Madison Street Becomes Highway 54
When planners laid out the first streets of Jefferson City in 1822, they made Jefferson Street the chief north-south road. Jefferson Street was anchored on its river end at the steamboat landing (Lohman’s Landing, now part of Jefferson Landing State Historic Site). The street extended in a straight line to the southern limits of the platted city, where it became a state road that went far out into the county. During the nineteenth century, farmers from Zion, Honey Creek, Brazito, Hickory Hill, Stringtown, Lohman, and other rural communities came in their wagons into Jefferson City along Jefferson Street as far as the German Southside (Munichburg), where they traded and stayed overnight.
Just after the Civil War ended in 1865, brothers Oscar and Nelson Burch built impressive, adjacent residences on the high ground of the 900 block of Jefferson Street on south edge of the German-immigrant Munichburg community.
The Oscar Burch house.
The Nelson Burch house.
In 1893 Louis Lohman built his elegant mansion on wooded acreage across Jefferson Street from the Burch residences. These three historic houses, all sitting high in the “suburbs,” had fantastic views of the city. The Lohman mansion has since been razed by the Salvation Army.
The Lohman mansion, prior to 1922.
In the 1920s, when cars and trucks replaced wagons and buggies, the federal government created a system of numbered highways and designated Jefferson Street as US Highway 54 in this new highway system.
Jefferson Street, however, soon presented challenges to increased motor traffic. Its public right-of-way south of Atchison Street narrowed from 80 to merely 50 feet, and houses pressed close up to the street. Also, the steep hill leading up to Swifts Highway was difficult to negotiate for heavy-laden trucks, like those heading south for construction of Bagnell Dam. The Missouri Highway Department realized Jefferson Street was obsolete for highway traffic and had to find another location to carry US 54 traffic.
In 1937, during the Great Depression and using what we would now call federal stimulus dollars, the Missouri Highway Department selected Madison Street, one block east, to be the location for a new Highway 54 South. At that time, Madison Street dead-ended at the end of the flat stretch in the 1000 block, just beyond where Freeman’s Mortuary now is. In this flat stretch, the public right-of-way could easily be widened, because the west side was all in Lohman’s Woods and not built on. Beyond the flat stretch was a steep hill that Capital Region Medical Center now sits atop. The Highway Department concluded it would be better to blast a roadway through the crown of that steep hill, where there were no buildings. Making a deep rock cut in the crown would reduce the street ascent and lower the street grade. This is the same hill that Jefferson Street went up and over at Swifts Highway.
Work was delayed until 1941. To blast such immense quantities of rock was something to behold because blasting on that scale was not common in those days. Few people wanted to go close to the site when the dynamiting was going on. From a couple blocks away you could see large rocks being thrown high in the air during the blasting, and folks feared rocks would shower down on their heads. Indeed, some nearby residents did find small rocks in their yards. There wasn’t much “crowd control” for safety in those days, and people, if they dared to, could venture quite close to such hazardous events, restrained only by their own common sense, or lack of it. My family could hear the dynamite explosions one mile away at our house on West Elm Street.
One Sunday, when no work could be done on the Sabbath day of rest, and a day when Dad was free, he took my brother Richard and me (I was seven years old) to see the progress. But Dad had a special interest. Labor unions had vigorously objected to the work on some grounds and had caused its start to be delayed for four years. Dad was a strong supporter of unions and president of Jefferson City’s Central Labor Union when this particular highway work began in 1941. He wanted to see firsthand what the controversy involved. With a violent war well underway in Europe, there was a shortage of male labor for the highway work and perhaps non-union labor was being used. That was a serious concern to the labor unions. But it sure didn’t concern us young boys.
That sunny Sunday afternoon, we walked to the end of Madison Street just past where Freeman’s Mortuary now is. There we left the city sidewalk and stepped carefully along the partially graded rock surface all the way up the hill to the top. No grading had begun beyond that place, and the rocks lay in great jumbled masses like the boulder field atop Pikes Peak (which I had seen in pictures; I imagined we were walking to the top of Pikes Peak). We picked our way among the sharp-edged limestone boulders and walked to the foot of the jagged face of a freshly dynamited fifteen-foot cliff to inspect bedrock that was gleaming bright white in the afternoon sun.
Richard and I found fossils that had just been exposed to daylight for the first time in millions of years, while Dad stood with his hands on his hips, staring blankly at nothing in particular, but thinking deeply about this and that. When we turned to look north and head back home, the vast panorama of Jefferson City lay before our eyes with masses of white limestone boulders that were soon to be transformed into a modern highway. For me, it was much too soon to leave “Pikes Peak.” I could have stayed among those white boulders for a long time.
The new, wide Madison Street carrying Highway 54 South was finished in late 1942, right smack in the middle of World War II. Jefferson City now had a concrete highway for five and a half miles to the Moreau River (to the crossing now called Twin Bridges), and I had personally witnessed its construction!
Central Dairy Becomes a Destination
When Madison Street became Highway 54, properties along it benefited from increased tourist traffic, due especially to the booming Lake of the Ozarks after World War II ended. Southside Conoco gas station arose on the corner of Madison and Dunklin, and Southside Sinclair arose on the corner of Madison and Ashley. Milo Walz developed a shopping center in the block of Madison between those two service stations, where Show Me Printing and Dollar General now are.
But it was Central Dairy that benefited most from the highway traffic. Before Madison became US 54, Central Dairy was already a favorite place to us locals, but when highway traffic began passing by, it became a destination for all those summer tourists on their way to and from Lake of the Ozarks who wanted some good ice cream.
The new highway made Central Dairy what we know it today—one of Jefferson City’s primary destinations. But even later, after Madison was no longer US 54, travelers kept detouring off the new highway onto Madison in order to reach Central Dairy and their wonderful ice cream and friendly service. Fame then spread to other tourists coming to Jefferson City.
Madison Street lost its designation as US 54 in 1965 when the Highway Department constructed the present dual-lane US 54 that cuts through the hill at the Jefferson Street overpass.
The next time you drive around that abrupt, sharp curve in the highway, remember that it is the third generation of US 54 leading south from Jefferson City.
Copyright 2011 by Walter A. Schroeder.
Jefferson City is a wonderful place, and Old Munichburg is an integral part of its story. Help preserve and promote this German-settled district by joining the Old Munichburg Association!