Established in 1932, US Highway 301 was promoted as the fastest route to Florida for East Coasters looking for some fun in the sun. 301 still takes travelers to Florida, but the Interstate took most of the traffic away…which of course, suits me just fine.
US 301 today has a few traffic-filled towns, but the majority of the old highway is full of neon signs, abandoned buildings, mid-century roadside motels and small towns with local diners serving up tasty food. Think of it as East Coast’s “Route 66” but without a cool song and a TV show.
The first time I traveled 301 to Florida was in 1992. I rode my old Harley dresser down to see my parents. In South Carolina, just before the Georgia line, an elevated ghost section of 301 to the left caught my eye. Then my mind was blown.
This elevated, abandoned section of US 301 was supported by WOODEN trusses, and ended at an old abandoned bridge crossing the Savannah River at the Georgia state line.
Not any old abandoned bridge, but a TURNSTILE abandoned bridge! I had no idea there was such a thing. All the bridges I’d seen with water traffic were “up and down” drawbridges, enabling boats and barges to pass. This bridge didn’t go “up and down,” it ROTATED left and right!
Last year I fell down the Internet rabbit hole and learned the spot is known as the Burton’s Ferry Bridge. It carried travelers from 1938 until 1965, when a fixed bridge took its place. It’s been abandoned - and the turnstile open - ever since.
Most of the Georgia-side of the roadbed is gone, but a 1.5 mile elevated abandoned section on the South Carolina side is now a nature trail, ending with a view of the old turnstile section of the bridge, where the watchtower has been waiting for someone to look out it’s windows for 58 years.
Heading back to Florida from a trip north, Dad and I roamed the backroads of Georgia on the way south.
Just before the state line on US 17 in Kingsland Georgia we found another gem.
Steffens Restaurant sits on the southbound side of the old two lane highway and they’ve been there since 1948. It was originally a 24 hour business serving up gas and food to hungry vacationers heading to Florida until the arrival of Interstate 95.
The pump island is now flower pots, but Steffens Restaurant still serves up good food to the locals…and blue highway junkies like me.
With a transmission shop across the street, an old roadside motel next door, and a neon sign with a parking lot absolutely packed to the gills - we had to stop!
Steffens serves up breakfast, lunch & dinner daily. We chose breakfast. Oversized pancakes, full plates of eggs, homemade slices and slices of cake and pie and “Ms. Helen’s Famous Homemade Biscuits” - I know why Steffen’s is a restaurant that’s been in business three quarters of a century.
Next time you’re heading to Florida, get off the Interstate and head to Steffens. It’s a few miles - and a world away - from I-95.
Better yet, get off the Interstate and see America. It’s so much more than chain restaurants and exit signs.
Jesup Drive-In Theater, US Rt. 301, Jesup, GA
Traveling home along US Route 301 from Tybee Island, we came across the Jesup Drive-In, the oldest in Georgia.
Opened in 1948 as the Family Drive-In, the single screen theater closed for a short time in the late 1960’s. In 1970, the drive-in added a second screen and re-opened as the Jesup Twin Drive-In.
In 2012, the theater dropped its old carbon arc projectors, upgraded to digital, and was rechristened the Jesup Drive-In.
his place has several things that increase it’s coolness factor - first run films at $5 a head, a great multi color neon sign (photo borrowed from Facebook), it’s Georgia’s oldest drive-in, Georgia’s only year-round drive-in, and maybe best of all - retro attired car hops that bring your food to your car.
Just across the Georgia State Line from South Carolina on US Route 301 sits an obscure piece of history.
But first, a bit about US 301.
During it’s mid-century heyday, US 301 was promoted to travelers as “The Shortest Route from Maine to Florida.” Warner Brothers capitalized on the road as a background for their crime movie “Highway 301.” Even “I Love Lucy” had an episode that mentioned US 301. The 12/1955 issue of Man’s Conquest reported 301 thru Charles County Maryland was a “wide open sin strip.” (I’m still looking for that issue…)
Interstate 95 replaced 301 as the main drag to Florida for travelers in the early 1970’s. US 301 became a “local road,” and states relocated their welcome centers along 95.
But not Georgia.
In the town of Sylvania on US 301, the Georgia Visitor Center has been greeting travelers with a smile (and a Coke product of your choice) for the past 60 years.
It’s now the longest continuously operated state welcome center in the USA. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
Located on 3 1/2 acres, sporting it’s untouched mid-century architecture, walking trails and too rarely used picnic tables, the Georgia Visitor Center is worth a stop.