Route 66: its history
The "Mother Road" was born from the need of a nation to move about, for trade, work and leisure. It was initially a hodgepodge of different roads, linked together by an incipient Federal highway system. From such humble origins it became an icon of America and Americana.
Here we tell its story and give its historic context.
> > Learn about all the Historic Sites on Route 66
Brick Paved Route 66 in Illinois
The Ancient Roots of Route 66
The history of Route 66 began long before there were cars, shortly after the U.S. incorporated the southwestern territories it had won from Mexico after the 1846 -1848 War.
The fastest transport in the nineteenth century was the train; the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 across the northern part of America. A southern link was completed in 1883 (New Orleans to Los Angeles).
It would take another 50 years for the car to compete effectively against the trains.
In 1853, the U.S. Congress commissioned Amiel Weeks Whipple (1817 - 1863), a Captain of the Army Topographical Corps, to survey a proposed transcontinental railroad. The outcome was a network of wagon trails into the Far West. Four years later, Congress instructed Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale to mark a route between New Mexico and California. His expedition charted a route which would be used by thousands of migrants on their way to California. And was the basis for the roads which would later cross the region, like Route 66.
He reached the Pacific Coast in California and later he linked New Mexico with Fort Smith in Arkansas.
Cars transformed the nation and the world. It simplified the way people could move about: turning the key in the ignition was much easier than saddling a horse...
It modified family life, jobs, horizons: people could travel further, quicker and in a flexible manner. It was more adaptable than taking a train.
It even modified urban landscapes: blacksmith shops were replaced by garages and gas stations. Hotels by motels and restaurants by drive-ins.
It spanned all walks of life: anyone could own a car.
Although automobiles had been around since the late 1800s, they began to become more popular towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.
The automobile experienced a boom in the early 1920s passing from 180,000 registered vehicles in 1910 to 17 million in 1920. And the increase in cars led to a growing demand for better roads and a coherent network of highways.
National Old Trails
The National Old Trails Movement (N.O.T.) realized that a transcontinental route linking the East and West coasts was necessary. They lobbied actively demanding a hands-on approach by the Federal government via subsidies for building a paved highway across America. The original 1912 plan aimed at linking San Diego on the Pacific with Washington, DC and Baltimore on the Atlantic.
The odd name of the Association: "National Old Trails" referred to the corridors proposed by the activists: they would retrace the historic trails of the pioneers that settled the West.
The route would link Washington with St. Louis via the "Cumberland Road" and from there to Albuquerque along the "Santa Fe Trail", and then across Arizona and California to San Diego.
The Santa Fe Loop of Route 66 from Albuquerque to Romeroville was aligned along the "National Old Trails", and to the west, from Albuquerque all the way to Los Angeles the road more or less follows the N.O.T highway.
The obelisk at Romeroville, an Ozark Trail marker now gone. ca. 1920. Credits
The Ozark Trail Association was the creation of William Hope "Coin" Harvey (1851-1936). He was an entrepreneur a teacher and a very active promoter of travel and tourism. He foresaw the importance of the automobile in America and created the Ozark Trail in 1913 to promote good roads, road signs and maps to make it easier to drive cars across America.
The Ozark Trail soon grew to span Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and eastern New Mexico. When Route 66 was created, it was aligned along the Ozark Trail from NM to MO.
As there were no Federal highways at that time, monuments shaped like pyramids or obelisks were erected at key locations and the mileage to major cities were painted on the markers.
One can still be seen in Oklahoma (Between Stroud and Davenport).
There was another at Romeroville the western terminus of the Ozark Trail, where it met the N.O.T.
It was a 50 foot obelisk that was located at the junction of the Santa Fe Trail and the Ozark Trail. That is, modern US 85 which was the Santa Fe Trail from Santa Fe to Las Vegas, and current US 84, which linked Las Vegas to Santa Rosa NM, and would later become the 1926 - 1937 alignment of Route 66.
Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921
The first legislation was passed in 1916, the "Federal Aid Road Act", which was the beginning of federal government assistance for state highway costs. It was meant to improve any rural road over which the U.S. mail was carried. It obliged the states to have highway departments to design, build and upkeep the roads.
The Federal Highway Act of 1921 set up a multiyear plan of federal funding for the program. It began a federal-state partnership which has endured to this day. Congress passed this Act to create a National highway system funded by the Federal government. It was to be an interstate network linking the country.
Before this Act, the country had about 2.5 million miles of roads of which 10.5% were surfaced but only 1.29% were paved (with bricks, concrete or bituminous materials).
The Lincoln Highway predated this legislation; it was authorized in 1912, and it linked New York with San Francisco. But it had not been conceived within the coherent network laid down by the 1921 Act.
As the automobile became more popular, the masses took to the roads, and what was once an adventure for the wealthy (and the brave), became commonplace. Americans could now roam across America, free and unchallenged.
Route 66 is Born, but as Route 60
Cyrus Avery, Father of Route 66 FHWA
As designated by the 1925 Act, specific trails and state highways were included in the new National Highway System. These had to be numbered in a rational manner. A Committee (the Joint Board) was organized for the task, and Cyrus Avery, an entrepreneur from Tulsa, Oklahoma who had promoted the interstate corridors was a member.
- North to South roads would be assigned odd numbers, starting with 1 on the East coast and ending with 91 in the West.
- East to West roads would be even, starting with 2 (along the Canadian border) and ending with 90 in the south.
- The main transcontinental routes would be multiples of 10.
The Associated Highways Association of America (AASHO) adopted the Committee's proposal which incorporated 75,000 miles of pre-existing roads into the National Highway system.
Current U.S. 60
So in 1926, a truncated U.S. 60 began in Newport News, Virginia, crossed West Virginia, Kentucky and the Mississippi at Cairo, ending at its crossing with U.S. 66 in Missouri near Springfield. This alignment followed the historical National Roosevelt Midland Trail.
Eventually it would continue across Oklahoma, and Texas, crossing Route 66 again, in Amarillo, and reaching Los Angeles running along what is now the alignment of I-10. Its current western terminus is in Quartzsite, AZ.
Route 66 was almost named Route 60
The highway that initially received number 60 however was quite peculiar: it was not a transcontinental road. Instead it began in Chicago and swung in a wide arch all the way to Los Angeles.
Its course from Tulsa to the West Coast roughly followed the 35th parallel route scouted by Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale in 1857.
This was no coincidence, it was the workings of three members of the Committee: Cyrus Avery from Oklahoma, Sheets from Illinois and Peipmeier from Missouri. They laid down a road linking the small farming towns of their states with the main markets at each end of the highway. A commercial highway, for trade and also for local farmers and small stores along the Main Streets of those towns.
To correct the distortion in the numbering system caused by the highways starting point in Chicago, the route was renamed as U.S. 66.
Cyrus Avery is known as "The Father of Route 66"
The First Years
"Like the pioneer days, when they outfitted at St. Louis for all points in the West and Southwest, so today people traveling by auto find themselves coming to St. Louis over the various U.S. roads, and when arriving in St. Louis, by consulting their map, find U.S. 66 is the most direct road to the Pacific coast and likewise to all points in the great Southwest.
I challenge anyone to show a road of equal length that traverses more scenery, more agricultural wealth, and more mineral wealth than does U.S. 66."
Initially, after its designation in 1926, U.S. 66 merely "replaced" many roads and highways -often in poor condition- along its alignment by the simple method of renumbering an existing road and providing Federal support to improve roads that previously belonged to State networks.
Only 800 miles of the road were paved, the rest was gravel, dirt (like the infamous muddy stretch known as the Jericho Gap in Texas) or even bricks or wooden planks. Paving began soon after but would not be completed until 1938.
Ribbon Road or Sidewalk Road
It is a narrow road, only nine-foot wide and is known as the "Sidewalk Road" or the Ribbon Road.
It did have a significant impact on the small communities and large towns that were lined up along it: traffic would bring business to local merchants and allow goods to flow from local farmers and factories to the rest of the nation.
Its southerly course made it a popular alternative to other east -west corridors: it had a more temperate climate than those located further north, and it crossed the flat prairies avoiding the Rocky Mountains.
The "Ribbon Road" in Miami, OK.
America's Main Street
Soon after its designation, Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff founded the National U.S. 66 Association, their goals: promote the road and have it paved.
Avery named it "The Main Street of America" at the Association's first Conference. It was a hit, evoking local stores lined up along the road, which in fact was the Main Street in each of the towns it travels through.
It was promoted as the shortest route between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Coast. And its beauties were enhanced: the Ozark region, the Texas Panhandle, the Grand Canyon in Arizona....
As traffic increased the road and the travel infrastructure improved. Places to stay overnight, gasoline stations, garages and workshops, diners and restaurants sprung up along the highway.
A growing trucking industry found its diagonal course appealing. It linked dozens of small farming communities and trucks distributed their produce. Truck traffic grew from 1,500 vehicles per day to 7,500 between 1931 and 1941 along the Chicago to St. Louis segment.
The National highway network aimed at being modern and safe: curves were eliminated, lanes widened and road surface improved. Until 1933, this was done by individual States. By 1929, the Illinois and Kansas segments of the highway were fully paved, while Missouri had paved 66% of the road. Further West, quality decreased from 25% in Oklahoma to virtually zero paving from there to the West Coast.
The Great Depression
But in 1929 Wall Street's Stock Exchange collapsed and the period of bonanza ended. The Great Depression began; hard times had arrived.
A severe economic depression started with the collapse of the Stock Market in October 1929 and spread across the world. It lasted until the late 1930s.
GDP plummeted globally (around 15%) and the world's economy and international trade declined abruptly, falling by 50%. Unemployment grew by up to 33%.
World War II, with increased government spending and high demand of labor ended the depression and unemployment.
An estimated 210,000 people took to the road and migrated to California seeking reprieve from the Dust Bowl. But Most of them drove back, only 8% of them remained in the Golden State.
Their comings and goings helped business along the road and many mom-and-pop businesses survived the Depression years catering to them.
Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, March 1936
by Arthur Rothstein
A severe drought in the 1930s coupled with wind erosion due to poor farming techniques led to vast dust storms in the prairies of the U.S. and Canada.
Clouds of dust darkened the sky (black blizzards) and deposited dust as far east as New York. Iver 100 million acres (400,000 km2 were affected by erosion and drought.
Tens of thousands of families had to abandon their farms and seek fortune elsewhere. They migrated to California but the Great Depression had worsened employment across the nation.
But Route 66 helped the economy in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico through the New Deal programs implemented by President Franklyn D. Roosevelt. The New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Project Administration programs included road maintenance and improvement as their main features and thousands of unemployed men worked on road gangs between 1933 and 1938.
It is thanks to these programs that Route 66 became the first highway in America to be completely paved all by 1938. The last segment of dirt was the infamous Jericho Gap in Texas. The celebration was held in Amarillo, Texas.
Grapes of Wrath and the Mother Road
"[migrants] 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."
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
It was John Steinbeck, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature that coined the name "Mother Road". As a Californian, he experienced the plight of those fleeing from the terrible effects of the Dust Bowl, only to find no hopes in California. He penned his novel, Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, which records the suffering of a migrant family who lost their farm during the Depression.
Read More: Grapes of Wrath, full details on the book and the movie.
The book and the 1940 film based on it, immortalized Route 66 in the American consciousness. An estimated 210,000 people migrated to California to escape the Dust Bowl, and most of them rode along Route 66, which became a symbol for them and their children as the "Road to Opportunity".
Politics and U.S. 66
For 9 years (1926 - 1937) U.S. 66 followed this northern course through Santa Fe until a spiteful politician changed its course.
Read about Route 66 and the "Old" Santa Fe Loop
Governor A. T. Hannett lost his 1927 bid to re-election and annoyed with the local politicians and business men in Santa Fe, who he blamed for his defeat, he had the highway rerouted to bypass that city.
Running against the clock before his tenure ended, he had a 69 mi. stretch of state highway built while he held office, linking Santa Rosa with Moriarty and shaving off more than 90 miles off the road.
But his "revenge" would have to wait for 10 more years until the Federal roadbuilders decided to straighten the road and shorten it, and they used Hannett's alignment to do so in 1937.
For this reason, Route 66 crosses itself in Albuquerque, where the old and new alignments met.
Along U.S. Route 66, near El Reno, Oklahoma (between 1930 and 1946),
From Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection
World War II
The Great Depression ended in the spurt of Government investment and spending surge caused by the US involvement in World War II (1942 - 1945).
The Western part of the country was chosen by the War Department for the location of new military training bases; the dry weather was ideal for the purpose and the area was geographically isolated. Route 66 became a major player during the war effort.
Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Wingate Ordnance Depot in New Mexico, Navajo Ordnance Depot in Arizona and Edwards Air Force Base in California, were built near Route 66. Even a Prisoner Of War Camp was built at McLean, Texas.
Larger trucks were built during the war and U.S. 66 was the main link between Eastern and Western U.S., long convoys transported military supplies and troops along the highway.
New industries were developed by the Federal Government in California, and they drew thousands of workers from across the nation; many of them traveled by car along Route 66 to reach their new jobs.
Post War Years on Route 66
The years of rationing ended with the War in August 1945, and America kept on the move. Millions of soldiers, airmen and sailors came back home but remembering their training days in the balmy Southwest, relocated there abandoning the cold winters of the Northeast. And many drove to their new homes along US 66.
Blue Swallow Motel, New Mexico.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
One of those roaming former soldiers was ex-Marine captain Robert William Troup Jr., "Bobby" Troup, who penned the hit "Route Sixty-six" while riding along Route 66 between Chicago and L.A. in 1946
It became an instant hit and has been recorded until this day by many singers, from Aerosmith to the Rolling Stones.
Click for More Information on "Get your Kicks", the song, its lyrics, meaning and more.
Sunbelt states saw a surge in their population (from 40% to 74%). This massive shift in demographics was a boon for business along Route 66. Motels, tourist courts, service stations flourished in the post war prosperity.
Travel and Fun on the highway
The years of thrift and suffering were gone, people celebrated life and traveled, they took to the roads in their cars to explore America.
Historic Route 66 Motel
The National Parks of the West (Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest) drew growing crowds of visitors. The wild open lands of the west!
Painted Desert, Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park. Joyradost
The iconic landmarks of the 1930s and 40s along the highway and the mystique of the Native American cultures also drew motorists from all over the country. These were trips of sightseeing and also a journey of adventure and discovery along the Main Street of America, an attraction in itself.
Slowly Fading Away
But the changing global context would also lead to Route 66's demise.
The war had exposed the weaknesses of America's highways: heavy loads deteriorated the paving, makeshift repairs during the war did little to help; the roads and bridges were narrow, outdated and unsafe. Something had to be done, and quickly.
Post war years brought increased traffic and reduced the carrying capacity of roads. At the same time the Nation became aware of the importance of a good highway network for national security.
Eisenhower had a very high opinion on the Autobahn's he had seen in Germany and was convinced that America needed a similar system of divided highways that could offer safety and speed.
His Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed by Congress and the Interstate system was funded and soon began to cover the nation.
Interstate vs. Route 66
Interstate highways were multilane divided highways that were built following straight alignments, bypassing small towns. I-40 would gradually replace Route 66 between Barstow in California and Oklahoma City. I-55 from Chicago to St. Louis and I-44 from St. Louis to Oklahoma City took care of the remaining segments of U.S. 66. This process began in 1956 and took almost thirty years to be completed, but it was implacable.
The American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) ruled on June 26, 1979 to eliminate its designation. They did so to avoid confusing travelers. Williams, Arizona, was the last town to be bypassed in 1984. Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985.
Many states had already taken down the "obsolete" signs: Illinois did so in 1977. Others placed signs reading "Old U.S. 66". But in general the decommissioning of the highway led to its gradual deterioration. Road maintenance decreased, the Mother Road was being forgotten.
Route 66 Returns
But the public would not let the Mother Road die; private organizations and government offices soon recognized the significance of U.S. 66 for the communities that it passed through.
A significance that was not only economic, but also social and historic. Route 66 had to be preserved.
Starting in 1987 when The Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona was founded, many groups were formed to preserve, protect and promote the grand old road.
Their efforts have paid off:
- Numerous landmarks and historic buildings have been nominated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- Route 66 has been declared in some states as a National and ⁄ or State Scenic Byway.
- The route has been designated as "Historic" in several states.
- New Signs and road marks have been emplaced along the highway to guide travelers along their road trips.
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program
Law 101-400 enacted by Congress in 1990 recognized that U.S. 66 had "become a symbol of the American people's heritage of travel and their legacy of seeking a better life."
Within its framework, a study conducted by the National Park Service that evaluated its significance and identified ways to preserve it.
The outcome was Public Law 106-45 which created the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, which finances and gives assistance to upkeep designated historic resources along the Mother Road.
Standard Oil Gasoline Station, Odell, Illinois, USA, along historic U.S. Route 66
The Mother Road is here to stay, on its way to its 2026 Centennial, thousands of visitors flock each year to feel its paving under their wheels and to fill their eyes and souls with the spirit of America.
10, The People's Highway, Cyrus Avery: "The most direct road to the Pacific coast". National Museum of American History
Image from Back in Time Route "66" The Mother Road, Rickie Longfellow; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). US. DOT
Image by Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection, Public Domain and Fair Use.
Image Lee, Russell, The Library of Congress, Rights Info: No known restrictions on publication. No known copyright restrictions
Image by Arthur Rothstein, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Public Domain.