Reasons we regard Route 66 as a historic roadway
This summer, my third-grader went on a road trip with her grandmother and cousin to the Grand Canyon. During the hours of driving, the kids saw more and more signs not for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest or Meteor Crater, but for some mysterious entity known as Historic Route 66. It seemed to be all around them, with stretches of roadways and stores all claiming some kind of connection to whatever this 66 thing was. Hearing it was the name of a road helped a little bit, but with no yellow bricks, roadside bells or anything relating to 66, the significance of Route 66 is easy to miss, especially today.
A very particular path
The first major roadway to stretch across the continental United States was the Lincoln Highway. The road opened in 1913, enabling a relatively quick drive from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. One road was obviously not going to be enough to satisfy the growing car and truck traffic in the United States, and legislation was introduced in 1916 to build comprehensive highway system across the country. It took ten years for those plans to come to fruition, and in 1926 Route 66 opened as one of the first new roads to allow more convenient travel from the Midwest to the west coast.
The convenience of Route 66 was a carefully nuanced balance though. On one hand, by heading southwest from Chicago across largely flat territory, cargo trucks had an easier route to California than the sometimes snowy Lincoln Highway could provide. On the other hand, the road was purposely not a straight shot to the Pacific Ocean. Planners wanted the road to meander a bit, allowing it to link hundreds of small communities that had no other major roadways to get to bigger cities. Farmers thus had an easier time transporting their goods, boosting many small economies all along the route.
From “The Mother Road” to roadside attractions
Route 66 took on some unintended significance early on as well. Laborers were employed during the Great Depression to help pave sections of road. The Dust Bowl in Oklahoma sent as many as 210,000 people to California, many of which traveled on Route 66. This significance was memorialized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, marking Route 66 as “The Mother Road” in people’s minds even if they’d never driven on it themselves. Finally, as World War II loomed on the horizon, Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed with the utility of this kind of reliable infrastructure from a military perspective, an idea he would eventually carry with him to the White House.
After World War II, Route 66 was reborn again. Instead of a necessary path for commerce, migration or commerce, tourists started flocking to the American southwest. Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Route 66” was nearly an ad jingle for tourism throughout the Chicago to Los Angeles corridor, and many businesses started directly catering to these travelers’ interests. Motels grew out of auto camps, diners and gas stations proliferated, and many odd roadside attractions were designed to catch people’s eye as much as the natural landscape could. Many of these sights are still around, now with some historical significance layered on top of their already striking appearances.
Facing the four-lane future
As my third-grader found out though, its possible to miss some of this if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This is partly due to the inevitable physical decline of the actual roadway along Route 66, spurred by it’s obsolescence as an arterial route. In 1956, then President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, kicking off construction of a huge network of major highways. Unlike the meandering path of Route 66, highways like I-40 were somewhat modeled after Germany’s autobahn so that travel could be safe and efficient at higher speeds. Rather than stop in each town along the way, highways now let people zip from one destination to the next with minimal interactions along the way.
It took some time, but in 1970 four-lane roads finally allowed travelers to “skip” any portion of the original Route 66. Nobody is about to argue that Route 66 can compete on the grounds of efficiency, but there are efforts to preserve the experience, particularly the post-war tourism, as a cultural milestone in America.
Source: The History of Route 66, National Historic Route 66