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History of Route 66

The Beginning

Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not realized until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development.

While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction.

Officially, the numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came its acknowledgment as one of the nation’s principal east-west arteries.

From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.

The Formative Years

Route 66 was a highway spawned by the demands of a rapidly changing America. Contrasted with the Lincoln, the Dixie, and other highways of its day, route 66 did not follow a traditionally linear course. Its diagonal course linked hundreds of predominantly rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Chicago; thus enabling farmers to transport grain and produce for redistribution. The diagonal configuration of Route 66 was particularly significant to the trucking industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroad for preeminence in the American shipping industry. The abbreviated route between Chicago and the Pacific coast traversed essentially flat prairie lands and enjoyed a more temperate climate than northern highways, which made it especially appealing to truckers.

The Depression Years and the War

In his famous social commentary, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck proclaimed U. S. Highway 66 the “Mother Road.” Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel, combined with the 1940 film recreation of the epic odyssey, served to immortalize Route 66 in the American consciousness. An estimated 210,000 people migrated to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. Certainly in the minds of those who endured that particularly painful experience, and in the view of generations of children to whom they recounted their story, Route 66 symbolized the “road to opportunity.”

From 1933 to 1938 thousands of unemployed male youths from virtually every state were put to work as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of the road. As a result of this monumental effort, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway was reported as “continuously paved” in 1938.

Completion of this all-weather capability on the eve of World War II was particularly significant to the nation’s war effort. The experience of a young Army captain, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who found his command bogged down in spring mud near Ft. Riley, Kansas, while on a coast-to-coast maneuver, left an indelible impression. The War Department needed improved highways for rapid mobilization during wartime and to promote national defense during peacetime. At the outset of American involvement in World War II, the War Department singled out the West as ideal for military training bases in part because of its geographic isolation and especially because it offered consistently dry weather for air and field maneuvers.

Route 66 helped to facilitate the single greatest wartime manpower mobilization in the history of the nation. Between 1941 and 1945 the government invested approximately $70 billion in capital projects throughout California, a large portion of which were in the Los Angeles-San Diego area. This enormous capital outlay served to underwrite entirely new industries that created thousands of civilian jobs.

The Postwar Years

A fter the war, Americans were more mobile than ever before. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen who received military training in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas abandoned the harsh winters of Chicago, New York City, and Boston for the “barbecue culture” of the Southwest and the West. Again, for many, Route 66 facilitated their relocation.

One such emigrant was Robert William Troup, Jr., of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Bobby Troup, former pianist with the Tommy Dorsey band and ex-Marine captain, penned a lyrical road map of the now famous cross-country road in which the words, “get your kicks on Route 66″ became a catch phrase for countless motorists who moved back and forth between Chicago and the Pacific Coast. The popular recording was released in 1946 by Nat King Cole one week after Troup’s arrival in Los Angeles.

Store owners, motel managers, and gas station attendants recognized early on that even the poorest travelers required food, automobile maintenance, and adequate lodging. Just as New Deal work relief programs provided employment with the construction and the maintenance of Route 66, the appearance of countless tourist courts, garages, and diners promised sustained economic growth after the road’s completion. If military use of the highway during wartime ensured the early success of roadside businesses, the demands of the new tourism industry in the postwar decades gave rise to modern facilities that guaranteed long-term prosperity.

Roadside Architecture

The evolution of tourist-targeted facilities is well represented in the roadside architecture along U. S. Highway 66. For example, most Americans who drove the route did not stay in hotels. They preferred the accommodations that emerged from automobile travel – motels. Motels evolved from earlier features of the American roadside such as the auto camp and the tourist home. The auto camp developed as townspeople along Route 66 roped off spaces in which travelers could camp for the night. Camp supervisors – some of whom were employed by the various states – provided water, fuel wood, privies or flush toilets, showers, and laundry facilities free of charge.

The national outgrowth of the auto camp and tourist home was the cabin camp (sometimes called cottages) that offered minimal comfort at affordable prices. Many of these cottages are still in operation. Eventually, auto camps and cabin camps gave way to motor courts in which all of the rooms were under a single roof. Motor courts offered additional amenities, such as adjoining restaurants, souvenir shops, and swimming pools. Among the more famous still associated with Route 66 are the El Vado and Zia Motor Lodge in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In the early years of Route 66, service station prototypes were developed regionally through experimentation, and then were adopted universally across the country. Buildings were distinctive as gas stations, yet clearly associated with a particular petroleum company. Most evolved from the simplest “filling station” concept – a house with one or two service pumps in front – and then became more elaborate, with service bays and tire outlets. Among the most outstanding examples of the evolution of gas stations along Route 66 are Soulsby’s Shell station in Mount Olive, Illinois; Bob Audettes’ gas station complex in Barton, New Mexico; and the Tower Fina Station in Shamrock, Texas.

Route 66 and many points of interest along the way were familiar landmarks by the time a new generation of postwar motorists hit the road in the 1960′s. It was during this period that the television series, “Route 66″, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis drove into the living rooms of America every Friday. By today’s standards, the show is rather unbelievable but in the 1960′s, it brought Americans back to the route looking for new adventure.

Excessive truck use during World War II and the comeback of the automobile industry immediately following the war brought great pressure to bear on America’s highways. The national highway system had deteriorated to an appalling condition. Virtually all roads were functionally obsolete and dangerous because of narrow pavements and antiquated structural features that reduced carrying capacity.

Ironically, the public lobby for rapid mobility and improved highways that gained Route 66 its enormous popularity in earlier decades also signaled its demise beginning in the mid-1950′s. Mass federal sponsorship for an interstate system of divided highways markedly increased with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term in the ‘White House. General Eisenhower had returned from Germany very impressed by the strategic value of Hitler’s Autobahn. “During World War II,” he recalled later, “I saw the superlative system of German national highways crossing that country and offering the possibility, often lacking in the United States, to drive with speed and safety at the same time.”

The congressional response to the president’s commitment was the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided a comprehensive financial umbrella to uderwrite the cost of the national interstate and defense highway system.

By 1970, nearly all segments of original Route 66 were bypassed by a modern four-lane highway.

In many respects, the physical remains of Route 66 mirror the evolution of highway development in the United States from a rudimentary hodge-podge of state and country roads to a federally subsidized complex of uniform, well-designed interstate expressways. Various alignments of the legendary road, many of which are still detectable, illustrate the evolution of road engineering from coexistence with the surrounding landscape to domination of it.

Route 66 symbolized the renewed spirit of optimism that pervaded the country after economic catastrophe and global war. Often called, “The Main Street of America”, it linked a remote and under-populated region with two vital 20th century cities – Chicago and Los Angeles.

The outdated, poorly maintained vestiges of U.S. Highway 66 completely succumbed to the interstate system in October 1984 when the final section of the original road was bypassed by Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona.

Now that the highway has celebrated its 75th birthday, its contribution to the nation must be evaluated in the broader context of American social and cultural history. The appearance of U.S. Highway 66 on the American scene coincided with unparalleled economic strife and global instability, yet it hastened the most comprehensive westward movement and economic growth in United States history. Like the early, long-gone trails of the nineteenth century, Route 66 helped to spirit a second and perhaps more permanent mass relocation of Americans. We only hope it does not meet the fate of these once-famous arteries.

Help us save this invaluable piece of Americana before it is only a memory.