Route 66 is one of America’s first highways. In its heyday, it ran through 8 states. Starting in Illinois, it ran through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It was almost 2450 miles long! The U.S. Government decommissioned it officially in 1985, but you can still drive on most of it today.
A Little History
Can you imagine an America without highways? Before 1910, that was the reality. People relied on railroads instead of cars. It wasn’t until the Ford Model T. made cars popular that people started seeing the need for paved roads. Before then, most roads were dirt roads. People constantly got stuck in the mud. Local governments built them. There were no reliable ways to travel between states in an automobile. It was hard to get anywhere on a rainy day.
What Made Route 66 So Famous?
Not the First of its Kind
Route 66 was not the first transcontinental highway, nor was it the longest. In 1915 the Lincoln Highway spanned almost 3,400 miles. All the way from New York to California. Route 66 was unique because it used existing roads to make a highway. It connected the main streets of small towns and even used old covered wagon trails. Travelers had plenty of comfortable places to stay in small towns along the way.
An American tradition
People traveling on Route 66 experienced rural America from the Midwest to California. Those small towns benefitted from the business the highway brought to them. This is how it got its nickname: “The Main Street of America”. When the road opened in 1926, it aimed to help rural farmers transport crops, but it did much more than that.
Come Get Your Kicks…
Perhaps the most famous thing about Route 66 is the song by Bobby Troupe, “Come get your kicks on Route 66”. He wrote it in 1946. Dozens of artists have covered that song from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones. The tune is recognizable to this day.
The first of its famous nicknames came from its direction. Most highways at the time went straight: either North and South or East and West. Route 66, on the other hand, ran Northeast to Southwest earning it the nickname: “The Great Diagonal Way”.
The Great Depression
Several of Route 66’s famous nicknames came during The Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of farmers migrated to California to escape the Dust Bowl. Those migrants knew Route 66 as “The Road to Opportunity”. In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, he coined the popular nickname: “The Mother Road”.
In the 1940s, beatniks like Jack Kerouac used Route 66 to hitchhike from New York to California. Books like On the Road made Route 66 synonymous with a journey to find one’s self, God, or adventure. Some were looking for opportunity. Some were looking for the cure to an existential crisis. No matter what, Route 66 was famous for delivering. It was known to help people find what they were looking for out of America.
In 1952 the U.S. Highway 66 Association nicknamed the road: “The Will Rogers Highway”. Will Rogers was a famous actor in the early 1900s. He was a vaudeville star turned serious stage actor turned full-blown movie star. He took a cattle trail that was later used in Route 66 to travel from his home in Oklahoma to the pictures! There is a memorial at the very end of Route 66 dedicated to him. It reads: “Will Rogers Highway was the first road he traveled in a career that led him straight to the hearts of his countrymen”.
Why was it decommissioned?
As the years went on, Route 66 couldn’t handle modern traffic. Roads needed to take on heavier loads as trucks were able to ship larger carrying capacities. Bridges became outdated and unsafe, but WWII slowed down repairs.
The Interstate System
The end came with President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It funded the modern Interstate system. Unlike highways, interstates had more than two lanes. They ran in a grid making them less random than older highways. Instead of running through small towns, interstates ran around them to avoid traffic. It was a much quicker way to travel.
The End of an Era
The modern interstate system took almost 30 years to finish. Though it was a safer road system, interstates took business away from small towns. With fewer people traveling the main streets of America, they experienced less tourism. What began as a way to help America move forward was ended by the same need to push into the future.
Fun Facts and Trivia
- Route 66 crossed three time zones.
- Creators of the road could only pave one-third of it at the start. It took until 1937 to pave the rest.
- 91% of the original route is still used to this day in Texas.
- There is a Texaco Station in Tucumcari, NM on a stretch of Route 66 that has been open since the Route 66 Era.
- In 1928 there was a foot race that ran the length of Route 66.
- Route 66 was made by connecting many historic roads and trails.
- It was initially named Route 60.
- Famous funnyman Will Rogers used the highway to make his big break in Hollywood.
- There are abandoned parts of the road adventurers are still rediscovering to this day.
- Because of a mix up, there is a part where Route 66 crosses itself. You can stand at the corner of Route 66 and Route 66 in Albuquerque, NM.