edwardsville, but that cuts were expected in 1939.

Then the Illinois Division of Highways voiced its concern for safety issues on a short stretch of its section of the highway which passed right in front of the Edwardsville High School on West Street. The Division suggested a change in the route turning from West Street onto Schwarz Street at the bottom of the hill below the high school and rejoining the current route a couple blocks past the business district, effectively bypassing the high school but also close to a mile of businesses along St. Louis and Vandalia Streets. In late 1937, a newspaper article announced that “The Edwardsville city council and the state highway department are at loggerheads over improvement of U.S. 66 through the city.”

The Edwardsville High School, built in 1925 on acreage between St. Louis and Schwarz Streets, was right on Route 66. (Courtesy of June Nealy.)
A group of local businessmen headed up by George Cathcart, owner of Cathcart's Cafe on Vandalia Street/Route 66 vowed to fight the proposed plan. Cathcart was a hard worker, a tireless promoter, and a self-made businessman. He had arrived in Edwardsville in 1921 after losing his coal mining job in Thurber, Texas. After a few years of coal mining work in the Edwardsville area, Cathcart was able to establish a small hamburger stand which grew by 1938 into a popular and successful 24-hour restaurant.

George Cathcart opened Cathcart's Cafe in the 1920s as a small hamburger stand. As business grew,  he expanded the building and added equipment. A successful businessman and promoter, he led the charge of local business owners in opposition to the Illinois Division of Highway's planned change to reroute Route 66 away from Edwardsville businesses in 1938. (Courtesy of June Nealy.)
In addition to the businessman’s committee, the Edwardsville City Council was concerned not only with the potential loss of revenue to its Vandalia Street businesses, but by the removal of the national highway designation to almost a mile of main city streets. This would place the burden of seriously-needed repaving of those streets back onto the city, while federal funds would be used for expenses to turn the “new route” on Schwarz to either Buchanan or Fillmore Street into Route 66. The Division then came up with an alternate plan, also utilizing Schwarz but only as far as Benton Street and then back onto St. Louis and Vandalia, bypassing only about a half-mile of the business route.

Finally, on Friday, May 20, 1938, the long-awaited decision was announced in the Edwardsville Intelligencer with the following headline, “State Division Orders Changes in Route 66 Here: Requires use of Schwarz-Benton Streets, But Will Rebuild St. Louis-West [Streets] if City Officials Cooperate.” The Division of Highways was going with the shorter re-routing but was agreeing to repave the sections damaged by Route 66 traffic. It seemed apparent that the local efforts to save the current route had failed.

But on Thursday, May 26, 1938, the local newspaper carried the following headline, “State Reverses Decision on 66; Division of Highways Gives up Plans to Change Course over Schwarz Street.” The newspaper story went on to state, “The course of U.S. Route 66 through Edwardsville will remain along streets it now occupies, according to a revised decision of the Division of Highways, announced Thursday in a letter to Mayor William C. Straube from Chief Highway Engineer Ernst Lieberman.”

The Madison Construction Company, supported by federal money, repaved Route 66  through Edwardsville in 1938-1939. This view of the company's large jackhammer was taken on East Vandalia Street.
(Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society.)
The City of Edwardsville and its group of crusading businessmen led by George Cathcart had won the battle. The city and its businesses would continue to benefit from Route 66 continuing through town on its already-established route. Federal funding would support repaving through town. But Chief Highway Engineer Ernst Lieberman's letter to the mayor revealed the real reason for abandoning the change and offered a foretaste of what would come in the mid-1950s, “In view of the fact that at some future date when we modernize Route 66 we will have to by-pass Edwardsville...we have therefore decided to repave Route 66 through Edwardsville on its present location.” The established route through Edwardsville was safe for approximately 17 more years, but then the “Main Street of America” would bypass Edwardsville on its main route as it did around so many communities on its inescapable march toward the interstate system.