Hooker Cut

By Brian L. Alexander

Several years ago Fran and I decided to go on a Route 66 road tour sponsored by The Route 66 Association of Missouri the weekend after Labor Day. Up until that time we had never been farther west on Route 66 than Cuba Missouri. Missouri’s scenery and topography is entirely different than Illinois’ landscape. Illinois being “The Prairie State” is for the most part flat, with large farms growing corn and soybeans, as far as the eye can see. Route 66 in Missouri was built on the Ozark Plateau making it have steep hills and sharp curves.

Fran and I were cruising down Route 66 in central part of Missouri, enjoying the weather and beautiful scenery. It was one lane in each direction and the road was very hilly. The large trees on both sides of the road made somewhat of a tunnel allowing vehicles to pass through. I was imagining what it would be like a long time ago driving an antique automobile or vintage truck on this winding country road. We approached a sign that informed us that the road was going to be a divided highway ahead and two lanes in each direction. I recall seeing a lot of these signs on Route 66 when I was younger; the sign brought back memories. As we passed the sign, the road did in fact turn into four lanes. Fran and I were awestruck on the panoramic beauty of the countryside. The Saturday Morning Sky was blue and the landscape was a lush green. The Route 66 pavement ahead of us looked like two ribbons of concrete winding over the hills and disappearing into the distance. I was so fascinated with this stretch of highway, that I stopped our vehicle to take pictures.

As I photographed the scenery another interesting thing happened: A car approached us from the other direction. It was on the other side of the divided highway; all four lanes were functional! I have driven Route 66 many different places were both slabs of concrete are still there, but only one slab was maintained. The other unused pavements that I have seen had weeds growing out of it. The old pavement may have been converted into a bike trail or into a park.

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I turned around to take another picture and I noticed I had driven through a cut at the top of the hill and it looked very interesting. I took a picture of it and thought that there might be a story there. Not only does the “CUT” have its own story but so does Devil’s Elbow; the town of Hooker, and Fort Leonard Wood. Each one has influenced the other.

The engineers who build highways like to follow river valleys because these valleys generally are somewhat flat and level. The Big Piney River winds through this area and the river’s curves are quite sharp. Loggers many years ago named one of the river bends, “The Devil’s Elbow.” The timbers going to the saw mill were floated down the Big Piney River and they would jam-up in this tight river bend. The current would keep a steady pressure on the logs making them difficult to unsnarl.

The original road somewhat followed the Big Piney River in this area. The river has two sharp hairpin bends it. One curve right after the other, making it somewhat of an “S” configuration. The sharp curves and the steep hills made this area extremely dangerous. Heading Northeast on the original alignment of Old Route 66 the traveler would cross over the Big Piney River at the bridge at Devil’s Elbow. Once across the bridge the vehicle would be traveling in a Northwest direction until it turned right into the Town of Hooker. Route 66 originally was two lanes; one lane in each direction through this beautiful Ozark Countryside. The town of Hooker would become a ghost town when the new alignment came through this area.

Fort Leonard Wood would start being built in 1940 with the anticipation of World War II. An influx of civilians, engineers, construction workers and soldiers brought a tremendous increase in population to the area. During the construction of the new fort, traffic volume nearly quadrupled overnight. Huge traffic jams developed on the two lane highway. Traffic fatalities increased dramatically on Route 66; there were 54 vehicular deaths and 454 reported automotive injuries for the first nine months of 1941. Something needed to be done and done quickly.

It did not take long for the federal and local government agencies to agree on a new safer roadway for Route 66. That same year, construction was started on a new four lane thoroughfare to replace the old, dangerous road. This section of Route 66 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike would be the only highways in the United States that were four lanes in 1941.

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Hooker Cut ironically was named after the town of Hooker, Missouri and the town was named after the sportsman John Hooker, whose camp was popular for sportsman. Before Route 66 was built, people would come by the Frisco Railroad, mostly from St. Louis and hunt and fish in the picturesque area.

Oddly enough the new pavement for Route 66 which contained Hooker Cut did not pass through the town of Hooker. The town of Hooker would start to become a ghost town soon after traffic started to flow on the new four lane highway. The second blow would come in 1981 to the town when Interstate 44 would remove some of the Old Route 66 Pavement from the center of town.

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Hooker Cut was an engineering and construction marvel for 1941. The cut actually removed 90 feet from the summit of a huge hill. The removal of the rock allowed for a gentler, safer route for the traveler or trucker.

I plan on returning to the area next September, if not sooner. I want to visit the Devil’s Elbow Bridge which was totally renovated last year. It originally was constructed in 1923, three years before Route 66 came into existence. I also want to travel both tag ends of the original alignment of Route 66 at the ghost town of Hooker Missouri. What was it like to live in the little town of Hooker before 1940? What businesses use to be there and where did they go?

When you try and get “Your Kicks” later on this year please bring your camera with you. The Route 66 pictures that you take might have a story to tell. See you on the road; Happy Motoring!

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