In the early 1900's, the concept of a national road system was essentially unheard of in the US. Paved roads existed in only larger towns and cities, with travel between them being nothing more than worn down and unkept dirt paths. The rise in popularity of the automobile, as well as a growing discontent with the railways, gave the nation a desire to improve the quality of roads and automotive travel. Efforts by automotive manufacturers, petroleum companies, consumers, and asphault producers all lead the government to enact the Federal Highway Act in 1921, beginning the era of a government controlled highway system.

It was decided that a national artery should be constructed to connect Chicago to Los Angeles, and in 1925 the designation 66 was chosen. The road was planned to connect small towns and communities through the country, mostly those that had previously been without access to any roadways at all. This allowed the easier transportation of farm goods and gave rise to the popularity of long haul trucking as an alternative to railways. Because of its unique layout which connected the main streets of many small towns, the road later became known as The Main Street of America.

The construction of the road was a continuous process, with it becoming completely paved by 1937. It was a 2400 mile stretch of road travelling from Chicago, south through Springfield, Ill and St. Louis, MO to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, finally snaking west through northern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, ending in Los Angeles. It was along these stretches of road that Service Stations were first introduced, motels and motor courts became popular, and the evolution of the tourist attraction began. Several states even ran camp sites where travelers could stay, offering bathroom facilities for free.

Route 66 recieved its first major publicity in John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. It became ingrained in the public image as a symbol of America and the great depression, a path of desperation, hope, and opportunity during the darkest times of our nation. This was the beginning of its image as an American icon which lasts to this day.

The road recieved its next bit of fame in a song by Robert Troup which featured the famous line "get your kicks on Route 66". The song became an American icon as well, describing the route of the road and projecting an adventurous and exiting image for the first national artery. Since then, the song has been covered by just about everyone and remains an american classic.

In 1960, the television show Route 66 was aired. It featured two young men who were driving across the country on route to discover America. It brought attention to many small towns and tourist stops, as well as enhancing America's image of the route as a romantic and adventerous stretch of road. The show was cancelled in 1964.

Beginning in the mid 1950's, the end of route 66 was beginning to come about. Frequent use by trucks was wearing the road down, and it had been very poorly maintained. For the first time, there was talk of the construction of a national interstate system which would feature divided roads that bypassed towns, making a fast and easily maintainable system of roadways. After WWII, Eisenhower became convinced this was needed after seeing the effectiveness of the autobahn in Germany. In 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed to fund the creation of an interstate system. By 1970, almost all of route 66 could be bypassed using the interstate.

Today, the route is a part of American history, a glimpse of the past when America was a growing rural nation of small towns and large open farms. Many parts are in bad repair, many parts are completely overgrown, and most of it is not even shown on current maps. However, groups have gotten together to preserve the historic road and keep as much of it alive as possible. Small towns that have lost most of their economy when they were bypassed by the interstate cater to travellors who drive the old road to get a glimpse of the past. Although you can't drive across the country on 66 any more, many parts are alive and well. Unfortunately, many governments don't want to spend money to preserve the road. While the clubs that seek to preserve it are doing all they can to keep the road in its old glory, they are currently fighting a tough battle.

U.S. Highway 66



Landmarks

If you’ve ever had the idea to “motor west” (or east if you’re coming from California) on Route 66, you might be interested to know that a great deal of the old road remains drivable even today. Over the last decade or so, thanks to the increasing visibility of the Mother Road as an American icon, individuals and groups have sprung up with the intent to preserve what’s left. They’ve helped make it remain possible to take a drive down the old road.

In each state that 66 runs through, “Historic Route 66” signs have been posted as an aid to travelers. There are some excellent guidebooks, regularly updated, that give step-by-step instructions for following the old route and its variations (and there’s a lot of variations). Best of all, many locals along old 66 are proud of the highway and their association with it, and are more than willing to guide seekers.

Here is a short state-by-state summary of what’s left in each Route 66 state (starting in the most popular direction, east to west).

ILLINOIS. Most of Route 66 still exists in Illinois, in one form or another. Starting in downtown Chicago, it’s intertwined with Interstate 55 until just before Joliet. At Joliet, you can follow the old road on through Bloomington until you reach Springfield. There, you can choose the newer four-lane alignment, or follow Illinois Route 4, which traces the original 1926 alignment. Either will take you on to St. Louis.

MISSOURI. There are numerous alignments of Route 66 through St. Louis, and a guidebook will be helpful here. Throughout the rest of Missouri, most of 66 is still extant, with occasional jumps on to Interstate 44. Missouri has some excellent four-lane stretches of 66 that really give you the feel of what it must’ve been like to travel the old road on the way west.

KANSAS. All of the twelve or so miles of 66 still exist and are in great shape. Watch for the original US 66 highway sign in Baxter Springs, but don’t try to swipe it – it’s posted in front of the police station! The old route is marked here as Kansas State Route 66, with the sunflower route markers.

OKLAHOMA. From the Kansas state line through Oklahoma City, old 66 is posted as Oklahoma State Route 66, making it very easy to follow. At El Reno, the Oklahoma 66 designation disappears, but the old route continues on and a good guidebook will help. This is the state where the idea for 66 was born.

TEXAS. The old route is notoriously difficult to follow here due to much of it having been removed. There is a good stretch from Groom through Amarillo, but in many spots it’s necessary to join Interstate 40. Don’t miss the Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo!

NEW MEXICO. New Mexico has removed a lot of the old road as well. Still, there are many drivable stretches, and a choice of two branches. Shortly after Santa Rosa, you can follow a very old alignment through Santa Fe, or continue on the newer alignment. Both will take you through Albuquerque and on to Gallup.

ARIZONA. This state has also removed much of old Route 66, making it necessary to travel Interstate 40 for long stretches. It’s easy to get lost here; keep the guidebook handy! A long stretch, posted as Arizona State Route 66, starts at Seligman and goes to Kingman. There, you can choose a very old alignment to Oatman or rejoin Interstate 40. The Oatman route is very curvy and a good vehicle is recommended, and this route will also rejoin Interstate 40 at the California state line.

CALIFORNIA. After you cross the state line, exiting at US Highway 95 will lead you to a long stretch of the old road. It runs through the desert (carry lots of water) and, with only a small break at Ludlow, continues on to Barstow. There, the route turns south through Victorville toward San Bernardino and Los Angeles.

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It’s a drive of over 2000 miles. But it’s great fun; I’ve driven it twice, and will do it again. There are other historic routes, such as US Highway 6 or “The Loneliest Road in America”, US Highway 50, but none of them have quite the “this was America” feel of old Route 66. It’s still possible to “get your kicks” out on the Main Street of America.


SOURCES

Snyder, Tom. The Route 66 Traveler's Guide. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Moore, Bob and Grauwels, Patrick. The Illustrated Guidebook to the Mother Road. Williams, Arizona: Roadbook International, 1998.
National Historic Route 66 Federation: <http://www.national66.com/>
Route 66 Magazine: <http://www.route66magazine.com/>

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