Missouri’s first air mail

Email.  Snail mail.   Remember AIR mail?

At least one generation has never known a time when someone would pay extra for a letter to be stamped “Air Mail” when it had to get a long way away, fast.  Every now and then we still see a now-ancient attempt at humor—a mail box on a tall pole above the regular mailbox. The upper box is labeled “air mail.” But an increasing number of people passing by have no idea what it’s all about.

We got a snail mail letter a few days ago from Elvin Smith in Macon, who had heard our Across our Wide Missouri radio program story about the nation’s first air mail flight, suggesting we look into the story of the nation’s first air mail flight by airplane (as opposed to hot air balloon), which he said happened in December, 1912 on a biplane flight between Callao, Bevier, and Macon.

The problem with writing something was the “first” is that different people have different interpretations of “first.”

Some say the first air mail fight in this country carried one letter in 1793—from George Washington in Philadelphia to whomever owned the property where the balloon came down. That was all of thirteen miles.

The first official airmail flight is considered to have been another balloon flight that began in Lafayette Indiana in August 1859, but was terminated by weather at Crawfordsville, thirty miles away. The mail went to New York by train. The National Postal Museum put out a stamp several years ago commemorating that flight.

But we Missourians know the postal service was wrong. Six weeks before that puny little hop in Indiana, four men in St. Louis climbed into the basket hung below a balloon of varnished Chinese silk, carrying a bag of mail, and headed for New York.  They suffered from the altitude (two miles), went through a frightening storm over Lake Erie and Niagara Falls, and eventually came down into a tree near Henderson, New York, almost one-thousand miles from St. Louis. They had averaged about fifty miles an hour.

A lot of folks know that Charles Lindbergh flew the mail from St. Louis to Chicago for a while, crashing a few times along the way—which didn’t discourage him from thinking he could fly from New York to Paris.  The Postal Service says the first regularly scheduled airmail service in this country was a route linking New York City, Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia in May, 1918.

Elvin believes the three cities linked on the first REAL air mail flight were Callao, Bevier, and Macon, Missouri on December 4, 1912.

Young aviator Ralph E. McMillen (shown with his wife about 1909)  was flying a Curtiss Model D pusher plane that he had purchased from Glenn Curtis, himself, after graduating from the Curtiss Flying School, a competitor to the Wright Brothers school, when he arrived at the United Aviators field in the northern part of Macon, Missouri on November 29, 1912.  He flew from there, over Bevier, and landed at Callao, about nine miles west.

He was flying with one leg tightly strapped into an iron “trough,” the result of a crash in May while giving flights in Perry, Iowa.  His passenger that day panicked when they were up about 125 feet and grabbed the control wires. McMillen was unconscious for four days with two broken legs and busted ribs among other injuries. The passenger also survived.

The Macon newspaper praised him as “a skilled bird-man,” a man of “splendid courage and self-confidence.”  His historic airmail flight came a few days later, on December 4 when he flew from Callao with a “large package of letters” addressed to Macon residents.  He dropped a package at Bevier. He didn’t get all the way through to Macon on the first flight.  Clouds forced him to return to Callao in the morning after package-drop at Bevier.  But the afternoon turned clear and he flew straight to Macon in about half an hour, the last five minutes spent circling the town.

The accounts say he set a record by climbing to 8,000 feet although he cruised at 2,000. “By travelling at great elevation it gives the aviator better control of his craft, should the engine balk or anything happen; he could pick out his place to alight, and descend slowly, while at an altitude of 100 or 200 feet the craft would select its own place to light,” said the Macon Republican.

The next week, on December 10, he made a successful twenty-mile flight north to LaPlata.  He decided to follow a Wabash passenger train between the two towns so he couldn’t get lost, which excited the train passengers, who got off at stops in Axtell and Love Lake to watch him flying overhead.  Passengers wanted the train to pause in LaPlata so they could watch McMillen land, but the trainmaster was afraid such a stop would put the train off-schedule.

Maconians who thought they were seeing, and reporting on, the first airplane-mail flight didn’t know, however that a pilot named Fred Wiseman had carried three letters from Petaluma, California to Santa Rosa on February 17, 1911.  And the first airmail delivery under the authority of the postal Department had been made by Earl Ovington in his French Bleriot XI on September 23, 1911, when he flew from Garden City, New York to Mineola, two miles away.  He pitched the mail bag filled with 1,280 postcards and 640 letters out of the plane at an altitude of 500 feet.  It burst on impact, scattering the cargo all over the place, but at least it was delivered. One of the letters in the bag was addressed to Ovington.  It was from the Post Office Department and it christened him “Official Air Mile Pilot #1.”

In fact, it appears there were a lot of air mail flights in 1912.  A webpage (http://www.aerodacious.com/PIO1912.HTM) has photos about numerous flying exhibitions throughout the nation, almost all of them involving mail.

So Ralph E. McMillen wasn’t the first in the nation to make an airmail flight in a plane.  But he was ONE of the first, and his flights from Callao to Bevier to Macon is the first such flight IN MISSOURI—until somebody comes along with information to the contrary.

Many of the stories of those early aviators and their accomplishments that fired the imaginations of their witnesses and led to the airline industry we know today are lost to history. Elvin’s note has enabled us to bring McMillen out of the lost pages of our past and recall him as part of an important era in our country.

And we have found there’s quite a bit more to his story.

McMillen was born in Perry, Iowa. He was one of the first speeders on the early dirt roads near there before he headed to San Diego to the Curtiss School.  His Curtiss pusher arrived in Perry on a train, disassembled on May 11, 1912.  Gerald Meyer reports McMillen put it together and took it up for the first time two days later for a fund-raising promotion for the city fire department.  The crash that left him with broken legs and ribs was the very next day, May 14. He didn’t fly again until September 5 when a huge crowd at Grinnell watched him stay in the air for 24 minutes and reach 5,000 feet.

He barnstormed during the next couple of years before joining the Nebraska National Guard where he became the only pilot for the new Aviation Corps, the first such outfit in the country. (The photo dates from that time)  He practiced bombing with fake bombs on the state capitol (this was six years before Billy Mitchell proved bombs from airplanes were good tactical weapons) and once hit a moving street car.  He also made night flights, practiced early aerial photography, and developed reconnaissance and aerial delivery systems. Some took to calling him “World’s Greatest Aviator.”   Others have referred to him less grandly as the “One Man, One Airplane National Guard.”

He wanted to fly air support for Pershing’s troops on the Mexican border but the Army refused to let him go because of his 1912 injuries. He continued to make exhibition flights in the four-state area until September 2, 1916 when his plane lost power 1,200 feet above a crowd near St. Francis, Kansas.  Captain Ralph McMillen was 27 when he died that day.

The Nebraska Adjutant General’s office remembered two days later, “His service has been of most unusual value to the Guard of this state, being characterized by ready tact, unfailing courtesy, and indefatigable willingness to work.  He was universally liked and respected by his brother officers and comrades who will greatly miss his ready wit and sunny disposition.”

Meyer has written that the Nebraska Aviation Corps was disbanded soon after that.  The state didn’t have a National Guard air unit for another thirty years.

So Elvin’s tip about a piece of history didn’t turn out quite the way we thought it would. But if not for his snail mail, we wouldn’t have discovered a broader piece of our national past.

At least, we have the story about MISSOURI’S first air mail flight by plane. And we’ve remembered the courageous young man who died creating a significant part of our lives today.

Thanks, Ervin.

(photo credits: Mailbox, carmaro5.com; McMillen and wife and picture of people holding back his airplane before takeoff, earlyaviators.com; McMillen and friends in front of airplane, DOMmagazine.com; headon view from 1916, Nebraska State Historical Society)

Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It


Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

The stripes

We’ve been thinking more about our Missouri Bicentennial license plate, particularly about the wavy lines at the top and the bottom of the plate.  As the designers have noted, they represent the rivers that have been and remain important to our state.

The Mississippi River that became the eastern boundary of Missouri was for many years the western boundary of the United States, the line that separated the nation from Spanish territory.  Failure by the British to gain control of the river during the American Revolution (thanks in no small part to the 1780 Battle of St. Louis) was key to the nation’s survival and development.

The Mississippi and its tributaries—the Wisconsin, the Illinois, and the Ohio, for example—brought the first explorers and settlers to Missouri.  Father Jacques Marquette and his voyageur partner Louis Joliet followed the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers in 1673 to the Mississippi and followed the it until they encountered a “dreadful” river flowing into the Mississippi, “an accumulation of large and entire trees, branches and floating islands issuing from the mouth of the river Pekitanoui with such impetuosity that we could not without great danger risk passing through it.”  It was the Missouri, of course.

LaSalle and Tonty came down the Mississippi in 1682. It was LaSalle who envisioned a string of French settlements that would control trade with the Indians and exploit the land with mining.  He took control of the area and named it for his monarch, Louis the Great, Louis XIV.  In 1720, Phillippe Renault set up lead mines and brought the first slaves to Missouri to work them.  Etienne de Bourgmont (sometimes spelled “Bourgmond”) built the first fort in western part of the state when he put up Fort Orleans on the north bank of the Missouri a few years later in response to French concerns that Spain was coveting the territory and might mount an expedition from Santa Fe.

The Ohio brought George Morgan and his settlers to New Madrid to establish the first American settlement in this area—on the Mississippi.

Another Mississippi River tributary, which defines our northeast corner, caused thirty years of disputes about where the line should be separating us from Iowa.  The northeast corner was defined as a line that reached the rapids of the Des Moines River.  But nobody knew where those rapids were. Or are.   The dispute triggered by that search almost led to Missouri going to war with Iowa, the famous “Honey War.”   The U.S. Supreme Court finally decided the issue.

The St. Francis River, which flows from Iron County into the Mississippi about 425 miles south, was instrumental in shaping Missouri’s southern border.  When John Hardeman Walker wanted his farm in Missouri, not in Arkansas Territory. the St. Francis River became the eastern border of the Bootheel created to include Walker’s land.

Missouri’s original western border was the western side of Worth, Gentry, DeKalb, Clinton, and Clay Counties until 1836 when the federal government convinced the Indians living in the area between there at the Missouri River to move west.  The Platte Purchase added six counties in an area abut the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined and extended our northwestern border to the Missouri River.  That’s how the Missouri became part of the border of—Missouri.

Most of the founding settlements of Missouri were on the rivers: Ste. Genevieve, where some accounts say people were living as early as 1722 although other accounts date the founding at 1735 and permanent settlement at 1752; St. Louis, 1764; St. Charles, 1769; Portage des Sioux, 1779, New Madrid, the first American settlement, 1789; Cape Girardeau, 1793.  When lead mining developed in eastern Missouri, one of the biggest challenges for the miners was hacking a road through the forests to get to the river to ship their lead out.

Up to the start of the Civil War, the ten most populous cities in Missouri were all along the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers.  St. Louis, located near the junction of the two greatest rivers, was the largest city in 1860 with 160,773 people. The population of the other nine combined equaled only one-fourth of the St. Louis number.

The importance of rivers is emphasized by the location of the state capital city.  The first state legislature determined the capital should be centrally located.  And how did those lawmakers define central location?  On the Missouri River within forty miles of the mouth of the Osage.  On a principle river not far from an important secondary river that linked central Missouri with the southwest, a capital city that was accessible by a network of rivers that in those days linked all areas of the state, including the northwest corner added a decade after government moved to the City of Jefferson.

The Missouri River gave us, in addition to St. Charles and Jefferson City, the now-vanished communities of Cote Sans Dessein and Franklin, as well as Hermann, and Boonville (which tried in 1831 to take the seat of government away from Jefferson City), Lexington, and eventually Westport and Kansas City, then St. Joseph—and Omaha, and Council Bluffs.

By 1820, some settlers had moved up the Osage and formed what became Warsaw and by 1831, Lewis Bledsoe was running a ferry operation on the river, near the present Truman Dam.

The great rivers brought us legends, mechanical and human—Mike Fink, the fur traders and trappers like Hugh Glass and Jim Bridger, Jed Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick and the men of Ashley’s Hundred; of the Natchez  and the Robert E. Lee and their epic race to St. Louis,  and great pilots such as Joseph LaBarge, who never lost a boat in fifty years, or Joseph Kinney, whose magnificent home called “Rivercene” is now a B&B across the Missouri from Boonville, or Grant Marsh and his steamer Far West, best remembered for setting a downstream record on the Missouri when he carried survivors of Custer’s fight on the Little Big Horn 710 miles down the treacherous river in 54 hours, and with them brought the first news to the outside world of Custer’s fate.  It’s the river of Stephen H. Long and his Western Engineer that started an epic trip west that led to the Great Plains being called “The Great American Desert” for decades.

And what would Samuel Clemens had been if the Mississippi River was not so much of his character?

And all along the courses of these great rivers, now greatly changed, there are remains of the boats that didn’t make it all the way up or down stream and took dreams and people with them, sometimes, to the bottom.   Sometimes the ribs of those boats are exposed when the dry times drop the river levels low enough.  A couple of times—with the Arabia  in Missouri and the Bertrand in Iowa—the remains are found incredibly preserved under layers of mud that used to be the river channel and amaze visitors who have never known when these rivers were the highways that developed our state and led to development of the entire western part of our nation beyond the Mississippi.

And there’s more to the heritage of our rivers—in the form of other avenues that sprang from them.  Former Missouri River ferryman William Becknell, in 1821, left Franklin for a cross-country trading expedition that opened the Santa Fe Trail that created Missouri’s first foreign trading partner and created that path that led to American acquisition a quarter-century later of the Southwest.

And from the village of Westport, the great wagon trains set out on the Oregon and California trails that extended the reach of those first river-borne Missourians to California and to the Northwest.

It was to the river town of St. Joseph, then the westernmost point on the nation’s rail network, there came one day in August, 1859 a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad who caught a steamboat at the city wharf and went further upstream to the river town of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  There he met young surveyor Grenville Dodge who was finding a cross-Iowa route for a railroad.  Dodge, just back from a Colorado trip, and Abraham Lincoln looked west and discussed the best route for a line to the Pacific Ocean.  Dodge became a Union Army officer, was wounded at Rolla, Missouri, and in the Battle of Pea Ridge that pretty much settled any hopes the Confederacy had of retaining an organized presence in Missouri. When Congress passed an act that led to the creation of a transcontinental railroad, then-President Lincoln summoned Dodge from the field to counsel him on where the line should begin.  Lincoln’s executive order in 1863 setting construction in motion established the legal headquarters of the Union Pacific in Council Bluffs and the operating headquarters across the Missouri River in Omaha.

Rivers brought the pioneers and the pioneering spirit to Missouri, and from the towns on the great rivers, new roads of dirt and steel opened the West.

It’s a small gesture to their significance that all of this is represented by some wavy lines on the Missouri Bicentennial license plate.  But it’s a significant gesture and maybe those wavy lines will encourage us to think more about those rivers that continue to shape us as Missourians and as Americans.

It’s always a surprise

—to return from a trip that is incredibly stirring to find that nothing has changed when you get home.   When we rolled into Jefferson City about 1:30 a.m. today (Saturday, October 9), the businesses we drove past were the same as they had been two weeks earlier. The Jefferson City Oil Cartel was still charging twenty cents more a gallon for gasoline than the people in Fulton were paying. McDonald’s drive-through window was still open, serving the McMuffin that was a welcome bit to eat for travelers who hadn’t had anything since lunch at the Miami airport after our flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador that morning. American Airlines didn’t even drop its usual paltry package of pretzels on our drop-down tray tables on the flight from Miami to St. Louis. And if you expect to find any place to grab a quick bite at Lambert-St. Louis airport when your flight arrives sometime after 10 p.m., forget it. Lambert is a ghost town after 6.

Our day that started in Guayaquil ended in our own bed in Jefferson City about 2:30 this morning. We don’t know if today’s younger generation finds nothing remarkable about that. But our generation, or many in our generation, still have a “Gee Whiz”–a phrase of our generation–feeling about this sort of thing. We started our day on the south side of the equator trying to sort out what the Spanish-speaking airport attendant was saying over the loudspeaker in our gate area (among other things, I was summoned to the TSA security office downstairs because my checked bag had been randomly selected for a search—I have great sympathy for those people who have to search through bags of rank clothing that had clothed travelers for two weeks.). We finished it in our home in Jefferson City.

We might post some pictures from these two weeks some time later. Nancy already has been sharing some things on her Facebook page. But your correspondent doesn’t do Facebook or LinkedIn, or other internet stuff like that. Too much going on in the real world. And the “what I did on my autumn vacation” slide show isn’t what this series of observations is for.

The big bags have been unpacked. The two remaining clean shirts and one pair of clean socks are back in the drawers. The new washing machine will be getting a big workout this weekend. Sometime in the next few days, Nancy and I will go through the hundreds of pictures we took, considering how we have been changed by these last two weeks.

We met someone whose parents likely were alive during the French and Indian War. I hiked an ancient trail 9,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to look down on a mysterious village. Nancy stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We both explored a unique ecosystem populated by hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, a place where studies done almost two centuries ago continue to produce massive angst among those who believe understanding of our world should be limited to the words written by the author of Genesis.

We were among our fellow creatures of brown skin, yellow skin, white skin, red feet, yellow feet, blue feet, claws, and scales. We walked among the living and the dead. We heard the music of man and the music of nature. We walked on modern and ancient paths. We spent two weeks eating only things that had been cooked or peeled, washing our teeth with bottled water, and throwing toilet tissue in wastebaskets because leaving it in the toilet would damage the sewage system. We rode planes, trains, boats, and buses. And we drove a car to start the whole thing. We wandered in societies that seek God through the sun, the puma, the crucifix, and through being one with nature’s god. We lived with a country that uses currency requiring calculation of value with purchases that often involve bargaining and in a country that imports United States currency to use as its own money and gives back coins in change that are a mix of United States coins and the local country’s coins. We stayed in rooms that were unlocked with cards that fit into slots, or unlocked doors with a wave of the card, or with great big skeleton keys. Some restaurant menus listed various forms of beef, pork, chicken, or guinea pig. Some of our group sampled dozens of beers you won’t find in the liquor section of the grocery store. I was in a place that didn’t have any Coke or Pepsi products, so I had had a bottle of Inka Cola which was kind of a light cream soda.

Peru and Ecuador. Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. And other places.

We didn’t talk to a single person in any of those places who gave a tinker’s dam about Donald Trump or John Boehner, Obamacare, Governor Nixon’s veto of a right to work bill, and the insane pursuit of millionaire campaign donors by people thirsting for power.

And then we came home, changed people returning to a seemingly unchanged community where “Gee Whiz” experiences are unlikely. Travel once again has made us realize that the comfort of sleeping in one’s own bed has its value. But travel makes sure that sleeping in one’s own bed does not turn into living in a rut.

Overgrown is good

We see that the Mayor of Florissant has asked Governor Nixon to call a special legislative session to increase the gas tax by two pennies so the state will not miss out on hundreds of millions of federal-collected matching-fund tax dollars coming back to Missouri for road and bridge work.

The legislature muffed the chance to do that in the recent session. Some lawmakers, to be frank, will oppose any tax increase for any purpose and will exert efforts to block approval of one. Based on his past record, Governor Nixon is unlikely to call a special session unless legislative leaders guarantee the bill will pass.   Once burned, twice shy, and Nixon got burned a few years ago.

The Missouri Department of Transportation needs some strongly visual reminders of how bad things are in our road system. The public and the legislators need to be reminded of how tight things are and what their continued wandering in the world of smaller government is costing.

We were driving along one of our highways a few days ago when we saw a department crew mowing the roadside and the median. We thought, “Why is MODOT spending money on mowing when it needs every penny it can get to keep more of our roads from turning back to gravel and more of our bridges from turning to rust?” We have noticed several medians and roadsides have not been mowed and on our recent trip across Kansas and into Colorado we saw a lot of tall grass in miles of rights of way.

MODOT needs to cut the cutting.

Let the grass and the weed and the flowers and the brush grow. Let the roadsides and the medians get absurdly shaggy. Let those areas represent the financial shabbiness of our state transportation program. And when the public complains, be truthful. “We can’t afford to mow our rights of way because we need that money to fix potholes and a few bridge decks. The legislature could ease that problem but it won’t. If you’ll give me the name of your senator or representative, I’ll look up his/her phone number. I’m sure they’d be glad to hear your concerns.”

A good friend, “Cutter” Short, who once was in the road-building and repair business, has cautioned against such a practice. He points to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for “vegetation control” that say the reasons to mow are:

  • Keeping signs visible to drivers.  (Hey! We’re talking about grass in this discussion, not tomato plants, grape vines, kudzu, etc.)
  • Keeping road users–vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians–visible to drivers. (We are not suggestion that the grass be allowed to grow tall ON the roads, just beside them or in the medians).
  • Improving visibility of livestock and wildlife near the road. (It’s nice of the FHWA to want cows and deer to be able to watch cars and trucks go by.)
  • Helping pedestrians and bicyclists see motor vehicles. (Yes, they’re at least as important as the cows. See also point 2 above)
  • Keeping sidewalks and pedestrian paths clear and free from overhanging vegetation. (Grass doesn’t “overhang.”
  • Removing trees close to the roadway which could result in a severe crash if hit. (Again, we’re talking grass here.  It’s okay to remove some dangerous trees. We don’t know what to suggest about the rocky bluffs, though)
  • Improving winter road maintenance in snow and ice areas. (Never can tell when one of those big salt trucks with dozer blades on the front might get entangled in the roadside or median grass, you know.)
  • Helping drainage systems function as designed. (They’re designed to handle grass clippings when rain moves in right after a mowing?)
  • Preserving pavements through daylighting and root system control. (A little extra height on the grass isn’t going to keep daylight from arriving when the sun does.  But we will concede that grass roots can be dangerous for our highways.  Not as dangerous as a lack of funding to pay for pothole repair, though)
  • Controlling noxious weeds in accordance with local laws and ordinances. (Let’s call on our courts to sentence people convicted of DWI to a week of Musk Thistle-pulling.)

We can add another couple of plusses to letting the grass grow.  It will hide those unsightly but necessary cables in the median that are designed to stop crossover crashes.  In fact, if the grass is thick enough it might help retard the momentum of the wayward vehicle.  And, for those who look for reasons to punish the Department of Conservation, there is the argument that taller grass will give deer, opossums, armadillos, and turtles more places to hide until they can jump out and attack unsuspecting motorists.

But it’s worth the risk to let the grass grow to emphasize the need for the legislature to overcome its horrible fear that Missourians might have to fork over a few pennies to pay for something like roads and bridges. The danger, of course, is that our lawmakers might not do anything to increase funding for mowing and for concrete and steel work. Instead they might declare roadway grass is a new official state symbol. They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.   Essentials, sometimes, not so much.

Thoughts from the road about the road

We left our quiet street for a few days in January and February to travel in a dozen states.  We went to southern Florida during a January Missouri cold snap and drove out of a snowstorm in February to spend most of two weeks in Arizona and New Mexico.  Gloating about being someplace where the daytime temperature is in the 70s and 80s and dolphins sometimes play in the surf or in places where every day is golf day in the winter Arizona desert is unseemly so we’re not going to do it. In fact there were some days when the temperature in Florida was only in the 60s and it was almost that nice here at home, at least in January.  It’s not like we were full-blown snowbirds who have abandoned our neighbors to escape all of winter.   They were nice times but we’re not going to force anybody to look out our pictures of the sunsets on the Gulf of Mexico and palm trees and people in bathing suits strolling on a white beach or a Greek Orthodox monastery where they grow oranges and lemons in Arizona.  Unless our friends force us to show them.

We have learned that some people in Georgia talk like people from Georgia. But not all of them. Same with people from Mississippi and Alabama. People from Minnesota sound like Minnesotans in Arizona.  Arizonans sound a lot like us.

We have learned that some state capitols are not open to visitors on weekends.  Ours is.  But the Missouri Capitol has something for people to see. The Florida Capitol is a 22-story office building.  The Louisiana Capitol is a 34-story office building.  The North Dakota Capitol is a 19-story building.  The Nebraska Capitol is a 15-story office building. (Louisiana, North Dakota, and Nebraska were not on this trip but we’ve been there on other voyages.) . We are never too excited about seeing an office building-capitol anyway. Florida’s Capitol was closed for the weekend when we went through Tallahassee.  Arizona’s capitol is a museum with an executive office attached to the rear and separate buildings for the House and the Senate.  The New Mexico Capitol is round, lovely, captures the culture and is known as “The Roundhouse” because of its shape

We learned that people who drive I-75 in Florida must consider the highway’s name some kind of minimum speed.  But it’s a terrific road.  We were told in Oklahoma during a winter storm that if we want clear roads we should go to Missouri “because they shovel the roads there.”

We drove on some beautiful interstate highways.  In fact, we thought that just about every state we were in has prettier—and generally, smoother and often at least two lanes wider– interstate highways than Missouri has. Driving on them was comfortable, especially in those areas of three or four lanes each way where trucks were restricted to the far-right lane except when passing and there were ample lanes for travelers going at different speeds.

There pretty clearly are several reasons for states having more beautiful interstates than Missouri has.  The most obvious reason is fuel taxes.  Missouri piddles along at 17 cents for gasoline, more for diesel.  The states we visited on our warm-weather break, collect two to nineteen cents a gallon more.   Of course they have better, prettier roads.  Missouri, on the other hand, has political leadership that has spent years cultivating the idea that things will be oh, so much better, if taxes are considered some kind of disfiguring disease and the best solution is legislative inoculation against it.

But the big reason other states have more beautiful highways is billboards.

We have decided in our long drives down those attractive roads in other states that the absolutely ugliest interstate highway in America has to be Interstate 70 between our two largest cities.  It is a disgrace.  In a time when law enforcement authorities bemoan the number of traffic crashes and fatalities caused by distracted drivers, we have an interstate that is crammed with distractions.  Billboards.   It was bad enough until Missourians voted on limits to billboards a few years ago and the billboard—pardon me, the outdoor advertising industry—rushed to throw up dozens more of the things before the limits were enacted.   Sadly, the proposal failed and we are left with Interstate 70 roadsides with the worst case of advertising acne that can be imagined.

Many of our other major roads are relatively free of these visual insults but the busiest road in the state, linking our biggest cities, should be renamed.  Isore70.

Sadly,  the situation with a highway that at times seems nose-to-tail trucks–with cars as the meat in the truck sandwich–between Kansas City and St. Louis appears unlikely to be better anytime soon.  Missourians don’t want higher gas taxes. Missourians have rejected a special sales tax for transportation. The political tide is running against making I-70 a toll road. Heaven only knows how the situation will turn around. The legislature remains idling on the shoulder.