After a cold (but lovely) weekend in Kansas City, I was very happy to see temperatures in Oklahoma reach the 70s last week. Although I had spent a lot of time on the road, I was eager to set out again on my day off this past Thursday. As usual, I had a few locations marked on Google Maps and kept my eyes open on the journey. It turned out to be an excellent day of rural Oklahoma sightseeing, complete with several abandoned truss bridges. My favorite!
I had a few towns marked on the way to my first bridge in central Oklahoma, so I planned my route accordingly. The first of these towns was IXL. That’s not a typo, it’s the actual name of the town. The origin of the name is conflicted; some say it stands for ‘Indian Exchange Land’ and others say it combines the name of three early prominent men in the community. References to the town go back to the early 1900s, but it wasn’t formally incorporated until 2001! Historically, it has been an all-black town similar to Tullahassee (which I talked about a few weeks ago here). Today, driving through on Highway 48, it’s little more than a collection of houses…though there is a junkyard that seems to specialize in Volkswagen cars.
After IXL, I drove through the town of Boley. Boley was a bit more proper, with a formal downtown main street…though it felt just as deserted on a Thursday morning. Several old brick buildings sat quietly, boarded up and in various states of decay. Boley was also founded as an all-black town and claimed to be the largest predominantly black town in the United States after it was founded in 1903. Although it was quite prosperous in the early 20th century, the decline of the railroad in the 1920s and the Great Depression in the 1930s set the town on the slow decline that most rural Oklahoma towns have experienced. It’s hard to picture it as the town that Booker T Washington called, “…the youngest, most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the US.”
South of Bowlegs, OK (yes, another real town) I stopped at my first bridge. Closed to traffic after some recent flooding, I parked off to the side of Old State Highway 99 and walked past the road barrier to the two rusting trusses. I had the place all to myself! The Little River Bridge looked like it was in a war zone: piles of driftwood littered the river bank on the west side of the bridge & dunes of fine sand and other debris sat to the east. The bridge itself was in poor shape, too. The portal bracing on both sides showed significant damage, as did the concrete railing on either end. It was no surprise that the bridge was closed, as it needed a good inspection to ensure that it still provided safe passage. Still, as I was walking back to my car, a bearded guy in a tall pickup truck passed by me and defiantly crossed the span. I guess some folks won’t pay any mind until it actually collapses.
My next stop was in Shawnee. Although I’d been through the town before, somehow I totally missed their historic railroad depot. It’s really something! Now the Pottawatomie County Museum, the Santa Fe Depot looks like a mix between a Medieval castle and a Roman villa. It was built in 1903 out of huge limestone blocks and features a tall tower that would be right at home in the European countryside. It’s a stunning structure, something you would absolutely not expect to see in the middle of Oklahoma. I didn’t take the time to tour the inside, but I plan to return soon with Samantha to do just that.
West of town, I stopped at another closed bridge. The Slover Street Bridge is what’s called a ‘Camel Back’ truss due to the rounded-top design. This truss was in much better shape than the Bowlegs Bridge and had a great view of the farmland beyond the North Canadian River. Although I once again had the place to myself, I could easily picture locals on the bridge and river bank below with fishing poles and a couple of beers. Of interest to me was the fact that it was asymmetrical in design; it had a companion pony truss on one end, but not the other. Most bridges will have one on each side. The day had warmed up nicely and I could have sat there myself for hours if I wasn’t getting so hungry. It was time to find lunch.
Although Shawnee has many great small town diners that I could enjoy, I pressed on to Norman. I’d recently been made aware of The Diner, a small place in their downtown that had been in business for over a century. Naturally, I had to check it out for myself. Surprisingly, I had never been to Norman even though it houses one of Oklahoma’s most notable institutions: the University of Oklahoma. As expected, OU memorabilia was everywhere in town. Downtown Norman itself is very pleasant and not unlike other frontier-style towns I was familiar with. One striking difference was the giant, breathtaking Rick Sinnett mural (I posted a picture of it here). It was painted on the tallest building on the block, providing a vibrant backdrop to main street. At The Diner, I sat at the lunch counter and watched the cooks work. Although my burger was delicious, I regretted my decision to not get breakfast. It’s served all day and looked even better; after all, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day any time of the day. Alas, I must return. On my way back to the car, I snapped a few photos of the James Garner statue nearby. It was built in 2006 and honors one of the state’s most famous sons.
Fat and (mostly) happy, I hopped back into the car and continued west. My final planned stop was the Newcastle Bridge along I-44, southwest of Oklahoma City. Back in 1923, ten trusses were built to span the river complete with telephone/telegraph wire masts on the top. Although closed to traffic decades ago, it remained in place until the May 20, 2013 tornado ripped two of the trusses from their piers. Seven others were demolished afterwards, leaving only one to remind passers-by of the grandeur that once existed on the banks of the Canadian River. The remaining wooden deck looked too uncertain for me to brave, so I remained at the fence discouraging access; I was satisfied enough to stand at the mouth of the once proud steel structure and admire the beauty that remained. The sound of the traffic nearby, zooming by at 80 mph, reminded me that the world had moved on. It’s a shame, really.
I started heading back home, very happy with the towns and bridges I had sought out. On the way, I noticed I would be driving past another spot on my map I’d marked near the town of Meeker. I decided to make one more stop. When I arrived at my last bridge of the day, deep down a gravel road in Lincoln County, I chuckled at the disparity between the grand construction in Newcastle I’d just seen and this tiny, rickety-looking pony truss in the middle of nowhere. The Quapaw Creek bridge claimed to hold up to 7 tons, but I wasn’t sure if I believed it. The wooden deck looked solid enough; better than the rotting boards I’d seen previously, actually. Once I felt I’d sufficiently captured this tiny rural jewel, I had to make a decision. Do I drive across? After some consideration, I decided to do it. I held my breath as I eased the Mustang across the creek crossing & let out a relieved cheer once I was safely on the gravel path beyond.
Spring isn’t here yet, but it sure feels like it’s getting close. What a great day of exploring!