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Marion Truck Plaza Closes for Rehab Work

For the first time since the 1982 tornado the Marion Truck Plaza is closed for business. This time though the devastation is intentional as the truck stop goes through a complete overall.

I'd been hearing about this for last month but didn't think much about it. What I had been hearing was complaints from fans of the Great American/Refuge Restaurant which was slated to close and be replaced by yet another Subway (the city's fourth by last count).

There's a fan base for smorgasbord-style restaurants that cook American-style. Since the closing of the old Little Egypt Smorgasbord (where Farmers State Bank is today), the Refuge has been the only place to go in town. When you got there at the time right the food was hot and good.

The Marion Truck Plaza was originally known as Skelly's Truck Stop and dates back to the 1960s and the earliest days of Interstate 57. Back then, the restaurant was known was George's and the truck stop offered its own mechanic services.

The tornado of May 29, 1982, caused major damage to it and the Regal 8 (now Motel 6) motel across the street. Both reopened a few months later.

So far workers are digging out the tanks and the scales on the east edge of the property. There were workers on the roof taking apart the bracing for the old wrap-around which suggests they're not planning to take down the entire building and rebuild from scratch.

This is the second major change on that side of the Halfway Road/Route 13 intersection. The Amoco service station on the southwest side was demolished earlier this year. Plans to replace it with a liquor store/smoke shop combination seems to have stalled after the liquor store, Speakeasy Liquors, opened just down the road at the base of The Hill this summer.

I'll add more updates as they become available.

UPDATE: That was quick. The Marion Daily Republican ran a short brief earlier this month. According to Tom Kane's story, the owners of the truck place sold it to Pilot Travel Centers on Sept. 21

Interstate 57 marks 50 Years of Traveling

MARION, Ill. (Sept. 26, 2011) -- Today marks the 50th anniversary of first dedication of Interstate 57.

On Sept. 26, 1961, Gov. Otto Kerner dedicated the first 30-mile stretch of the Chicago to Cairo superhighway. At the time motorists could drive only from Marion down to Dongola.

The Southern Illinoisan quoted Kerner at the time claiming the route through the Shawnee Hills as “one of the most scenic to be found in the entire 41,000 mile national interstate system.”

Illinois had 1,589 miles of planned interstates, but only about one-third ready and open to the public.

Kerner bragged that when completed, the interstate system “would make it possible for motorists to leave the point where we are assembled today and drive from coast to coast and from border to border without encountering a single traffic light.”
Work on the interstate began in the 1950s. At the time engineers priced the 50-mile stretch “though the hill county of southern Illinois” at $21 million, according to an Oct. 17, 1959, article in the Mt. Vernon Register-News.

Interstate 64 was part of the original plans for the state’s interstate system, but not Interstate 24. Originally, planners called for I-64 to cross the region from Vincennes, Ind., to St. Louis, intersecting I-57 at Salem. Only due to strong pressure in Indiana to move the interstate closer to Evansville helped pulled the route down to Mount Vernon.

Although not part of the original system, U.S. Rep. Ken Gray hinted at the future I-24 as early as Mar. 8, 1960, according to the Register-News.

By using a southerly alignment of Route 64 it may be possible to utilize Interstate 57 from a point south of Mount Vernon, Ill., to Pulley’s Mill south of Marion, Ill., and a newly constructed road from Pulley’s Mill across the Ohio River to Nashville, Tenn., and points south,” Gray said, accurately predicting the eventual route.

When I-57 opened in 1961, only the 20-year-old Motel Marion stood close to the interstate, luckily for them as a new Route 13 had opened along DeYoung St., on the north side of Marion a couple of years earlier. The four-lane portion of Route 13 only ran from Fair Street on the east side of Marion west to Illinois Route 148. From there it was just two lanes to Carbondale.

The Motel Marion added a new pool and completely rebuilt their rooms to compete for interstate travelers, bragging about Georgia cypress paneling, glass shower doors and lavanettes in the bathrooms. The sleeping rooms included walnut furniture, brown and tweed carpeting, television sets and colored telephones.

Marion Castellano broke ground on the first modern multi-story hotel on DeYoung St. in the summer of 1960. It opened eventually as the Travelodge in Nov. 1962. It later became the Family Inn and then the Heritage Inn before closing in the 1980s.
Rep. Gray’s brother Ralph Gray opened up the Marion Gray Plaza motel in the summer of 1963.

Ralph Gray and three Harrisburg businessmen developed the 101-room Ramada Inn on the east side of the interstate in Marion which opened in July 1967. The coffee shop had half barrels in the ceiling and became the city's first Cracker Barrel when it opened. Today the inn is operated as a Days Inn.

Carbondale Holiday Inn owner Stan Hoy announced plans for a new Marion hotel in 1968. The new Holiday Inn with then just 100 rooms opened in June 1969. It later became a Travelodge and finally an Executive Inn before closing in the last decade. A new Holiday Inn Express is currently under construction in the city up on The Hill.

Gov. Kerner came back to the region on Nov. 1, 1962, to open the next stretch of I-57 from Marion to Johnston City. The West Frankfort interchange opened the following year and by 1965, the interstate opened for traffic as far north as Mount Vernon.

One interesting tidbit about the original construction. when the state bought the land for Exit 30, the I-57 interchange with Illinois Route 146 east of Anna, a small park had to be relocated. Known as King Neptune Park, it was the final resting place of a 700-pound hog whose patriotic duty during World War II helped generate $19 million in sales of war bonds.

Eventually, his remains and a marker was placed along Route 146 a few miles east of the interchange. In recent years though a new marker has been placed at the Trail of Tears Welcome Center along the interstate just north of the interchange.

Dedications and ribbon cuttings continue 50 years after the interstate opened. State and local officials will open Marion’s newest ramp onto the interstate off of Morgan Avenue this Thursday.

New Comfort Inn underway in Marion

It's not been announced, no story in the paper, not even a building permit on file yet with the city, but there's a second new hotel coming to Marion, and this time it's a Comfort Inn.

The proof is in the mail, or at least on the outside of the mailbox at 2403 Black Diamond Drive, between Sao's Asian Bistro and Black Diamond Harley-Davidson's warehouse as seen in the background of the photo.

A number of people have known about this for sometime as it's been in the works now for four years. It was one of three new lodging establishments under development when I was at Williamson County Tourism, but after Country Inn & Suites opened and the recession hit, everyone went quiet for a while.

Now that we have a Holiday Inn Express under construction and currently up to its second floor, it's apparently time for the new Comfort Inn to make the big leap from simply being proposed, to actually becoming a reality.

From the way it looked Friday before the rain site prep must have just started this past week. No building permit was on file as of Thursday or so at City Hall, which isn't that much out of the ordinary. The big apartment complex underway on Russell Street south of St. Joseph's Catholic Church didn't have a permit either even though they've cut down the trees and are getting ready to lay waterlines this week.

The 2.36 acre lot for the hotel sold four years ago on Dec. 14, 2007, for $346,250, or $3.37 a square foot (down from the $8.45/sq.ft. asking price). It includes 286 feet of road frontage and runs 359 feet deep. On the east side a lake divides this property from the Fairfield Inn on top of The Hill.

The Comfort Inn brand is part of Choice Hotels International which franchises more than 6,100 hotels around the world. At the end of June they had 450 hotels under construction, awaiting conversion or approved for development in the United States. Other brands include Comfort Suites, Quality Inn and Econo Lodge which are already represented in Marion. The original Comfort Inn in Marion is now the Quality Inn.

Choice Hotels hold the second largest market share of all chains, behind only Wyndham.

Three Tickets Left for Fort Massac Autumn Feast

The Friends of Fort Massac have just three tickets left for their Autumn Feast fundraiser at the fort as of this morning.

Tickets, which are priced at $20 each, are expected to sell quickly. To purchase tickets or for more information, call Reba Reed at 618-645-1034, Sharon Burris at 618-524-9657 or Fort Massac State Park at 618-524-9321.

The fundraiser's looking good. The three tickets left are out of 185 originally offered.

The Autumn Feast will begin at 5 p.m. with period music by Heritage Band, a group from De Soto. The menu consists of fall foods that would have been available between the 18th and 19th centuries, and the costumes worn by members of Friends of Fort Massac will approximate that period, as well.

Numerous door prizes will be awarded, and guests will have the opportunity to bid on various silent auction items. There will be paintings by local artists, pottery by a local artisan, knives, jewelry, a hand-crocheted afghan and an original print entitled "Recruitment" by Michael Haynes.
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