The Railroads and Route 66 – Exploring Their Interlinked Past

Route 66, affectionately known as the Mother Road, runs deep in the veins of American culture, symbolizing freedom and the spirit of the open road. Our history with U.S. Highway 66 is intertwined significantly with the railroads. The creation and growth of Route 66 in the early 20th century paralleled the expansion of the railroad system, connecting the Midwest to the West Coast. This shared history highlights the development of transportation and the facilitation of movement, playing a crucial role in shaping the nation’s economy and society.

As we explore our collective journey along Route 66, we notice that the railroads served as the trailblazers, dictating the course of the highway. This alignment with railroad routes ensured that towns and cities blossomed along its path, fostering communities and commerce. Our fascination with the Mother Road is rooted in these stories of progress, adventure, and the transformation of the landscape.

Diving into the shared history of Route 66 and the railroads, we uncover tales of ingenuity and resilience. For example, many of the roadside attractions and businesses that popped up along Route 66 were influenced by the aesthetics and promotions originally designed by the railroads. These historical connections reveal how our past travel experiences have shaped the current identity of this iconic highway and continue to fuel the imaginations of travelers and history enthusiasts alike.

Historical Development of Railroads and Route 66

Our exploration into the intertwined histories of the railroads and U.S. Highway 66 uncovers a narrative of progress and transformation, marking the expansion of American travel and commerce. These pathways carved through the nation were fundamental in connecting communities and catalyzing economic growth.

Pioneering the Paths

We understand that the 35th parallel played a crucial role as a corridor for both railroads and the subsequent Route 66. Traversed by explorers and settlers, this trail was vital to the westward expansion. Railroads initially followed these pioneering paths, which were often Native American trails or old wagon roads. The construction of the Santa Fe Railway along this parallel not only facilitated access to the untouched West but also foreshadowed the trajectory of Route 66 itself.

The Santa Fe Railway particularly benefited from Fred Harvey Company’s hospitality services, which provided quality dining and accommodations at railroad depots, encouraging more travel to awe-inspiring destinations like the Grand Canyon. It established a symbiotic relationship between travel by rail and the communities it served.

The Advent of the Mother Road

The official certification of U.S. Highway 66 in 1926 marked a significant shift from rail to rubber for the American public. Paving the way for automobile travel, Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles, mirroring sections of the old rail routes. The advent of Route 66 can, in part, be credited to Edward Beale, who in the mid-19th century surveyed the land and developed the Beale Wagon Road, a precursor to the highway’s pathway. With gold rushes and westward expansion, these routes were indispensable conduits for explorers and fortune-seekers alike.

Expansion and Economic Impact

Our highways and byways have long been a testament to America’s economic dynamism, and the expansion of railroads, followed by Route 66, stands as a potent symbol of that period. The emergence of Route 66 gave rise to automotive tourism, propelling the growth of small towns into bustling service stops offering fuel, food, and lodging.

We recognize that these developments brought profound economic impact and change to Native American communities, whose lands these transportation networks often crossed. The growth facilitated by these routes brought significant shifts in demographics and commerce, shaping the American landscape in ways that still resonate today.

Cultural and Societal Impact

The railroads and Route 66 have profoundly shaped American life, influencing everything from migration patterns to popular culture and travel norms. We explore the specific ways in which they have left their mark on society, from the Dust Bowl era to contemporary tourism.

The Dust Bowl Migration

During the 1930s, severe dust storms ravaged the Great Plains, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of destitute farmers. Known as “Okies,” many of these individuals sought refuge westward, with the railroads and highways such as Route 66 serving as vital lifelines. Route 66, in particular, became synonymous with the desperate migration depicted in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” bringing national attention to the human toll of the Dust Bowl.

Route 66 in Popular Culture

Route 66 has captured the imagination of the American public, cementing itself as an icon through numerous references in popular culture. It was immortalized by Bobby Troup’s song, famously covered by Nat King Cole, and the subsequent television series that broadcasted the highway’s allure into living rooms across the country. This iconic route became a symbol of freedom and adventure, reflecting the pioneering spirit of American culture.

Changing Faces of Travel and Tourism

Our travel and tourism landscapes have evolved significantly with the advent of automobiles and the construction of major highways like Route 66. The highway spurred the creation of various travel-related business models, including drive-ins and museums, designed to serve a mobile population. These establishments not only reshaped the American roadside but also brought about new ways for people to engage with and understand the vast landscapes and rich cultural tapestry of our nation.

Infrastructure and Evolution

Within the tapestry of American development, the evolution of infrastructure, notably through the railroads and Route 66, reflects a series of critical transformations. Our approach is to elucidate the precise ways these changes occurred, focusing on the architectural, systemic, and preservation aspects that have left indelible marks on the landscape.

Architectural Developments Along the Route

We can see that railroads fundamentally reshaped urban communities in the 1920s. The construction of stations and related facilities introduced new architectural styles and spurred local development. Similarly, the establishments along US Highway 66 adapted to the needs of motorists, leading to the creation of service stations, motels, and diners that defined the character of the Mother Road.

Transition to the Interstate Highway System

With the inception of the Interstate Highway System, championed by the American Association of State Highway Officials and supported by Congress and the military seeking to ensure good roads, there was a monumental shift. Our highways transitioned from the scenic auto trails of the past to a system focused on efficiency and speed, drastically reducing travel times. The Interstate Highway System, authorized in the 1950s, soon overshadowed older roads like State Route 66, leading to its eventual decommissioning.

Preservation Efforts and Modern Use

Following decommissioning, efforts by conservationists and the National Park Service have ensured that key sections of Historic Route 66 are preserved. This allows us to appreciate the road not only as a crucial part of our infrastructure evolution but also as a cultural icon. Today, Route 66 thrives in a dual role: serving as a nostalgic journey and as a functional thoroughfare, albeit on a more localized scale than in its heyday.

Route 66 and Railroads Today

As we explore the contemporary relationship between Route 66 and railroads, we see a vivid tapestry linking tourism, local economies, and the historical corridors from Chicago to Los Angeles that still pulse with life.

The Legacy of Transportation

Route 66 and the railways maintain an intertwined legacy of shaping the transportation landscape across the United States, particularly affecting states like Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The powerful locomotives that once paralleled the historic highway now symbolize the foundational role of rail travel in America’s development. Small towns dotting the Route 66 map, such as Seligman in Arizona, have experienced economic shifts as transport modalities changed but strive to preserve this shared history. Even as the importance of rail transport evolved, our collective memory holds onto the iconography of train tracks running adjacent to the open road. Railroads contributed to the development and decline of commercial hubs along Route 66, influencing patterns of commerce and travel that persist into modernity.

Modern Travelogue: From Nostalgia to Revival

Today, Route 66 represents a nostalgic journey as much as a modern travelogue, reborn through tourism as the “Mother Road” that offers a unique view into America’s past and present. Chicago, the starting point, and Santa Monica, the end of the route at the Pacific Ocean, anchor the highway in metropolitan nostalgia, while the diverse slices of America in between tell a story of revival and rediscovery. Communities along the route, from the sunbaked stretches of California to the quaint corners of Kansas, are revitalizing their segments of the road to attract travellers eager to experience the retro charm of historic diners, quirky motels, and the slower pace of a bygone era. Arizona and New Mexico, with their stunning landscapes and rich cultural tapestries, highlight how our connection to Route 66 and its railways preserves a heritage that is integral to the American story.