Key Historical Events That Shaped Route 66 [Defining America’s Main Street]

Route 66, also known as the Mother Road, has played a significant role in the history of America. Spanning over 2,400 miles, it connected Chicago to Los Angeles and became a major path for travelers during the 20th century.

This iconic highway has witnessed countless historical events and evolved with the United States, reflecting the nation’s growth, ambitions, and cultural shifts.

As we delve into the key historical events that shaped Route 66, we must recognize how deeply intertwined the road is with America’s legacy.

From its inception in the 1920s as a transcontinental highway facilitating car travel to its association with the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the rise of automobile tourism in the mid-20th century, Route 66 has served as a symbol of America’s progress and its love affair with the open road.

Throughout its existence, Route 66 has had a profound impact on the United States and the people who have traveled and lived alongside it. These key historical events have shaped the route into the beloved icon it is today, encapsulating the American spirit, sense of adventure, and the ever-changing landscape of the nation.

Early History and Construction

Pioneering Efforts by Cyrus Avery and the US Government

In the early 1920s, Cyrus Avery, often called the “Father of Route 66,” began advocating for a highway system connecting small towns and communities across the United States. With the US government’s support, this idea led to the creation of Route 66, which was officially established on November 11, 1926.

Inauguration and Initial Years

Initially, Route 66 connected Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, passing through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. As the road was still under construction, some sections were paved while others were not, but by 1930, most of the road was paved.

Role during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl

During the 1930s, Route 66 provided a reliable means of transportation and served as an escape route for people fleeing the hardships of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck depicted Route 66 as the “Mother Road,” symbolizing hope and a better future for its travelers.

World War II and Post-War Period

During World War II, Route 66 significantly transported war supplies, troops, and equipment coast-to-coast, as military installations were connected to the route. After the war, the United States saw a surge in automobile travel encouraged by thriving industries and affordable cars, cementing Route 66’s reputation as a popular travel corridor.

Decline and Decommissioning

The Federal Highway System, introduced in the 1950s, eventually led to the decline of Route 66 as newer, more efficient routes were developed. The last section of the original Route 66 was bypassed in 1984, and in 1985, US Route 66 was removed from the national highway system.

Preservation and Modern-Day Relevance

Preservation efforts began in the 1990s, and today, Route 66 serves as a historical and heritage site, with the National Park Service working to protect and restore the remaining segments of the original highway. Tourism along the route has now become an essential part of its legacy.

Cultural Influence and Legacy

Route 66’s iconic status has been immortalized through songs like “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Bobby Troup, later covered by Nat King Cole, and various diners, museums, and motels celebrating its history along the route. The highway’s influence transcends generations, symbolizing freedom, the open road, and the American road trip.

Key Personalities and Events

Besides Cyrus Avery, key personalities connected to Route 66 include President Dwight D. Eisenhower, inspired by its efficiency during World War II, and Will Rogers, a famous columnist and comedian during the highway’s heyday.

The 1928 Bunion Derby, a footrace won by Andy Payne and John Woodruff, brought nationwide attention to the road.

Cities and Landmarks along Route 66

Many cities and landmarks are associated with Route 66, including St. Louis, Springfield, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Kingman, Gallup, Santa Fe, Amarillo, San Bernardino, and the iconic Santa Monica Pier.

These locations offer a glimpse into the road’s storied past, as do several gas stations, motels, trading posts, and small towns.

Economic Impact and Road Infrastructure

Route 66 was crucial in shaping America’s economy and road infrastructure, providing essential links between rural communities and urban centers. This connection brought goods, commerce, and tourists, resulting in the growth of small towns, gas stations, motels, and restaurants.

The trucking industry, which would eventually replace railroads for goods shipping, further propelled the highway’s economic importance.