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Cole County History: Just who is Rex Whitton?

by Sara Lynn Hartman, Historic City of Jefferson | April 25, 2020 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated April 25, 2020 at 12:15 p.m.

Thousands of motorists and passengers traverse the 6-mile stretch of U.S. 50 known in Jefferson City as the Rex Whitton Expressway every day, traveling to and from work, school, shopping and recreation. How many of these thousands wonder, as did this author, "Who the heck is Rex Whitton?"

Here's the answer: Rex Marion Whitton is a Missouri boy done good.

Born in 1898 in Jackson County, he worked on the family farm milking cows and working crops. Whitton graduated from the University of Missouri in 1920 with a bachelor of science in engineering.

Whitton began working for the Missouri Highway Department that same year, working his way up from a member of a highway survey crew and rising through the ranks of assistant resident engineer, resident engineer, chief of survey party, plans designer, assistant district engineer, district engineer, and engineer of maintenance on his way to chief engineer in 1941. The U.S. 50 Expressway project through Jefferson City was planned and engineered while he served as chief engineer.

In 1955, Whitton became president of the American Association of State Highway Officers. In that capacity, he lobbied for creation of the Federal Interstate Highway System. On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Under Whitton's leadership, Missouri became the first state to award a contract using the new interstate construction funding for work on U.S. 66 (now I-44) in Laclede County.

In January 1961, Whitton was appointed federal transportation administrator, and on Aug. 18 of that year, the $7.6 million U.S. 50 Expressway project through Jefferson City was dedicated. A 100-car motorcade delivered state and local dignitaries to the stretch between Madison and Monroe Streets, where Jefferson City Mayor Forrest C. Whaley presented Whitton with a city resolution naming the expressway in his honor, and local restaurateur John Adcock bestowed Whitton with the grand champion Cole County ham.

Although the expressway was not part of the interstate highway system, Whitton seized the opportunity to explain the interstate and defense highway system was designed to meet the traffic needs of 1975. Furthermore, under the recently enacted Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1961 (Whitton received one of the pens President Kennedy used to sign it into law), all 41,000 miles of the interstate system would be open to the traveling public by 1972.

In his address, Whitton quoted President Kennedy: "It has always struck me as ironic that so many of our citizens - so ingenious in quickly devising ways of ending almost every minor irritant - would so readily tolerate every morning and evening, the incredible congestion of our antiquated highways that takes a heavy toll in automotive costs and depreciation, to say nothing of human nerves and temper."

Congestion - along with funding and safety - was one of the key issues Whitton addressed during his six-year tenure as Federal Transportation Administrator. After retirement, Whitton spent his remaining years farming and consulting in the Kansas City area, where he died in 1981.

That's the Rex Whitton story, but there are also some interesting expressway side notes. For example: This stretch of U.S. 50 utilized the first radar-controlled traffic signals in Missouri and spanned 6 miles from the West End Fire Station to the Moreau River.

The Aug. 17, 1961 edition of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune featured an extensive spread dedicated to the expressway's opening, comparing the expressway to a ribbon and exchanges to bows. The special insert included a grainy image of a construction worker dwarfed by a construction drill more than twice his height, accompanied by this quaint caption: "Any resemblance between these drills and those used by the dentist are purely coincidental. The sizes are different. These drills are used for boring holes for dynamite, for solid rock excavation, not for piercing dentine. Such excavations were necessary during the construction of the new Jefferson City expressway."

There's also the issue of the champion Cole County ham. At the time, it may have been given solely as a token of appreciation, but more than half a century later there is considerable irony in presenting a highway project administrator a gift of pork.

Lifelong Missourian Sara Lynn Hartman grew up in Kirksville. She has published four Arch Books for Concordia Publishing House and written freelance for magazines and websites. She currently lives in Jefferson City and serves as office manager at Faith Lutheran Church.

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