Frequent readers of the Road More Traveled know that I’m a conossieur of some truly crazy driving trips. There was the time I drove to Boston to catch a cruise ship, and a journey of 102 miles one way to buy a box of kolaches. Cheap gas (currently $1.99 a gallon here in the Dallas suburbs, but $1.74 on the day I took this trip) has had me seriously pondering some extended weekend drives recently, and a few weeks ago, finally decided to make it happen.
Some late night web browsing about a month ago brought me to an interesting piece of historical information – while the origins of America’s first hamburger is a hotly disputed item*, one claimant, Oscar Weber Bilby, hailed from Tulsa, Oklahoma, a relatively short hop across the Red River. Most importantly, the restaurant that Oscar founded to serve his hamburgers and root beer to the public, Weber’s Superior Root Beer, was still open for business. Well, that settled it – I’d just have to go and check out this hamburger for myself. After all, if one can drive 102 miles for a pastry, what’s 247 for a hamburger? Heck, we could leave the house by 8:00 and be in Tulsa in time for lunch.
As we all know, the journey there and back is half the fun, and since we were going to have to burn a half a day to get to Tulsa anyway, I thought this might be a good opportunity to enjoy a true “Americana” kind of day by taking the long way home via Route 66 through Oklahoma City. A long-term bucket list item of mine is to drive what remains of Route 66 in its entirety; I’m probably about halfway there, having driven bits and pieces where I can during longer road trips. I’d never done the section between Tulsa and OKC, so call it a good chance to knock out two birds with one stone. Our combined route for the day:
Yes, you’re reading that right. 577 miles roundtrip – for a burger…
We’d started the year with nearly two weeks straight of unusually cold, wet weather, and so while I enjoy the cold, it was something of a relief to finally have a warmer, sunny weekend. We left just after 8 in the morning, with a plan of taking Highway 75 straight to Tulsa. It’s a rather nondescript 4-lane highway as far as Atoka, 105 miles to the north, but beyond there, it is a scenic 2-lane highway through the rolling hills of central Oklahoma to Henryetta, a further 90 miles to the north. Watch your speed through Atoka; I almost always see Smokey Bear with a customer pulled over when passing through here.
Road geeks rejoice – original 1930s era concrete pavement north of Coalgate, OK
A curvy, hilly, especially scenic section of road, Coal County, OK
Old US 62/75, Ozark foothills in the distance approaching Henryetta, OK
Historic downtown of Henryetta, OK
The last 50 miles or so to Tulsa is standard 4-lane expressway, but we decided to take the old road just to the west. The old highway is barely 2 lanes wide in spots, but as it hasn’t been used as the main highway in probably 40 years, is still in pretty decent shape. As you approach the town of Beggs, you cross an old Pratt pony truss bridge (1921) across Adams Creek, still commonly found on older highways in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Around 12:30, just about as I expected, we made it to Tulsa, and to Weber’s Superior Root Beer. Note that although Weber’s is occasionally referred to in Route 66 travel guides, it is not actually located on any known alignment of the Mother Road. Route 66 actually lies about 2 miles to the north, along 11th Street.
For those of you waiting for a restaurant review, yes, I will post a full review of Weber’s separately, but in the meantime, enjoy a shot of our reward for 247 miles of driving – a loaded cheeseburger for me, a fish sandwich for my wife, an order of fries, and two root beer floats in frosted mugs. I won’t ruin the review before I post it, but this was a very, very good meal, and I was genuinely glad we’d made the trip.
With the day’s primary mission accomplished, it was time to get our kicks on Oklahoma’s Route 66. From the Texas border at Texola to the Kansas border near Quapaw, Oklahoma features the nation’s longest driveable stretch of the Mother Road; much of those 400+ miles are still numbered as State Highway 66, feature the highway’s original alignment, and even the original 1930s era concrete pavement. Most importantly, many of the towns and cities along the old highway take their Route 66 heritage very seriously, providing for plenty of interesting, quirky sights along the way. This virtual tour covers the 118 miles from downtown Tulsa to downtown Oklahoma City. The state and cities along the route have done a pretty good job of marking the route on this stretch, even those sections not signed as State Highway 66, so it is one of the easier portion of the old highway to follow.
Tulsa itself has done quite a bit to highlight its Route 66 heritage. The city’s best known icon is probably the Golden Driller at the Tulsa State Fairgrounds (Expo Square on 21st Street, technically about a mile south of Route 66), and as you enter downtown from the south after crossing the Arkansas River, the city has put up a giant sign welcoming you to both Tulsa and Route 66.
Route 66 is a typical city street passing through a largely industrial area in the southwestern portion of Tulsa, but gradually transitions to a semi-rural 2-lane blacktop as you head towards Sapulpa. Those of you who watch Antiques Road Show may remember Sapulpa as the home of Frankoma Pottery, established in 1933, but road geeks will find something spectacular on the west side of town – the old Rock Creek Bridge, built in 1924.
This bridge is an example of a Parker through truss bridge, and one of the better remaining examples of truss bridges in Oklahoma. The bridge carried Route 66 until 1952, when the highway was realigned slightly to the south (today’s State Highway 66). The bridge is in poor structural condition and has been closed to traffic since 2013, though if you are approaching from the east, you can still turn off at Ozark Trail (just before the VFW building and the intersection with Highway 117) and walk across the bridge. Supposedly the city and state are considering plans to restore the bridge, though it’s uncertain when that might happen or if it’ll ever be re-opened to vehicular traffic.
After crossing IH-44 (Turner Turnpike) west of Kellyville, several very nice 1920s-era alignments can be found jutting off of Oklahoma 66 all the way to Bristow. These older alignments are worth exploring, but be sure to have a good Route 66 guidebook and a map with you to avoid getting lost, as many of these sections are not marked. I like the turn-by-turn instructions at historic66.com, with a couple of disclaimers: 1) this guide was written several years ago, and so some older sections have been closed off to traffic, and 2) if reading the guide from east to west, some of the turning instructions are flipped (i.e. it will describe a turn to the south as a left turn instead of right; always use the cardinal directions). Anyway, there are a couple of real treats for Route 66 enthusiasts willing to go off the beaten path just a little. First, just after crossing the turnpike, watch for a county road angling to the right after about 1/2 mile for more original 1930s-era concrete (warning: this section is driveable, but will give you a complimentary lower lumbar adjustment).
Second, just before re-crossing IH-44 into Bristow near the cemetery, an abandoned section of highway and an old pony truss bridge over Sand Creek, built in 1925.
Heading west from Bristow, you pass through the very small town of Depew, followed by Stroud. Just past Depew, you’ll see several old sections of road just to the right of the highway; however, it appears that these sections are now discontinuous, and therefore can’t be driven from start to finish. However, if you want to get a photo of a really old section of road, this is a good place to do so. Stroud, meanwhile, has a couple of iconic Route 66 attractions – the Rock Cafe, a classic roadside diner originally opened in 1939, and a place I’d really wished that I’d stopped to take a photo of the sign, and the Skyliner Motel, a 50s-era motor court with a neon sign out front and vintage-era rooms for rent.
Fourteen miles down the road is Chandler, another small town that has enjoyed a renaissance thanks to Route 66 tourism. Several historic buildings can be found here, including the Route 66 Interpretive Center, built in the repurposed Chandler Armory, and several classic gas stations. We didn’t have time, but the interpretive center looks like it’s worth a visit, especially for those wanting to learn more about Route 66’s history.
Route 66 Interpretive Center in the old Chandler Armory building
Restored Phillips 66 gas station in downtown Chandler, minus the pumps
Continuing west, after crossing IH-44 again about 8 miles past Chandler, you enter the town of Wellston. On the right-hand side, you’ll see the remnants of the Pioneer Camp Motor Court, a long-time Route 66 attraction. Little remains of the Pioneer Camp today; I’ve seen indications on Google that a BBQ restaurant is operated from the building, but I haven’t been able to confirm this. There is also supposed to be a totem pole on the premises, but I couldn’t see it from the road.
Another 9 miles west is Luther, where you begin to see the first outskirts of Oklahoma City. There are supposed to be several old gas stations, including one dating to the 1920s, on the north side of the higway, but I didn’t see any. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled to the north, and maybe you’ll have better luck. Eight more miles brings you to Arcadia, home to two major Route 66 attractions. The first is the Arcadia Round Barn, unique for its circular shape and 60-foot diameter roof, was built in 1898 and restored in 1992.
There is a small gift shop and visitors center open from 10-5 daily. You can also rent out the upstairs loft for private parties. Mostly, though, it’s one of those quirky tourist traps for Route 66 aficionados, one of those places you go to just to say you drove there. On the west end of town is a newer creation – POPS, a monument to the humble soda. The main attraction? A giant soda bottle with a straw sticking out in front that lights up at night, and more than 600 varieties of soda inside. Unfortunately, I’d already gone about a mile past before I realized what the big soda bottle was, and it was too late to turn around and take a photo. In hindsight, this trip would have been even better if I could have said I drove 247 miles for a burger, and then another 94 for a soda to go with it, but oh well…
Past Arcadia, you are quickly swallowed up by the OKC suburbs, and there isn’t much old Route 66 feel as you head first through Edmond and then south through Oklahoma City. As you make your way towards downtown on Lincoln Boulevard, though, you get a fantastic view of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
I had originally thought about continuing on the old road to El Reno before heading south towards home, but with it already being a bit past 4 P.M., we decided to head straight home instead. Still, being able to tell a story of a 577-mile trip to get a burger made for one happy road geek…
*At least half a dozen people lay claim to inventing the American hamburger, dating back to the 1880s. The earliest was Fletcher Davis, who reportedly sold “hamburgers” at his cafe in Athens, Texas, 73 miles southeast of Dallas, as early as 1880, before taking them to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Athens, therefore, claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger in some circles. However, Bilby, in 1891, was the first to serve his hamburger on a bun. Others before, including Davis, served their creations between two slices of regular bread or Texas toast. With all due respect to my home state, I consider a beef patty between two slices of regular bread a patty melt, not a hamburger, and therefore reluctantly accept Oklahoma’s claim that Tulsa is the birthplace of the American hamburger.