Just about ten miles southwest of St. Clair, Route 66 makes its way to Stanton, Missouri, with several attractions and outdoor activities to entertain cross-country travelers. Stanton is a small unincorporated community that became a favorite stop for Route 66 travelers due to its proximity to nearby Meramec Caverns, which has always been prominently advertised on billboards and the sides of barns, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
Today, the town appears to be even smaller than it was back in 1946 when Jack D. Rittenhouse wrote A Guide Book To Highway 66. At that time, the small town was called home to about 115 people, and Rittenhouse described it as having a Triple-A garage, a gas station, a good cafe called Wurzburger’s, a store, and a few cabins. The only continually open business remaining today is a gas station. The Jesse James Wax Museum, one of the remaining features of this small town, is open daily in the summer, weekends in the spring and fall, and closed in the winter.
In addition to Meramec Caverns, the area also provides canoeing, float trips, and fishing along the Meramec and Bourbeuse Rivers; several other caves, wineries, and various other attractions such as the Jesse James Museum.
Nearby Meramec State Park offers year-round camping, picnicking, hiking trails, and water enthusiasts will enjoy swimming, fishing, rafting, and canoeing in the Meramec River.
Meramec Caverns – Hideout of Jesse James
Meramec Caverns is a set of natural limestone caves that features beautifully sculpted patterns of stalactites and stalagmites. Formed more than 400 million years ago, the caverns have a long and rich history. First used by Indian Tribes as a shelter, they were first discovered by “white men” when a French Miner stumbled upon them in 1720. Renault discovered saltpeter in the cave, which is used to make gunpowder, named the cave Saltpeter Mine and mined the resource until 1742. Later, Spanish miners utilized the cavern as a base of operations for lead mining.
During the Civil War, saltpeter mining was revived in the cavern, and Union troops used it as a munitions powder mill from 1862 to 1864. However, when William Quantrill and his irregular band of Confederates discovered it, they destroyed the plant. One member of Quantrill’s band, namely Jesse James, would remember the cave’s location and use it later during his outlaw years. During this time, the cave was said to have harbored runaway slaves on the “Underground Railroad.”
In 1874, Jesse James, along with the James-Younger gang, robbed the Little Rock Express on its way from St. Louis, Missouri to Little Rock, Arkansas, at a small town called Gads Hill. Pursued by a posse, the gang escaped 75 miles northeast to the cave. The sheriff and his men soon tracked the James-Youngers, deciding to starve them out of the cave. However, after three days, the gang did not emerge. The lawmen entered the cave only to find the gang’s horses. It has been long believed that the outlaws escaped by swimming from a shallow underground river to the Meramec River outside the cave.
By the 1890s, the cave was owned by Charley Rueppele, who was interested in prospecting it. However, Rueppele allowed some of Missouri’s elite to use the cave for ballroom dances. During the hot Missouri summer months in the days before air conditioning, the cave provided a wonderful respite. Today, the same area of the cave can still be rented for special events.
In the 1930s, a local cave enthusiast named Lester Dill leased the cave from Rueppele with an option to buy it. Along with a partner, Ed Schuler, they built the access road and entrance to the cave, renamed it “Meramec Caverns,” and opened it to the public in 1935.
Dill uncovered miles of new passages and spectacular views and began to heavily market the cave to the many travelers of Route 66. Marketing efforts included using “bumper signs” before the advent of “bumper stickers,” as well as painting the sides and roofs of barns all along Route 66. Soon, the cave became known as one of the most famous stops along the Mother Road.
Today, Meramec Caverns include tours through seven underground levels, a restaurant, and a museum that features the life and times of the caverns. Outside the caverns, a campground and motel are available along the banks of the Meramec River. For outdoor enthusiasts, canoes and rafts can be rented for float trips, a tour boat is available for a scenic trip along the river, and visitors can pan for gold at the Meramec Mining Company. Open year-round, Meramec Caverns can be reached by I-44 Exit 230 in Stanton.
On your way to Meramec Caverns, you will pass by the Riverside Reptile Ranch, where you can see the most extensive collection of snakes in the state of Missouri, from pythons to boas, cobras, rattlesnakes, and more. Not limited to snakes, you can also get a scary look at alligators, scorpions, and tarantulas inside the complex. The outdoor view provides foxes, turtles, goats, emus, and Leo the Lion. As of this writing, the Reptile Ranch is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Back in Stanton, on the south frontage road at Exit 230, is the Jesse James Wax Museum, a Route 66 icon; for some 40 years, you will hear the story of how Jesse James wasn’t shot to death in 1882. Instead, this place will convince you that he died of old age in Granbury, Texas, in 1952. Check ahead of time for hours of operation, as they vary throughout the year.
Other “signs” of a once more prosperous Route 66 are the closed Delta Motel, later called the Park Inn 66, at 2420 S. Service Road, and the Stanton Motel, across the interstate at 2497 N. Service Road East is also closed.
Continue your journey on Route 66 on Springfield Road through the tiny hamlet of Oak Grove Village before reaching Sullivan.