Our nostalgic day began at the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t so grand but it was in Missouri, Ruth and my home state. Our plan was to drive Highway 21, the mother road of our teenage years, all the way from its beginning at Doniphan to St. Louis. We wanted to see if it had changed.
Grand Gulf State Park, scene of Missouri’s Little Grand Canyon, was close to Thayer, about 50 miles west of Doniphan. It was fine to begin our drive in Thayer because it gave me the chance to see the last 15 miles of Highway 19. The dips & curves blog that I wrote about 19 in 2013 has been steadily popular. Our entire route has been traditionally designated as scenic by Rand McNally for as long as I can remember.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources describes the Little Grand Canyon as a geologic curiosity. Around 10,000 years ago, the roof of a cave system collapsed creating a canyon less than a mile long. Part of the cave remains and connects to Arkansas’ Mammoth Spring. Mammoth can produce as much as 9 million gallons of water per hour. One visit and one look at this canyon were enough.
Doniphan, where Highway 21 begins it northern journey, is a town of slightly more than 2,000. It would have a wonderful town square if locals hadn’t razed about 80% of it in the name of progress. On our way out of town, we followed a garbage truck to the landfill and found Highway 21 disappointing, not because of the truck but because it wasn’t all that scenic. Neither was the 10 miles of Highway 60, now a mini-Interstate, that led to a right turn on to the Highway 21 of our youth that lasted all the way to St. Louis. From Highway 60 on, Highway 21 was tree-covered hilliness the rest of the way. I had to work at seeing a glimpse of scenery not obscured by white oak, shortleaf pine, and sassafras trees. This was OK because the road remained memorably rural. I knew I was in 2-lane-dip-and-curve heaven again when I spotted the 21 Drive-in Theatre on our right. This single screen, old-fashioned, 700 car accommodating wonder reopened in 1997.
The best-of-21 winds through the Ozark Mountains and passes Missouri’s highest point, but don’t expect shortness of breath in Taum Sauk Mountain State Park on the platform viewing the St. Francois Mountains where 1,772 feet Taum Sauk gently rises. Nearby are a number of fine state parks where teenaged Ruth and Hank hung out–Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Elephant Rocks, and Washington. The last is only about an hour south of St. Louis.
We stopped in appropriately named Ironton, Missouri, at the Iron County Historical Society’s Visitor’s Center and Museum. Two mountains of iron ore were discovered here in the 1840’s and mining commenced. The railroad arrived in 1858 and development followed. Development continues because the Amtrak Texas Eagle taking riders from Chicago to Los Angeles is adding a stop called Arcadia Valley at Ironton in the near future. This hard won station will, hopefully, bring in tourists.
Another stop we liked was the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site. During the Civil War Fort Davidson was a hub of Union activity here because of the iron and the railroad. Following a fascinating Civil War Battle against an 8,000-man Confederate army, Union soldiers abandoned Davidson. Fewer than 100 of them were killed, but 1,000 Confederate soldiers died.