World War II and Its Effects on Route 66 – The Transformation of an Iconic Highway

As we explore the annals of American history, Route 66 stands as a monument to the nation’s growth and change over time. Often referred to as the Mother Road or America’s Main Street, Route 66 was emblematic of hope, adventure, and the search for a better life. It was during the challenging era of the Great Depression that this route became a lifeline for many, as captured by John Steinbeck in his seminal work “The Grapes of Wrath,” which chronicled the migration of families devastated by the Dust Bowl. This narrative painted Route 66 as more than just a thoroughfare; it became a symbol of the American spirit.

World War II marked a significant turning point for Route 66. Our nation’s demands for war-related transport and logistics transformed the road into a critical artery for the movement of troops and supplies, which in turn accelerated improvements and infrastructure development along the route. The war’s aftermath brought profound changes as well; with the coming of peace, Route 66 facilitated the movements of returning soldiers and a burgeoning public eager to travel, leading to an era of prosperity for the towns along the way.

Our collective memory of Route 66 is woven into the fabric of our national identity, influenced significantly by the effects of World War II. The post-war era saw a surge in automotive travel, helping to establish the road as a part of the quintessential American road trip mythos. Route 66 not only connected the Midwest to the West Coast but also bridged the gap between the struggles of the Great Depression and the post-war boom, securing its place in our collective heritage.

World War II’s Impact on Route 66

As we explore the profound influence World War II had on Route 66, it’s crucial to understand how military operations, economic shifts, and infrastructural developments during this period transformed this iconic highway.

Military Movements and Strategic Importance

Route 66’s role during World War II was significant due to its strategic position. This historical highway, extending from Chicago through major states such as Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and reaching California, became a crucial conduit for military logistics. The transport of troops and essential materials along Route 66 was a common sight as we mobilized our military forces. Traversing states that were critical production and training areas, the Mother Road facilitated the movement of soldiers and equipment, bolstering our nation’s defense efforts.

Economic and Social Changes on the Mother Road

The war effort ushered in substantial economic changes along Route 66, influencing communities and commerce. Truck drivers became the unsung heroes of the highway, playing a pivotal role in the trucking industry by ensuring the steady flow of nation supplies. Rural communities on Route 66 flourished as our increased demand for goods and services transformed the Mother Road into a bustling lifeline of American commerce. This period was also marked by social evolution; cities such as Chicago witnessed shifts in population and diversification spurred by the exigencies of war.

Infrastructure Developments During the War

Our emphasis on supporting the war effort led to notable infrastructural developments on Route 66. The National Park Service and other federal agencies recognized the highway’s deteriorating condition and the urgent need for improvements to handle the increased military and civilian traffic. Consequently, road widening and paving occurred in segments where travel had been hampered by outdated infrastructure. In states like Arizona and Oklahoma, these enhancements not only supported wartime logistics but also laid the groundwork for post-war prosperity and the eventual establishment of the interstate system, with Interstate 40 embodying the modern evolution of Route 66’s corridor.

Route 66’s Evolution Post-War

In the aftermath of World War II, we witnessed an unprecedented transformation of Route 66, as it became an emblem of the booming tourism industry and American car culture. This period marked a golden age for motels, diners, and the spirit of the open road.

Booming Tourism and the Motel Culture

After the war, prosperity and improved automobile accessibility led Americans to explore the nation, with Route 66 offering an iconic path through the heart of the U.S. Midwest. The rise in tourism gave birth to a thriving motel culture along Route 66, where establishments like the El Vado Auto Court Motel in Albuquerque and the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari exemplified the novel tourist courts that emerged. Diners and gas stations flourished, with each locale presenting a unique experience, from home-cooked meals to neon-lit service stops.

The Heyday of Automobile Travel

Route 66, commonly known as the Mother Road, fostered an era where the car was king. The Federal Highway System saw substantial development, accommodating the surge of automobile travel. Attractions along the way, from the Meramec Caverns to the Painted Desert, became quintessential stops for many families journeying from Chicago to Los Angeles. Celebrated through songs by Nat King Cole and Bobby Troup, Route 66 was immortalized in American heritage, presenting the unfiltered experience of the nation’s vast and diverse landscapes.

Decline and Decommissioning

The same progress that ushered in the golden age of Route 66 eventually led to its decline. The construction of the Interstate Highway System, including the I-40, I-44, and I-55, started in the 1950s, providing faster, more direct routes that bypassed many of the small towns along the old highway. Gradually, the once-vibrant corners of Route 66 fell into disuse, with once-bustling locations becoming sundown towns. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a U.S. highway, and while it may no longer serve as a major artery, the remaining segments of the road have since been recognized for their historical significance, drawing in those who seek to relive the legacy of America’s Main Street.

The Cultural and Historical Significance of Route 66

We recognize Route 66 as more than a mere road—it is a symbol of American cultural evolution and the canvas of historical change. This pathway not only facilitated mass migration but also nurtured a wave of cultural movements that are reflected in literature, music, and the ever-evolving American identity.

Literature, Music, and Popular Culture

Route 66 has left an indelible mark on American culture, prominently featured in the literatures of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” where it was dubbed ‘The Mother Road.’ Steinbeck’s work encapsulates the struggle and hope of the migrants during the Dust Bowl era. In music, Bobby Troup immortalized Route 66 in song, a tune later covered by artists like Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry, reinforcing its status as a cultural icon. The road’s allure persisted in the glitz of Hollywood films and provided a narrative backdrop for the beat generation’s exploration in works like Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

  • Route 66 in Literature:
    • “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
  • Route 66 in Music:
    • Route 66” composed by Bobby Troup
    • Performed by Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry
  • Route 66 in Popular Culture:
    • Hollywood films
    • “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Historical Preservation and Heritage Tourism

Our journey through time makes it evident that Route 66 is intertwined with heritage tourism and historic preservation efforts. Stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica, it passes through the homelands of the Cherokee and Navajo nations and landmarks like the bunion derby starting line. Recognizing Route 66’s significance, organizations like the National Register of Historic Places, World Monuments Fund, and National Historic Route 66 Federation have made strides in preserving its legacy. States like Oklahoma, home to the Oklahoma Historical Society and affectionate memorials for figures like Will Rogers, also contribute. The motels, diners, and unique roadside architecture along Route 66 elicit nostalgia, leading to a renaissance of appreciation and heritage tourism.

  • Historic Sites on Route 66:
    • Bunion Derby starting line
    • Will Rogers Highway
  • Preservation Efforts:
    • National Register of Historic Places
    • World Monuments Fund
    • National Historic Route 66 Federation
  • Heritage Tourism Highlights:
    • Homelands of Cherokee and Navajo nations
    • Route 66 roadside architecture
    • Oklahoma Historical Society exhibits

Legacy and Revitalization Efforts

In exploring the narrative of Route 66, we find a story of transformation and renaissance, from a vital artery pumping commerce across the heartland of America to a symbol of nostalgia, yearning for preservation and rejuvenation.

Route 66 in the 21st Century

Route 66, once known as the Main Street of America, has undergone significant shifts in its role and relevance since World War II. With the construction of Interstate 40, much of the traffic that once flowed through Route 66 was rerouted, leading to a decline in the small towns that flourished along it. However, our recognition of Route 66 as a historic highway and as a national scenic byway has sparked efforts to honor and revitalize this iconic road.

We’ve seen nonprofits play a central role in these endeavors, particularly through initiatives like the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. This program, coupled with support from the National Park Service and organizations like the Oklahoma Historical Society, has provided a framework for conserving the historic and cultural landmarks dotting the highway.

Federal undertakings, such as the Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, laid the foundation for the modern interstate system that initially marginalized Route 66. However, these same infrastructural advances eventually complemented efforts to preserve Route 66’s legacy by enhancing accessibility for tourists and historians alike.

Our collective efforts in conservation have been recognized on a global stage, with the World Monuments Fund and reports in the New York Times highlighting the road’s historical significance. Likewise, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has been instrumental in promoting Route 66’s historical importance.

Revitalizing Route 66 isn’t only about preserving physical structures; it’s about acknowledging the cultural impact of the population shift and the legacies of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Project Administration whose work remains visible along the route.

Recent developments such as the transformation of the Turner Turnpike in Oklahoma echo the ongoing dialogue between Route 66’s storied past and the modern interstate system. We’re witnessing Route 66’s evolution from a mere roadway to a journey through our collective memory, where every diner, motel, and gas station tells a piece of the American story, inviting exploration and rediscovery.