The Evolution of Route 66 Through the Decades [A Concise History]

Route 66, often referred to as the Mother Road, has evolved significantly through the decades since its establishment in 1926. Stretching over 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, this iconic highway played a major role in American history, serving as a lifeline for millions of travelers and businesses alike. As the road has changed over time, so have its stories, reflecting the changing face of American society itself.

Classic cars along a street

In its early days, Route 66 provided a vital transportation corridor for people and goods, linking small towns with big cities. This crucial highway enabled economic growth in the vast regions it traversed, and people from all walks of life traveled its path for work, leisure, and migration. Over time, the Mother Road became a symbol of freedom and the American dream, inspiring countless writers, musicians, and filmmakers to create works celebrating its unique allure. As the decades passed, the road underwent several transformations, from major relocations to the construction of modern highways that would ultimately bypass and overshadow some sections of the original route.

Today, Route 66 remains a testament to the spirit of adventure and human determination. Despite the many changes it has experienced, the highway continues to captivate travelers and history enthusiasts alike. Through the enduring magic of the Mother Road, we can all appreciate the evolution of Route 66 and its lasting impact on American culture and history.

Origins and Early Years of Route 66

The Conceptualization of Route 66

In the early 20th century, as the number of automobiles increased, we recognized the need for a better national network of public highways in the United States. Route 66 was initially conceptualized as a paved highway spanning from Chicago to Los Angeles, aiming to connect the Midwest and the Southwest. Congress supported the initiative, laying the foundation for what would later become an iconic American symbol.

Linking the Midwest and Southwest

Route 66 originally started in Chicago, Illinois, and passed through several states including Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and ultimately reaching California. This new highway facilitated better transportation and connections between major cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Amarillo, Texas.

Here is a brief list of the states Route 66 traversed through:

  • Illinois
  • Missouri
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Arizona
  • California

This paved highway played a crucial role in linking the Midwest and Southwest regions, profoundly impacting trade and tourism.

Contributions of Cyrus Avery

Cyrus Avery, known as the “Father of Route 66,” was instrumental in the planning and development of the highway. His vision extended beyond the existing Lincoln Highway, advocating for a diagonal route to connect the Southwest and Midwest. He was committed to improving the nation’s public highways and was one of the founding members of the United States Highway 66 Association.

His contributions to the development of Route 66 significantly influenced the growth and expansion of the United States during the early years, setting a precedent for future highways and connecting cities across the country.

Golden Era and Cultural Significance

Route 66 During the Dust Bowl

Route 66 played a significant role in American history, particularly during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. During this time, thousands of families fleeing the drought-stricken areas of the Great Plains traveled westward along this iconic highway in search of better opportunities. The plight of these families was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which detailed the journey along the so-called “Mother Road.” The book captured the spirit of adventure and desperation that many experienced during their travels on Route 66 in search of a new life in America.

Route 66 and World War II

The golden era of Route 66 is often considered to be the period between 1945 and the late 1960s. The post-World War II era brought American prosperity and growth, leading to a surge in automobile ownership. This increase in car usage led to an explosion in American highway culture, with families embarking on cross-country trips along this iconic route, which came to be known as the “Main Street of America.”

During this time, Route 66 served as an artery for transporting troops and equipment across the country. After the war, many veterans traveled along the Mother Road to move west, contributing to the rise of automobile-centric culture and the growth of roadside attractions, motels, and diners that came to symbolize the golden era of the route.

Representation in Media and Art

Route 66’s cultural significance is further demonstrated by its representation in various forms of media and art. Musician Bobby Troup famously penned the classic song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in 1946, which was later popularized by Nat King Cole. The song became an anthem for the spirit of adventure and exploration, further cementing the highway’s place in the American consciousness.

Aside from music, Route 66 has been the subject of many films, television shows, and books, all documenting the unique aspects of this historic route and the stories of those who traveled it. From the Golden Era of Hollywood to more recent depictions in media, these works have continued to immortalize Route 66 as an embodiment of hope, freedom, and the American Dream.

Challenges and Decommissioning

Rise of Interstate Highways

The evolution of Route 66 faced significant challenges, particularly with the rise of interstate highways in the United States. It all began with the passing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. This legislation aimed to create a more efficient and safer national highway system.

As interstate highways emerged, they brought about several benefits compared to Route 66, which was originally designed for local and regional traffic. Some of these advantages included:

  • Faster travel times: Interstate highways were designed for high-speed travel, allowing drivers to cover greater distances in less time.
  • Improved safety: Divided highways, limited access, and better road engineering contributed to fewer accidents and safer driving conditions.
  • Economic growth: Interstate highways helped to spur economic development by connecting cities and towns more efficiently, enabling more convenient transportation of goods and people.

We cannot overlook the fact that these developments spelled the beginning of the end for Route 66, as more travelers chose to use the interstate highways for their journeys.

Decommissioning and Impact

Eventually, Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, primarily due to the growth of the interstate highway system. Its decommissioning had several impacts on the communities and businesses along the route. Some of the most significant effects include:

  1. Loss of local businesses: Many shops, motels, and restaurants that were once thriving along Route 66 closed down as travelers migrated to the interstate highways.
  2. Decline of small towns: Several small towns along the route experienced negative economic consequences as they lost their status as key stops for travelers.
  3. Cultural impact: The decommissioning of Route 66 also marked an end to an era of roadside Americana, as its iconic motels, diners, and gas stations became less relevant.

It is essential to recognize that the decommissioning of Route 66 was an inevitable outcome with the advancements in our national highway system. However, Route 66 remains an important part of American history, and many of its landmarks and attractions continue to captivate travelers today.

Preservation and Legacy

Route 66 Today

With the evolution of Route 66 through the decades, the preservation of its history and legacy has become crucial for future generations. Today, Route 66 remains a symbol of freedom and mobility for many Americans. Travelers continue to explore the road, discovering its history and the stories of the people who helped shape it. Various museums, such as the Route 66 Museum, have been established to preserve its rich heritage. The National Park Service plays a critical role in promoting Route 66’s preservation through its Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

Tourism and Attractions

Route 66 offers a unique road trip experience, spanning across various rural and urban communities in the United States. The road’s museums, attractions, and local commerce provide a glimpse into the unique history of the road. For example, in Santa Monica, the Santa Monica Pier is considered the official western endpoint of Route 66 and features a popular amusement park, making it an attractive tourist spot.

Top attractions along Route 66:

  1. Santa Monica Pier
  2. Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
  3. Cadillac Ranch, TX
  4. Blue Whale, OK
  5. Chain of Rocks Bridge, MO

Route 66 Corridor Preservation

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program was established as a collaborative effort between various organizations to safeguard the historical and cultural resources along the Route 66. It also aims to revitalize the economies of these areas by promoting tourism and preserving the area’s historic character. Partnerships with local communities, state agencies, and non-profit organizations help sustain the ongoing preservation work, ensuring the legacy of Route 66 lives on for generations to come.

In conclusion, Route 66 stands strong as a testament to America’s transportation history and a celebration of its cultural heritage. The preservation and legacy of Route 66 will continue to have a lasting impact, serving as a reminder of the freedom and mobility it has always represented.