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 town
s 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
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.