Roadside geography and trivia from Erie PA to Springfield MO
March 13, 2022 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm going on a drive under stressful circumstances from Erie PA to Springfield MO. (1-90 W to I-271/71 S to 70 W to I-44 S.) What can you tell me about interesting geography, visible landmarks, or history of the areas I'll pass through along the way?

I won't be able to detour to any towns or cities (not even St. Louis!) and I can't stop except at rest stops/gas stations. But if there's a scenic or historic rest stop on the highway, do tell me about it! Mostly I just want to learn some things that I can look at and think about on the drive there and back, other than the things I don't want to be thinking about. Wildlife to keep an eye out for could be nice too. Your help would be appreciated.
posted by kutsushita nyanko to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There is a Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania and also one for Missouri. They are organized by drive, mostly on the highways. You could read the relevant bits beforehand, or at rest breaks.
posted by clew at 9:02 PM on March 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

On 71S in Columbus, a few miles before you hit 70W, you'll pass the Ohio History Center. You don't need to stop and go in, though, as the building itself is pretty distinct
posted by PaulaSchultz at 9:05 PM on March 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

PaulaSchultz reminded me - in OH (also in Atlanta and the Detroit airport?!...) you should eat Jenni's ice cream if you run across it. I know it's winter, but they're goood! They're headquartered in columbus OH. Pick weird flavors - my fav is the rarely available fig or sour cherry jam in goat cheese.

In PA, I learned from a local classmate that Sheetz is a road trip (or just gas, bathroom, quick food) destination. She had a thing about their drinks, though I can't recall what it was now. She highly recced.

There's a brutal right-angle turn of the highway in I think cinci, on 90 - there's lots of warnings and lights but when they say 20mph, they mean it! As a non-local I always found it terrifying and strange for a huge highway to suddenly slow down for a brutal curve :(

Speed traps around Columbus oh (from the N) if your route takes you thru. 10y ago if you hit Chicago in the middle of the night without traffic there was effectively no speed limit. I can't imagine the intervening years make it likely you'll find no traffic, even in the middle of the night. If you find the oppty, eat Mexican food in Chicago, again, 10y ago it was excellent. Hoping mealtime gives you an opportunity and that's still a thing.

If you find books (no reccs, sorry) about the southside of Chicago, it's a fascinating and storied place (and randomly, excellent vegan BBQ, and I say that as a meat eater). Not always happy (and certainly brutally racist), but the amount of historic events and people local to a relatively small area is shocking. Don't read news stories about cops - probably read a long article 15y ago and I still have vivid recollections of the cops actions. Not kidding, read it in a better place, it's not the good kind of distraction.

Old info, may not be useful, but if you find good info on Chicago's southside, please share!
posted by esoteric things at 9:42 PM on March 13, 2022

Best answer: your route might take you by the Effingham cross. It’s a massive white cross. It can be nice and ominous if there are stormy skies when you go by. It’s lit up at night. I’ve never stopped but it’s an amusing highway landmark.
posted by ghostbikes at 9:45 PM on March 13, 2022

Best answer: Whelp I happen to know that the I-44 route from St Louis to Springfield is actually a rather interesting historical route - whose roots go back many centuries.

- It mostly follows ridgelines in a way that makes a pretty direct route between St Louis & Springfield (which were both Native American population centers of various types over the centuries) and as such, the logical route to travel southwest from St Louis (which is the confluence of the Missouri & Mississippi Rivers, thus a logical spot for a settlement)

- It's not a super-obvious ridgeline like you might see in the Rocky Mountains, say, but you will notice that for much of the route you are just on the border between one drainage to the north of you and another to the south. Old routes follow this kind of path to minimize the number of gullies and ravines you have to cross, as well as to minimize stream & river crossings.

- The route was used by Native Americans going make many centuries as far as we know. (Maps, little history)

- Later it became a pioneer road used by European settlers in the area. This would be late 1700s through mid 1800s.

- Part of the route (St James-Springfield) was used for one branch of the Trail of Tears. Trail of Tears in MO detailed map with many points of interest.

On the Trail of Tears, they generally followed the state highway but deliberately kept the traveling groups and camps out of site to the south of the road so that other travelers wouldn't see them. For that reason, not much is right on I-44. However, you can often see where they traveled, camped, etc about 1/2-1-2-3 mile to the south of the freeway. (See map linked above.)

One place you could stop is Larry Baggett's Trail of Tears Memorial. It is a few hundred yards off a freeway exit (though you'll then need to drive a few miles on old Route 66/I-44 frontage road before there is an interchange to get back on the freeway). It is permanently closed now but you can drive past the entrance or stop briefly to look - you can still see the most interesting parts of it from the road. Map - details - facebook.

- Mid to late 1800s, the telegraph linking St Louis-Springfield-Ft Smith AR ran along this same road - it was often known as the "Wire Road," "Old Wire Road," or sometimes "Telegraph Road". It was also known as "The Military Road" because it led to Ft Smith.

Because it was a main highway and particularly because of the telegraph line, there was some Civil War action along the Wire Road, and cutting telegraph lines type of attacks. Some background., even more background. (The most interesting parts I know about related to the Civil War are south of Springfield, unfortunately - Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge battlefields, and many other things along that stretch.)

- Later this same basic route became part of Route 66. A few Route 66 sites are right off the freeway (much of Route 66 is now the I-44 frontage road) and maybe could be classified as "rest stops". Probably the #1 candidate you could easily stop at is Uranus MO which is one of the wildest stops on the entire route. It's right on the I-44 frontage road but you might have to plan a little exactly how to get off & then back on I-44.

- Even later this route became I-44 which is what you'll be driving.

Each of these various routes took slightly different paths. Generally they became straighter and shorter over the years. I-44 is the straightest and shortest of all.

Point is, traveling I-44 sometimes you're right on one or more of the historical routes, sometimes it's 100 yards away, sometimes 1/4 or 1/2 mile, sometimes a mile or two or three. If you look sharp you can see a fair bit of interesting stuff just off to one side or the other.
posted by flug at 1:31 AM on March 14, 2022 [10 favorites]

Couple more Missouri points of interest:

* Devil's Elbow - a big curve of the Big Piney River that has a famous Route 66 bridge. You can see some of it from I-44 as you whiz by. Map.

* Pacific MO was named after the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which runs through it. MOPAC was supposed to be the first transcontinental railroad. Fascinating history - started in 1851, never really reached the Pacific, but finally reached Kansas City after the Civil War. Many disasters and setbacks. In Pacific the MOPAC and the Frisco Railroads run together (right against the Meramec River just east of town, just west of town you will cross the MOPAC tracks in I-44). They even share a station in downtown Pacific. The two RRs run parallel or just a mile or two apart from St Louis to Pacific - but here the Frisco turns southwest while MOPAC continues west.

History of Missouri Pacific RR.

The Frisco parallels I-44 all the way to Springfield (so it is another major transportation route along this route - I forgot to mention it above). You'll be seeing a lot of it

Like MOPAC, the Frisco was supposed to run St Louis to the Pacific Ocean (to San Francisco - thus the name) . It did eventually reach as far as Texas - in the 1920s.

One thing you can keep an eye on is the topography the railroads have to deal with. Pretty much all the railroads in Missouri were much harder to build than anticipated. Railroads require flat ground and gradual grades. Missouri may not have high elevations but regardless of that - it's the polar opposite of flat and gradual.

Frisco Railroad history.
posted by flug at 1:49 AM on March 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a native of Springfield, MO, who lives in Illinois and used to live in Pittsburgh and I know this route extremely well, especially the I-44 part.

Shout out to flug for all the historical knowledge! I had no idea about most of these facts about I-44. I did know about historic Route 66 running along it as a frontage road in a lot of places.

Here's what I know, by state, kinda:


- the giant cross in Effingham is indeed hard to miss
- you'll pass close to the "Mother Jones Memorial" in Union, IL; look for signs from the highway
- as you get closer to Springfield you'll start getting more roadside attractions of a ridiculous, Bransonesque nature, such as Uranus, MO (NOT a real town, just a terribly kitschy strip mall/amusement park) and Meramec Caverns. Lots of caves in SW Missouri.
- good views of the Arch as you approach St. Louis
- consider taking the 270 loop south around St. Louis instead of I-70 straight through. I find it much less stressful than taking 70 directly through the city, especially the interchange with I-44. If you're driving through during a workday, the time difference is negligible. Fewer views of downtown STL, more views of the Mississippi River and the bluffs on the Illinois side, which are kind of pretty actually.
- there's another hard-to-miss rest stop somewhere around Lebanon, MO: "Redmon's Candy Outlet" which has a distinct cartoon representative. It's a glorified gas station but it does have a large and interesting candy selection.
- I'm pretty sure there's a candle store with a VERY large concrete candle out front somewhere on I-70, but I don't remember exactly where.
- there's a stand advertising for a local winery where you can also get "grape pies" somewhere around Vandalia, IL (or there used to be).
- look for a weird campground called "Jellystone Park" featuring Yogi Bear and other Hanna-Barbera characters somewhere around Pacific, MO
- St. James, MO has a number of wineries, which is unusual for the area, but there's at least one fancy winery place visible from the highway
- gas will definitely be cheaper in MO than in IL, but absolutely no one will be wearing masks anymore.

Sounds like you're coming south through Ohio (Cleveland to Columbus). Western Ohio is deadly dull IMHO. There are decent rest stops in Huber Heights (close to the Indiana border). Look for the distinctive blue arch over the highway as you cross into Indiana. Also take a moment to appreciate the large fireworks stores that sit just across the border.

- I think, but I'm not 100% sure, that there's some town in eastern Indiana or western Ohio that has two water towers visible from the highway, that some joker labelled "Hot" and "Cold." They could be on I-74 instead though.

- Would you be taking the I-455 loop around Indianapolis? That's what we typically do. People drive like assholes on that thing. Look for some bowling alley with a very large pin out front.

- You'll cross the Wabash River between Indiana and Illinois. Feel free to sing the song "Wabash Cannonball" when you do.

-Notice the placement of billboards on your journey. I'm pretty sure Ohio must have ordinances about keeping billboards far away from the highway, but Indiana doesn't.

That's all I can think of right now....
posted by daisystomper at 4:38 AM on March 14, 2022 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm leaving tomorrow so no time for books this time, but I may make the trip in the future under better circumstances. And I forgot to say, geology as well as geography is great.

Mind blown that the bits of Old Wire Road I know from the Ozarks might be the same road.
posted by kutsushita nyanko at 6:01 AM on March 14, 2022

Cahokia Mounds (near St. Louis) is a cool place to visit, lots of open air and a chance to stretch your legs.

Edit: Oh, just noticed you said you can't detour to St. Louis. :-(
posted by jabah at 6:34 AM on March 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

No personal experience with it, but I came across an article about HearHere, an app which tells stories, history, etc about areas you're driving through. Looks like it's only available for iPhone right now.
posted by lharmon at 10:27 AM on March 14, 2022

There's a big scrap metal dinosaur that breathes fire right off I-70 in Vandalia, Illinois.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:11 PM on March 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Grandpa's Cheesebarn just off of I-71 at the Ashland, OH exit is a fun place to get a snack/lunch/smoked meat sticks. It's about 3 hours in on your journey. That exit also has a nice truck stop and bathrooms if you don't have time for the above.
posted by greatalleycat at 2:17 PM on March 14, 2022

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