September 4, 2010

Stopover: Galena, MO

Here's an Ozarkbahn truism: small towns often harbor great marvels. That's the case with Galena, Missouri, a particularly scenic plat of the Ozark Mountains near Table Rock Lake and nearby tourist mecca Branson.

[Galena, MO, on Google Maps]

Galena's local notoriety began a century ago as bucolic float-trip destination for those who could afford to vacation by train and the emerging automobile. Located on the James River, the town's most visible trade still seems to be catering to fishing and canoeing enthusiasts. Galena does possess one macabre footnote in history: the site of the last public execution in America. In 1937, the county courts tried and hanged Roscoe "Red" Jackson, an Ozarks native and transient worker convicted of shooting a traveling salesman. Gawkers flocked to the town square, a spectacle residents remembered with a mix of disgust and awe. The whole affair sounds like a pain in the neck to me.

Today, civic pride and upkeep remains evident around the Galena town square. Years of re-purposing fail to hide a neato bungalow-style service station down the street.

For road-going sightseers, Galena's one bona fide curiosity is its Art Deco highway bridge shaped like a Y. Opened in 1927, it spans the James River between the town proper and what is now Highway 248, an artery of local commerce and travel dating back to the 1800s. The bridge was split at the end to aid drivers turning onto the curvy highway perched on the bluffs opposite Galena. Given the tepid braking and handling abilities of pre-war autos, the unique design was well-appreciated and enthusiastically received.

The Galena Y-Bridge is one of the more elegant and purposeful public works in the Ozarks.

Hundreds of people crowded the town for the dedication of the Y-bridge. Such an occasion might not stir the same excitement today, but it makes one appreciate a time when the general public was still captivated by the potential of the open road. The liberating notion of mobility and romance of motor-tourism are fully taken for granted today, with cars widely regarded as appliances to isolate the journey rather than enhance it.

The Y-Bridge dedication, as shown on The narrow 1910 steel bridge it replaced can seen in the background.

The Y-bridge was still a marvel in the early twentieth century based on practical reasons, as well. Accessibility was the historic challenge of the Ozarks, where steep valleys made river crossings a temperamental enterprise at the mercy of seasonal flooding. The proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s loosened state and federal road funding in Missouri, fostering a flurry of bridge construction in the area. At 764 feet long, the Galena structure was one of the larger undertakings in the Ozarks for the time, and a major asset to the town's tourist trade.

Modernity on the March. Concrete pylons remain from a narrow 1910 steel bridge that the Y-Bridge replaced. Turn your gaze 180 degrees, and the newer roadway bridge built in the 1980s can be seen. Despite its age and closure, the Y-bridge remains open to pleasant pedestrian views.

Ultimately, the Great Depression, steady rise of Branson, and attraction of surrounding lakes diverted the attention of many visitors away from the James River's banks. The Y-bridge now rests on the National Register of Historic Places, and Galena has survived time and floods to show pedestrians where progressive inspiration meets natural beauty.