In the early 20th century, as automobiles became more and more popular, the need for a national system of roads in the United States became more evident.
One of the suggested roads connected the city of Chicago, Illinois, on the Great Lakes, with the city of Los Angeles, California, on the Pacific Ocean.
In 1926 the route was established, following paths and trails which had been used for centuries, and quickly found itself as a central object of popular culture.
Learn more about Route 66, its history, and its legacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Prior to the development of the automobile, there was no nationwide system of roads in the United States. Roads were usually local affairs, usually just designed to connect point A to point B.
Anything major which needed to be transported between cities was done by water or by locomotive.
Any roads that did exist were traversed slowly by horses or on foot.
The automobile changed everything. Now almost anyone could go anywhere relatively quickly. Goods could be transported on trucks that didn’t require large trains.
The explosion in automobiles required roads they could drive on. In 1916 the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, which was the first federal highway legislation in American history. A year later, every US state had a highway agency that could receive federal funds.
Wisconsin became the first state to number their highways in 1918, and Missouri soon followed
The first vestiges of a national highway plan were in the 1916 bill, but little was done until another bill with more funding was passed in 1925.
After the 1925 bill passed Congress, the Joint Board of Interstate Highways was established to create a national highway system, complete with a highway numbing plan.
The Joint Board of Interstate Highways made several important decisions that we still live with today. One was to number federal highways, similar to what Wisconsin and Missouri did. The alternative was to give each highway a separate name, which had informally been the norm in most places.
The board agreed that east-west routes would be even numbered and north-south routes would be odd numbered.
One of the members of this board was a man by the name of Cyrus Avery from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Avery was an advocate for good roads in general, and on the board, he was a strong proponent of a route that connected Chicago with Los Angeles, which he believed would be one of the most important routes in the country.
After much debate, it was decided by most of the states impacted that the Chicago to Los Angeles road would be Route 60.
However, the delegation from Kentucky was adamantly against giving it the number 60. In fact, they were really against giving this road the 60 designation because Kentucky would be the only state without a highway ending in “0”, and they even threatened to walk out and not take part in the Federal Highway System.
Kentucky eventually compromised by agreeing to the Chicago-LA route being named 62, in exchange for the road which connected to it from Kentucky being numbered 60. Avery didn’t like 62 and then chose 66, which everyone could agree on.
In 1926, Congress approved the plan by the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, and Route 66 was born….along with every other federal highway in the country.
The route, as established, was 2,448 miles or 3,940 kilometers long. The eastern most terminus of the road was initially in Cicero, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, but a year later it was moved to Grant Park in Chicago, which is on the shore of Lake Michigan. If you have ever seen the TV sitcom Married With Children, the fountain in the opening of the show is Grant Park.
Today, the historic start of Route 66 sign is on the corner of Adams and Michigan Avenue.
The westernmost terminus of the road was located at the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards in Santa Monica, California.
In between these points, the route went through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
The major cities along the route, outside of the terminal points, included St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona.
The original road was mostly unpaved when it was first created. The road wasn’t fully paved until 1937.
The location of each segment of Route 66 was based on previously existing trails and roads, some of which had existed for centuries.
The section of the road from Rolla to Springfield, Missouri is actually part of the Trail of Tears that the Cherokee Nation walked during their forced relocation in 1838. Several other sections of the road corresponded to natural gaps and routes that native people had used for thousands of years.
Soon after the route was established, Cyrus Avery was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association. He was elected vice-president and John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri was elected president.
The association was a collection of business owners along the highway. They soon began promoting the route as a destination all its own in national magazines, billboards, and in brochures.
The association dubbed Route 66 as the “Main Street of America” and pushed for the paving of the entire road.
Route 66 was never a static route. Throughout the 1930, and for decades later, the road would make occasional changes around cities and across different bridges as cities expanded and roads changed.
Route 66 took on a new significance during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Farmers who lost thier land in states like Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, traveled on Route 66 to find agricultural jobs in California.
The migrants from Oklahoma who moved to California along this route became known as Okies.
The increase in traffic along the road during this period helped many of the small businesses along the way, including diners, gas stations and motels.
The story of Oklahoma migrants during the Depression was captured by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath. In it, he dubbed Route 66 “The Mother Road.”
As Steinbeck wrote,
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
Route 66 was not inviting to everyone. Despite most of the road not traveling through states considered to be in the ‘south’, most of the towns along the road had restrictions on black tourists. Alberquerque, New Mexico had over 100 motels, but less than six percent allowed black customers.
The same was found in many communities from Illinois to California. These restrictions on black travelers along Route 66, and all over the United States, led to the creation of what became known as The Green Book. The Green Book was a guide for African American travlers to let them know what businesses would accommodate them, and will be the subject of a future episode.
The Second World War saw a decrease in the use of the road, and of domestic travel generally, in the United States. Road trips were discouraged due to wartime restrictions on gasoline and rubber.
After the war, Route 66 achieved the thing for which most people probably know it today, the song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Nat King Cole.
The song was written by a former marine named Bobby Troup, who wrote the song while traveling from Pennsylvania to California, where he was going to become a songwriter.
When he arrived in California, he met Nat King Cole, who recorded the song in 1946 with the Nat King Cole Trio. The song was later recorded by many different artists, including Bing Crosby and the Rolling Stones.
The post-war boom in travel marked the high point for Route 66 as more Americans had cars as well as the time and money to travel.
However, the 1950s also saw the beginning of the thing which would result in the demise of Route 66: the Interstate Highway System.
Route 66 was mostly a two-lane road for its entire length. While it was a road that cars could drive on, its initial objective when it was created in 1926, it no longer met the needs of modern America. The interstate highway system was designed to be a system of four-lane, controlled access highways to allow for high-speed travel throughout the country.
On top of the interstate system, most state highways were being built that offered more direct routes between cities.
Some interstate highways were built alongside parts of Route 66, and some replaced parts of the route. Many small communities were completely bypassed by the interstate, resulting in their decline as motorists weren’t stopping there anymore.
Slowly but surely, the interstate system and other highways began chipping away at what was officially Route 66.
In 1964, the western terminus changed from Santa Monica to Pasadena. In 1972, it moved all the way across the state to Needles, California, on the border of Arizona.
In 1974, the entire stretch across most of Illinois and Missouri was decdertified, and in 1979, everything across Arizona was decertified.
Attempts were made to try and create an Interstate 66 that went at least part of the route so businesses could keep their branding, but that was rejected.
Finally, in 1985, after the writing had been on the wall for almost 20 years, Route 66 officially ceased to exist and it was taken off the list of federal highways.
Soon after the decertification of Route 66, a revival began. The interstate highway system was efficient, but it lacked a soul. Every exit was the same, with the same restaurants, truck stops, and chain hotels.
States renamed parts of the original Route 66 as state highways, usually with some sort of 66 numbers. State highways 266, 366, and 66 in Missouri follow the old Route 66 route.
Likewise, state highway 66 in Oklahoma and State Route 66 in Arizona follow most of the old roads.
Today, you can sort of drive Route 66 by following some segments of the road that still exist and other segments that replaced the road.
Many historic gas stations and other buildings from the original Route 66 boom have been renovated as driving the historic route has now become a tourist attraction in its own right.
Perhaps the town that most embodies the old Route 66 is Siegelman, Arizona. Despite a population of only 446 people, much of the entire town plays off Route 66 nostalgia. It was, very loosely, the basis of the town of Radiator Springs in the animated film Cars.
There have been other notable highways in America, such as Highway 61, which went from the Ontario-Minnesota border to New Orleans, and Highway 41, which went from Northern Michigan to Miami, but none of them managed to capture the popular imagination like Route 66 did.
If you were to ask many people around the world to name an American highway, most would probably say Route 66, even though the road no longer officially exists.