The Impact of Route 66 on Small Town America [A Concise Analysis]

Route 66, famously known as the “Mother Road,” has undeniably impacted small-town America since its establishment in 1926. Stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, U.S. Highway 66 has served as a vital transportation link and a symbol of American heritage, culture, and the quest for a better life.

With its winding path through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, Route 66 has connected countless small towns and communities, transforming their social and economic landscape.

As we trace the history of Route 66, we learn that it was born out of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which sought to improve public highways throughout the United States.

Subsequently, it was designated as a national scenic byway, thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service and preservationists who recognized its unique role in American history. However, the tides of progress were not always kind to this iconic highway, as the construction of the Interstate Highway System began in the late 1950s.

This led to the eventual decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985, as the new interstate highways offered faster travel and bypassed many of the small towns it once served.

Yet, despite these challenges, the spirit of Route 66 remains deeply ingrained in the character of small-town America.

Enthusiasts, tourists, and local communities continue to celebrate its historical and cultural significance, ensuring its protection and preservation for future generations. Today, the Mother Road is a testament to America’s love affair with the open road and its enduring optimism in the face of change.

Historical Significance

The Birth of Route 66

In the early 20th century, America witnessed the rapid growth of automobile ownership and the necessity for a better-connected highway system. U.S. Highway 66, also known as the Mother Road, was born out of this need and was established on November 11, 1926. Route 66 stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica, passing through small towns and cities across eight states.


  • Cyrus Avery
  • John Woodruff

Cyrus Avery, commonly known as the “Father of Route 66,” and John Woodruff played pivotal roles in creating and developing this iconic highway. Their combined efforts led to a road that connected the small towns and allowed them to flourish.

Route 66 and World War II

World War II brought significant changes to the American landscape, and Route 66 was crucial in transporting troops, supplies, and equipment across the country. It facilitated the movement of military personnel toward the West Coast, strengthening our nation’s defense infrastructure.

Not only did this strategic importance impact the small towns economically, but it also left a lasting mark on the cultural landscape. Route 66 was frequented by soldiers, bringing diverse perspectives and cultural elements to these small towns.

Depression Era and Migration

During the Depression Era, Route 66 became a symbol of hope and escape for many suffering from the harsh economic realities of the time. Families affected by the Dust Bowl and other catastrophes journeyed along Route 66 toward the west in search of better opportunities.

John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, immortalized this struggle, portraying the difficulties desperate families faced along the road. Route 66 connected the small towns and fueled their growth despite the era’s challenges.

Related Works:

  • The Grapes of Wrath (novel and film)
  • On the Road (novel)

Decommissioning of Route 66

The decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985 marked the end of an era for small-town America. Although officially replaced by the Interstate Highway System, Route 66 never lost its cultural significance.

This legacy is evident in the numerous movies, songs, and television shows inspired by the Mother Road. These include the works of Bobby Troup, Chuck Berry, and The Rolling Stones, all of whom contributed to immortalizing the highway in popular culture.

Notable Songs:

  • “Route 66” by Bobby Troup
  • “Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” by Chuck Berry
  • “On the Road” by The Rolling Stones

In conclusion, the impact of Route 66 on small-town America was substantial, shaping not only their economic development but also the nation’s cultural identity. Its historical significance continues to inspire artists, writers, and musicians as a symbol of hope, exploration, and the perseverance of the American spirit.

Cultural and Social Impact

Impact on Small Towns

The development of Route 66 had a significant impact on the growth and prosperity of numerous small towns throughout the Midwest and Southwest. In states such as Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and others, small towns along the route experienced an economic boom due to increased tourism and travel.

Route 66 facilitated the movement of people and goods between major cities such as Los Angeles, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and eventually Santa Monica. This interconnectedness helped smaller communities like Springfield, Missouri, or towns along the route in Kansas and Oklahoma to grow and develop.

Communities along the route embraced the influx of tourists and travelers, with businesses such as motels, gas stations, diners, and roadside attractions springing up to cater to their needs.

Many of these became iconic fixtures of American culture, with neon signs, unique architecture, and niche attractions drawing people in. As a result, Route 66 played a pivotal role in shaping not just the economies of these small towns but also their cultural identities, emphasizing hospitality and memorable experiences.

Route 66’s influence can be felt far beyond the physical road itself. It has earned a place in American popular culture thanks to its significance as a symbol of freedom, adventure, and the open road. Artists and writers have captured the essence of Route 66 in various forms.

In the 1940s, Nat King Cole popularized Route 66 with his hit song, “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”, which listed many cities along its path.

The mention of these places in a popular song helped to solidify their connection to Route 66 and its enduring legacy. Meanwhile, Hollywood embraced the road trip idea, with movies like Easy Rider showcasing Route 66 as a backdrop for adventure and self-discovery.

The cultural exchange between travelers and residents along Route 66 contributed to the sharing and blending ideas and traditions. The route passed through both Native American and Spanish lands, fostering an exchange of cultures between diverse groups of people.

This has had a lasting impact on American society, with the region’s rich history still visible in the architectural styles, colorful murals, and heritage attractions found along the route.

Today, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program works to preserve and maintain the unique cultural sites along this iconic highway, ensuring that future generations can continue to explore and appreciate its rich legacy.

Preservation and Heritage

The impact of Route 66 on Small Town America can be seen through the various preservation and heritage efforts made over the years.

The iconic highway has played a significant role in American history, particularly during World War II, when it was used as a main transportation route for military personnel and supplies. Route 66 has since become a symbol of American culture and a source of nostalgia for the golden age of the automobile.

The Role of the National Park Service

The National Park Service (NPS) has played an active role in preserving Route 66. In fact, since the establishment of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program by Congress in 1999, the NPS has been working in partnership with various stakeholders towards conserving and promoting the historic highway.

This program offers financial grants and technical assistance to support the preservation of various sites along the route, such as historic buildings, landmarks, and cultural resources.

In addition, the NPS conducted a Special Resource Study to evaluate the significance and feasibility of establishing Route 66 as a National Historic Trail. The study also explores possible opportunities for interpretation, education, and public enjoyment throughout the corridor.

Private Organizations and Preservation Efforts

Private organizations and individuals have also contributed significantly to the preservation and revitalization of Route 66.

Many small towns along the highway have created museums showcasing artifacts, antique automobiles, and memorabilia from the route’s heyday. Some notable examples include the El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot in Needles, California, and the Arizona Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Arizona.

Furthermore, private organizations such as The Route 66 Association have played a vital role in preserving the authenticity of the historic road and continuing to promote it as a tourist destination. These efforts have led to a renewed interest in Route 66 and, in turn, have helped revitalize many small towns that were once struggling economically after the construction of the interstate highway system, such as Williams, Arizona.

The passion and dedication of both public and private entities towards preserving the heritage of Route 66 has undoubtedly made a positive impact on Small Town America. Through their efforts, future generations can appreciate and understand this iconic highway’s cultural and historical significance.

Route 66 Today

Today, Route 66, also known as “America’s Main Street” or the “Mother Road,” holds a special place in American history. It stretches from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, passing through iconic states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Many view it as a symbol of freedom and a connection to the past. For those who traversed it during the Depression, it served as an escape route, captured vividly in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The road also played a significant role in small towns’ growth and local economies.

Let’s explore some notable aspects of Route 66 that cement its place in history:

  • Motels: People who traveled on Route 66 needed places to rest. This demand led to a boom in the construction of motels along the route, many of which are still operational today, offering visitors a nostalgic experience.
  • Fuel Stations: Fuel stations serving travelers along Route 66 were essential to the journey. They connected the small towns and made the trip more manageable, leading to economic growth within the communities.
  • Grand Canyon: One of the most popular destinations along Route 66 is the breathtaking Grand Canyon in Arizona. Emphasizing the natural beauty of the Southwest, this national park symbolizes freedom and exploration.

The construction of the interstates, such as I-40, I-44, and I-55, altered the trajectory of Route 66. They bypassed many of the smaller towns it previously passed through, redirecting travelers and impacting these communities economically. However, many private organizations and enthusiasts have taken up projects to preserve and restore various segments of Route 66.

Some of the prominent cities and towns along Route 66 include:

  1. Springfield, Illinois
  2. Tulsa, Oklahoma
  3. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  4. Barstow, California
  5. San Bernardino, California

We hope these towns continue to embrace the charm and allure of Route 66, which affects them economically and preserves a piece of American identity.