Known by many nicknames, including the “Mother Road,” “Main Street of America,” and “The Great American Highway,” Route 66 was one of the first cross-country roads in the United States, as well as one of the most influential.
Where is the Historic Route 66?
The original Route 66 traveled from Chicago, Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, ending in Los Angeles, California.
The route was constructed in large part along the old Beale Wagon Road, which travelers used to get through New Mexico and Arizona to California during the Gold Rush and westward expansion.
Why was Route 66 constructed?
With the rise of the automobile after Henry Ford’s innovations with the Ford Model-T starting in 1908, cars became a common modern convenience. They allowed freedom and mobility of Americans, but only so far as the roads would allow. The idea for public highways began circulating. Throughout the ’20s, the automobile shaped American culture, shrinking the country and allowing for more movement. Though the railroad was able to transport passengers, the railroad proved limited, mainly restricted to flat places.
Cyrus Avery, a businessman from Tulsa, Oklahoma pushed for the creation of a road linking Chicago to Los Angeles, two major centers of commerce. In the early 1920s, government legislation of public roads began, with a plan for a national highway system, and the route from Chicago to California was designated on November 11, 1926. The route connected small towns to big cities, giving rural areas increased access. Only a small portion of the route was paved. Avery pushed for the entire road to be paved, and it became the first completely paved highway in 1938.
When did Route 66 gain popularity?
The U.S. Highway Association, whose first president was John Woodruff in 1927, along with Cyrus Avery worked to promote Route 66. One of their most successful publicity campaigns was the Bunion Derby, which was a cross-country race between New York City and Los Angeles – the longest race in history. Will Rogers and other celebrities cheered the runners on along the way. Route 66 is now known as the Will Rogers Highway for this reason.
The popularity of Route 66 improved the economy of the small towns along its route during the Great Depression, leading to the rise of mom-and-pop businesses, gas stations, and restaurants. Motels sprang up along the route, as convenient stops for motorists – the word “motel” is derived from the combination of “hotel” and “motorist.”
During the 1950s, roadside attractions began popping up along the route, like Native American curio shops, teepee motels, reptile farms, and themed restaurants. These attractions encouraged travel on Route 66, making it an entertaining family road, creating the concept of the roadtrip.
What was the fate of Route 66?
Over the entire of existence for Route 66, its path continued to change and evolve. Many sections of the road were notoriously dangerous for motorists. Some were even referred to as “Bloody 66.” Over the years, Route 66 was straightened to remove these dangerous curves.
Parts of Route 66 were rerouted as part of this straightening process, which resulted in some cities being bypassed, and a shorter drive for travelers along the route. In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act was signed by President Eisenhower, which created a new system of expressways across the country. Route 66 was moved around, repaved, and ultimately decommissioned.
Route 66 was divided up and made into several different Interstates in the new system:
Interstate 55 – From Chicago, Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri
Interstate 44 – From St. Louis to Oklahoma City
Interstate 40 – From Oklahoma City to Barstow, California (the longest stretch of former Route 66)
Interstate 15 – From Barstow, California to San Bernadino, California
Interstate 210/10 & State Route 2 – From San Bernadino, California to Santa Monica, California
Many of the original windy roads of Route 66 became “Business loops,” and some are now just local roads.
What were the effects of Route 66?
Not only did Route 66 help Americans travel across the United States, it also shaped the American culture of the 20th century. Route 66 gave birth to the first ever fast-food restaurants and drive-ins, including the first McDonald’s in Barstow, California, American car culture, service stations, the Great American Roadtrip, motels, and more. These aspects of Route 66 became emblematic of Americana.
For the small towns along its roads, Route 66 brought business and purpose. Boom towns sprung up, and once the road was rerouted and decommissioned, many of these towns were abandoned, becoming ghost towns.
A revitalization of Route 66 and its small towns began with Route 66 Associations, which began forming in 1987 to preserve the history of the route. These Associations began putting up “Historic Route 66” signs along the way. In 1999, the National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed in an effort to protect this piece of American history. Route 66 saw a surge in traffic after Pixar’s 2006 movie, Cars, which takes place along Route 66.
Wigwam motel in Holbrook, Arizona, and San Bernadino, California: Sleep in one of the few remaining teepee motels.
Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area, Arizona: One of the largest collections of petrified wood in the world.
Painted Desert, Arizona: Multi-colored rock formations that allow visitors to see the many layers and types of rock.
Meteor Crater, Arizona: The site of a meteor crash that happened over 50,000 years ago.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post, Arizona: An original trading post from Route 66′s heyday, Jack Rabbit is now a convenience store and Native American curio shop, famous for the many billboards advertising the shop.
The Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas: Heavily advertised roadside attraction and restaurant that offers a free 72 oz steak to anyone who can finish it in under an hour.
Leaning Water Tower of Groom, Texas: America’s own leaning tower.
Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas: An interactive art exhibit consisting of 10 Cadillacs from the 1950s and 1960s, buried nose-down in the ground. Travelers stop by the open field and add their own graffiti to the classic cars.
Chain of Rocks Bridge, over the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri: This pedestrian and bike bridge has a 22 degree bend.