It is one of the most famous roads in America and is widely known by several names. Each captures Route 66 in a different light, demonstrating it means different things to different Americans. Some call it the Mother Road. Other refers to it as the Main Street of America. No matter what you call it, U.S. Route 66 is a symbol of the inventive and adventurous nature that makes up the American spirit.
Its history is made from a series of experiments. The route predates today’s widely used Interstates. It was built before the adoption of a national highways system (making it one of the first highways in the United States). And in fact, parts of U.S. Route 66 were originally government engineered wagon trails dating back to the 1850s that ran along the 35 parallel.
Roads were scarce at that time since the preferred means of travel were trains or boats. Highways and bridges were expensive and most of the funding came from local government. The idea of creating a broad reaching, complex infrastructure had only just begun to be thought of.
The final (original) version of Route 66 was made from a tapestry of local and state roads. It was not planned like an Interstate as a fluid elongated single entity.
At the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution created a new class of wealth for whom the personal automobile became affordable. In 1913, Americans owned 1.2 million cars. A little more than a decade later in 1925 they owed almost 20 times as many. The demand for roads boomed. At its onset, Route 66 was designed to connect small towns throughout the United States with access to major cities. The Dust Bowl demonstrated Route 66 was potentially bigger than originally realized and by 1932, a hugely successful advertising campaign resulted in Americans using Route 66 to transport themselves to Los Angeles for the Summer Olympics.
From L.A. to Chicago (1926 - 1940’s)
Advertising slogan for Route 66 claimed it to be the fastest and most scenic route connecting Chicago-Saint Louis-Los Angeles. Route 66 spanned from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California covering some 2,448 miles between the two cities. The road’s popularity has been consistent since the onset of its conception in 1926 when it was constructed just in time to support a massive American migration no one saw coming.During the Dirty Thirties the Dust Bowl erupted unleashing a severe and long lasting drought that swallowed a huge expanse of the United States. Countless farms found their livelihoods in ruin.
With few options, they packed what they could and headed west. Many of them used the new route.
This marked the first time a flock of travelers would take advantage of Route 66. The road was inviting to those making the journey. It was complete with mile markers and by 1927 it even had road signs.
The focused use of Route 66 created a demand for businesses in parts of America where commerce was nearly impossible to sustain. Motels, gas stations, cafes and other businesses boomed in small towns through which the route passed, helping shape the identities of these small towns. Prior to this, when cars first crossed the United States, drivers would camp by the roadside on their own or to stay in tourist camps.
When the Dust Bowl migration boom began to fade, the desire to lure other Americans to the open highway began. In 1932 an advertising campaign was launched for the Summer Olympics. Its purpose was to inspire Americans to travel Route 66 in search of entertainment rather than resettlement. The success of the campaign demonstrated an American willingness to travel long distances by car. Part of Route 66’s success was due to the ease of use. The highway passed primarily through flat terrain. Trucks found this particularly useful and in 1938 Route 66 was paved entirely which helped further increase its ease of use.
Before long though, the tourism boom was interrupted and came to an abrupt halt in the early 1940’s with the start of World War II. Without missing a beat, another migration using Route 66 got underway. At the outbreak of World War II California found itself at the epicenter of war-industry. Americans in need of jobs took to the highway along with servicemen. Government imposed rations to help the war effort further interrupted travel for tourism along Route 66 during World War II.
At the war’s end, a surge of tourists eager to use the road created another round of prosperity. Route 66 exploded with new possibilities including drive in theatres, perhaps the most renowned of them in Carthage, Missouri, aptly called, 66 Drive-In.
From 1945 throughout the 1950’s motels, cafes, souvenir shops sprang up along the route with the hope they might thrive for years to come.
The Big Five: 1950’s - 1960’s
In 1956, five new interstates were slated for construction. During the World War II, President Eisenhower noted, the German autobahn enabled the German military to move with a swift efficiency over great distances. The military advantages of fast-paced, uninterrupted road systems were impressive and it was concluded that erecting a similar “bahn” system in the United States would offer economic proficiency and would serve as a necessary defense.
Death of an Era: 1984
By 1984, the U.S. Interstate system introduced by President Eisenhower was a fully realized reality. As a result, the last section Route 66 was bypassed and an era of American history had ended. The highway was officially decommissioned the following year. Overshadowed by the impressive Interstate state system, Route 66 could no longer compete with much faster and more efficient mode of travel.
Although the Route could not boast of its speed, it could still arguably offer a more scenic view of the United States than any Interstate imaginable. The decommissioning did not go unnoticed. In 1990, Congress passed the Route 66 Study Act. The law recognizes Route 66 as an integral part of American heritage. Since its passage, preservation and restoration of the highway has led to an increase it its use.
To travel Route 66 today is like traveling through time. One is reconnected to American cultural roots. A popular attraction that celebrates Route 66 is the interactive art installation known as Cadillac Ranch. Visiting there, one is exposed to the extensive outstretched lands making up so much of what is Texas along with the “ranch” of Cadillac cars perched on the grounds for history seekers to graffiti, if they so desire.
Amarillo, Texas can also offer up original Route 66 sites. For history seekers, it is worth the time to travel the 13 blocks that make up Amarillo’s Route 66- Sixth Street District to be captivated by neon signs and art deco style architecture decorating Route 66 since shortly after its birth. Taylor’s Texaco Station (1937), the homes of Hubbell Duplex (1925), the Dutch Mill Service Station and Café (1932) and many more structures have been restored to enhance a visitor's experience.
State by state
The Industrial Revolution saw the construction of a lot of iron bridges. None of them are quiet like Chain of Rocks Bridge in Illinois. There is a 30 degree turn in the bridge’s midsection -- as if that were not enough, the counterintuitive bend comes while one is half way across the Mississippi River. The bridge is (literally) steeped in history. When it was slated to open on New Year’s Day in 1929, the Mississippi River flooded. Ice chunks and high water caused delays.
Not far away in Litchfield, Illinois, is the restored Belvedere Café, Motel, and Gas Station showcases one of the early mom and pop businesses that thrived along Route 66’s. It started as only a one room pump station built by the European immigrants who bought it in 1929. They slowly expanded by 1936 the gas station also sported roadside motel with four rooms and a cafe.
Similar to Cadillac Ranch, Route 66 in has drawn inspiration from all eras who have used it. Missouri is no different. The World’s Largest Rocking Chair is a roadside attraction directly off the side of Route 66 in Cuba, MO where one’s trip would not be made complete without also seeing the Wagon Wheel Motel, Cafe and Station (1936) recognizable by its neon sign and is fully restored.
Route 66 is critical to the history of the state of Oklahoma. As the combination of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression set the course of the massive migration west, the highway offered Oklahomans a way out. Traveling Route 66 today through the Sooner State, one will discover preserved service stations in the towns of Miami and Tulsa.
The town of Miami is also home to the Coleman Theatre (1929) where tired travelers frequently stopped for the night of rest and entertainment in style at the “most elaborate entertainment facility between Dallas and Kansas City.” Inside the elegant Spanish Revival architecture, the theatre used to show talkies, vaudeville, live music from a ten-person orchestra, and a vintage pipe organ called the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” Today, one can experience a piece of this history by reserve a room for the night and still see the Wurlitzer in all its glory.
In the 1940’s Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to a stunning 26 movie theaters. Of those remaining is the Circle Theatre (1928) which is restored and still operational. A popular albeit unexpected roadside attraction in Tulsa is the Blue Whale of Catoosa (1970) where one can stop for a picnic before heading to the 11th Street Arkansas River Bridge (1916-1917) that served as a critical juncture when the Oklahoma oil boom was underway at the turn of the century.
Nearby Amarillo, is the Palo Duro Canyon State Park where the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe spent a good part of her time while not teaching at West Texas Normal College compiling an array of inspiration from the earth’s tonality and exquisite rock formations claimed by this surprisingly stunning canyon. While not directly on Route 66, the State Park keeps the highway’s promise to offer one of the most scenic roads in America making it well worth a visit.
If seeking a unique food experience head to The Big Texan. It is a popular Route 66 feature that prospered since opening in the early 1960’s before it was eventually helicoptered to a new location near Interstate 40 -- the owner was certain the new Interstate would impact U.S. travel along Route 66.
Keeping with that theme, Route 66 to New Mexico takes one past The Blue Hole (Santa Rosa). It is an artesian well spectacular place for diving that is great for adventure seekers looking for alternative attractions to motels and cafes. Along Route 66, New Mexico is also home to Park Lake Historic District Santa Rosa, where travelers during the Great Depression frequently stopped to rest next to the natural springs, swimming pier, picnic promenade all of which were fostered by the Federal Relief Emergency Administration project which was set up there to aid those in need from 1934 - 1940 due to the Dust Bowl disaster. Another option is Red Rock State Park. Located off a scenic byway, it is well worth the drive.
Albuquerque is home to a slew of preserved Route 66 iconic hotels. There are 44 that still remain. Two of the most popular are the adobe Tewa Motor Lodge (1945) which is widely renowned for its neon sign. Luna Lodge (1949) celebrated for its Pueblo Spanish Revival Architectural style.
Maisel's Indian Trading Post (1939) was so popular during its heyday, it employee over 300 artisan crafts men. One can still buy souvenirs from the post as a remembrance of time spent there.
Running along the 35th parallel, parts of Route 66 through the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona one can be sure they are tracing original tracks of Route 66 dated back to the 1880’s government made wagon trails. The area is surrounded by a parade of artifacts that can be explored. There are ancient Pueblo Indian dwellings, homesteads, fossils, and expansive landscapes.
Nearby the forest are one of the seven giant teepees that made up Wigwam Motels or Wigwam Villages -- a motel design thought up in 1935. They were found in the states of Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, as well as Arizona and California, which is from where they earned their association with Route 66. Those in Rialto/San Bernardino, California and Holbrook, Arizona emerged in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. They were a great success until the bypassing of Route 66 (due to Interstate 40) when the Holbrook, Arizona Wigwam village closed. (It has of course since been reopened).