U.S. Route 66, often referred to as the Mother Road, holds a storied place in American history and culture. Established in 1926 and stretching from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, this highway became a symbol of freedom and opportunity as it wound its way across the heartland and deserts of the United States. Route 66 not only offered a path for migrants heading west, especially during the Dust Bowl era, but it also supported the economies of the communities it passed through.
As the first highway to be fully paved in the national highway system, Route 66 underwent numerous changes before being formally decommissioned in 1985. Despite this, its legacy endures. The once bustling route continues to captivate travelers from around the world, offering a glimpse into the past with its remaining diners, motels, and gas stations. Preservation efforts have been instrumental in maintaining the Mother Road’s tangible and intangible heritage, ensuring that its mythology remains an integral part of the American ethos.
- Route 66, known as the Mother Road, connects Chicago to Santa Monica and symbolizes American venture and progress.
- Beyond a mere highway, Route 66 represents an era of American history, contributing to both local economies and national culture.
- The road remains a cherished route for enthusiasts, sustaining its historical sites through preservation efforts and continued public interest.
History of Route 66
U.S. Route 66, colloquially known as the Mother Road, not only holds a significant place in American transportation history but also reflects the cultural and economic shifts of the 20th century. This section delves into the origins, heyday, and eventual decommissioning of Route 66.
Origin and Construction
Constructed in 1926, Route 66 was a product of the automotive boom and the burgeoning demand for improved highways across the United States. Cyrus Avery, often recognized as the “Father of Route 66,” was instrumental in the route’s designation. He advocated for a diagonal roadway that connected Chicago to Los Angeles, facilitating transportation and commerce. The road encompassed nearly 2,448 miles and traversed eight states, becoming a symbol of American freedom and mobility.
Rise and Decline
Route 66 flourished during the Great Depression as a path for migration, famously highlighted by John Steinbeck, who dubbed it “the Mother Road” in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Serving as a major corridor during the Dust Bowl, it facilitated the movement of people seeking better lives in the West. The route’s prominence continued through World War II, playing a strategic role as it moved troops and equipment. Post-war America saw Route 66 thrive with tourism before its decline began with the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
The prominence of Route 66 waned as the more efficient, multi-lane Interstates came into being, rendering the older highway obsolete. In 1985, Route 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System. Despite this, it remains entrenched in public memory and is honored with parts of the original road included in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, numerous preserved segments and landmarks along the old route hold the designation of Historic Places, celebrating the enduring legacy of America’s storied highway.
U.S. Route 66, commonly known as the Main Street of America, charts a course from the heart of the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, offering a swath of Americana through diverse landscapes.
From Illinois to California
Route 66 begins in Chicago, Illinois, then weaves through the fabric of the American countryside, crossing eight states before reaching its terminus in California. The highway spans roughly 2,448 miles, stitching together a patchwork of small towns and urban centers.
Illinois: Chicago to Missouri
- Start: Chicago
- Through: Springfield
- End: Mississippi River crossing
Missouri to Kansas
- Entry: St. Louis
- A quick jaunt through Kansas
Oklahoma to Texas
- Through Oklahoma: Tulsa, Oklahoma City
- Into Texas: Amarillo
New Mexico to Arizona
- Begin: Enters at Texola
- Attraction: Santa Fe detour
- Through: Albuquerque, Gallup
- Exit: Lupton
- Entry: Needles
- Major Stops: San Bernardino, Los Angeles
- End: Santa Monica
Major Cities Along the Route
The highway connects urban landmarks, threading through cities that capture each state’s essence, fueling the nostalgia of the American road trip.
- Chicago, IL: The starting point is a bustling metropolis on Lake Michigan.
- St. Louis, MO: The Gateway to the West, bordering the Mississippi River.
- Tulsa and Oklahoma City, OK: Cities that epitomize Oklahoma’s rich cultural tapestry.
- Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM: Cities steeped in Pueblo culture with distinctive adobe architecture.
- Los Angeles, CA: The cultural hub of the West Coast before reaching the finale in Santa Monica.
Along its winding path, Route 66 showcases breathtaking natural features, many of which are integral to America’s natural heritage.
- Meramec Caverns, near Stanton
- Blue Whale of Catoosa, a famed roadside attraction
- Palo Duro Canyon State Park, south of Amarillo
- The Grand Canyon, accessible from a northern detour off Route 66
- The Mojave Desert exemplifies the region’s aridity before converging with the urban sprawl of Greater Los Angeles
U.S. Route 66, often referred to as the “Mother Road” or “Main Street of America,” has been immortalized through various forms of literature, films, music, and other pop culture mediums, sealing its place as an iconic symbol of Americana.
Literature and Films
John Steinbeck famously dubbed Route 66 the “Mother Road” in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” epitomizing the highway as a symbol of escape and hope during the Great Depression. This road served as a backdrop for the Joad family’s arduous journey from the Dust Bowl to California, highlighting the socioeconomic struggles of the era. The mystique and adventures around Route 66 have also been captured in numerous films, contributing to the legendary status of this historic path.
Music and Popularity
The song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” written by Bobby Troup and popularized by artists like Nat King Cole, has contributed significantly to the popularity and romanticized image of Route 66. Lyrics enumerating cities along the highway allude to the freedom and excitement inherent in the idea of a cross-country road trip. Moreover, a 1960s television series titled “Route 66” followed two young men exploring social issues across America, spreading the lore of the highway. These portrayals have ingrained Route 66 in the American consciousness, underscoring its enduring nickname, “Main Street of America.” Through music, the essence and allure of Route 66 are captured and celebrated, delivering the notion of the open road and the quest for self-discovery to a broad audience.
Travel and Tourist Attractions
U.S. Route 66, also known as the Main Street of America, offers an array of unique travel experiences, from roadside attractions and museums to national parks and scenic views. Tourists can explore the heartland of America’s cultural heritage and natural beauty along this historic highway.
Roadside Attractions and Museums
Route 66 is renowned for its quirky roadside attractions that capture the spirit of American travel. Landmarks like the Meramec Caverns in Missouri offer breathtaking underground tours and hold a piece of the nation’s history as a hideout for the infamous outlaw Jesse James. The state of Galena, Kansas, presents another must-see with restored vintage gas stations and diners that provide a tangible link to the past.
Travelers are often keen to visit the numerous dedicated museums along the route that preserve and interpret the road’s rich legacy. Museums such as the Route 66 Mother Road Museum, located in Barstow, California, offer insights into the highway’s impact on American culture and the evolution of cross-country travel.
|Popular Roadside Attractions
|Route 66 Mother Road Museum
|Historic Gas Stations
National Parks and Scenic Views
Along the National Scenic Byway of Route 66, travelers are greeted with opportunities to witness the vast, diverse landscapes of the United States. The route winds through numerous national parks and scenic areas overseen by the National Park Service, offering a glimpse into the natural grandeur of America.
From arid deserts to fertile plains, each segment of Route 66 presents unique vistas. Signs erected by the National Park Service guide visitors to the parks themselves and the scenic routes offering some of the country’s most picturesque drives. The experience of driving through varied environments is a cornerstone of the Route 66 adventure.
|Notable National Parks
|Notable Scenic Views
|Petrified Forest National Park
|Painted Desert, AZ
|Grand Canyon National Park
|Grand Canyon, AZ
Tourists can stay in heritage motels or dine in retro diners, adding to the authenticity of their journey. Route 66’s allure is maintained through these preserved and operational slices of history, ensuring that the travel experience remains as enriching today as it has been for decades.
Preservation efforts for U.S. Route 66 have been pivotal in maintaining the highway’s historic significance and legacy. These undertakings ensure that the nostalgic character of this iconic roadway endures for future generations.
The National Park Service (NPS) has been at the forefront of restoration efforts for Route 66. Through the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, the NPS provides financial and technical assistance to preserve the most representative and significant resources along the route. In partnership with organizations, private individuals, and other government agencies, the NPS has enabled various projects to refurbish vintage road signs, rehabilitate historic roadhouses, and conserve aging landmarks.
- Financial grants: These contribute to the preservation of historic buildings and infrastructure.
- Technical guidance: Offered to owners of historic properties along Route 66.
Congress recognized the significance of preserving Route 66 by enacting legislation aimed at retaining the road’s historical and cultural heritage. The highway has been designated as a historical corridor, with parts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This status helps protect the road’s integrity and maintains its storied past.
Highlights on Designations:
- National Register of Historic Places: Sections of Route 66 have been listed, acknowledging their historic value.
- Historic Route 66 designation: Encompasses the overall historical significance of the route rather than individual landmarks, allowing for a more comprehensive preservation approach.
San Bernardino County and other counties through which Historic Route 66 runs have seen the development of local preservation policies, reflecting a wider commitment to the road’s storied legacy. These policies often dovetail with state and federal preservation efforts, ensuring a layered and cooperative approach to maintaining the route’s historical fabric.
U.S. Route 66 retains significance in today’s context through sustained economic influence and the dedicated efforts of preservation organizations.
Route 66 continues to be a vital economic artery in the Southwest. Travelers embarking on their journey along the historic segments contribute to the local economies through tourism. The modern Route 66 adventure itinerary includes visiting iconic landmarks, dining at traditional eateries, and staying in motels that echo the Americana charm of yesteryear, providing a financial boost to businesses preserving their Route 66 heritage.
Route 66 Associations
Associations committed to the preservation of U.S. Route 66 play a crucial role in keeping its legacy alive. They focus on maintaining the historical integrity of original segments and on promoting the legendary travel route to new generations of explorers. Through community events, information resources, and advocacy efforts, these associations facilitate a connection between the past and present of Route 66, ensuring its continued relevance and conservation.
Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. Route 66, often celebrated in popular culture and known as the “Main Street of America,” underwent significant transformations in transportation and infrastructure from its inception to its eventual replacement by the Interstate Highway System. The route’s development marked a radical shift in travel and economic activity across the central United States.
Evolution from Dirt Roads
Initially, segments of Route 66 were little more than upgraded dirt tracks, typifying the early challenges for automobile travel. Paving of the route was a gradual process, addressed in a piecemeal fashion as funding and technology allowed. By 1938, the entirety of Route 66 was fully paved, transforming it into a reliable thoroughfare and significantly improving the travel experience for motorists.
Impact of the Interstate Highway System
The introduction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, with its contemporary road engineering and increased capacity, eventually heralded the decline of Route 66. New interstates provided faster, more direct routes for long-distance travel, diverting traffic away from Route 66. Over time, this iconic road’s entire segments were bypassed and no longer used. Fuel efficiency and the speed of the interstates modernized cross-country travel, leading to the rise of fuel stations, drive-ins, and motels designed to cater to a mobile America. The legacy of Route 66, however, survives as a symbol of freedom and the open road.
Economic and Societal Themes
U.S. Route 66 was an economic lifeline through America’s heartland and encapsulated significant societal changes from the Dust Bowl era to the postwar boom.
The Dust Bowl and Migration
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, particularly in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. These individuals and families, often termed “Okies,” migrated westward on Route 66, seeking employment and a new life in California. Route 66 served as a physical pathway and a symbol of hope during the Great Depression, reflecting the resilience and mobility of the American spirit.
- Depression Era: Heightened migration flows.
- Native American Impact: Often displaced with others, facing both opportunity and adversity.
Commerce and Trade
Route 66 spurred numerous economic opportunities during its heyday, fostering commerce and trading in the towns it connected. After World War II, the road experienced a boom in tourism and local businesses, including motels, diners, and gas stations, creating a unique commercial ecosystem.
- Post-WWII Boom: An increase in leisure travel led to the proliferation of roadside businesses.
- Trading Hubs: Small towns along the route became local trade and interaction centers.
Route 66 in Art and Media
Route 66 has captured the American imagination, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s art and media. This historic highway has been a catalyst for creativity, inspiring artists and writers who have immortalized its significance through various forms of expression.
John Steinbeck referred to Route 66 as the “Mother Road” in his seminal work, The Grapes of Wrath. The novel highlights the journey of the “Okies,” displaced farmers traveling from the Dust Bowl to California on Route 66, seeking a better life during the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s portrayal is a crucial literary reference, elevating Route 66 as a symbol of hope and despair.
Music and Visual Arts
In music, Bobby Troup penned the iconic song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66“, famously covered by Nat King Cole. These lyrics became synonymous with the road trip experience along the storied highway, celebrating the adventurous spirit of travel. The lasting impact of this tune speaks volumes about the road’s cultural resonance.
The influence of Route 66 extended into television with the Television Series of the same name. The show followed two characters embarking on a journey across the United States, featuring Route 66 as a backdrop to their episodic adventures, solidifying the highway’s place in American pop culture. This served to ingrain further the idea of Route 66 not just as a road but as an experience and a source of storytelling inspiration.
Planning Your Route 66 Journey
Embarking on a journey along historic Route 66, the individual must start by setting forth an itinerary that balances the multitude of sights and attractions with realistic daily travel distances. The route itself, approximately 2,448 miles in length, stretches from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, offering a quintessential slice of Americana.
Starting Point – Chicago: The traveler should allow time to explore the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago, perhaps including landmarks like the Willis Tower and Buckingham Fountain, before heading west.
Major Stops Include:
- Springfield, Illinois: A must-visit for history buffs interested in Abraham Lincoln’s home.
- Tulsa & Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: These cities offer a glimpse into the heartland’s vibrant culture and history.
- Amarillo, Texas: Famous for the Cadillac Ranch, an iconic public art installation.
- Albuquerque, New Mexico: Here, one can see the influence of Native American and Spanish cultures.
- Flagstaff, Arizona: A gateway to the Grand Canyon and known for its historic downtown and Route 66 legacy.
- Barstow, California: Close to ghost towns and museums, Barstow serves as a window into the region’s past.
End Point – Santa Monica: Concluding the journey in Santa Monica means experiencing the end-of-the-trail sign on the iconic Santa Monica Pier.
Travelers should plan for accommodations in advance, as some towns along Route 66 are small with limited lodging options. A mix of hotel stays and vintage motels can enhance the experience. Remember to carry a map and download offline directions, as some sections can be remote with inconsistent cellular service.
- Time Allocation: Most travelers take 2-3 weeks to complete the trip, allowing time for detours and exploration.
- Season: Aim for spring or fall for the best weather and avoid the heat of the southwest summer.
- Vehicle: Ensure it’s well-maintained and equipped for long distances. Consider renting a classic car for an authentic experience.
A road map with marked destinations and attractions is invaluable. Travelers should remain flexible, as the allure of Route 66 is in the unexpected discoveries along the open road.
Frequently Asked Questions about Route 66
This section aims to address common inquiries about U.S. Route 66, covering its attractions, cities, safety, current status, symbolism, and navigation.
What are the must-see attractions along Route 66?
Travelers on Route 66 should consider visiting the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, the Meramec Caverns in Missouri, and the Santa Monica Pier in California. These landmarks offer a glimpse into the road’s historical and cultural significance.
Which major cities can travelers visit along Route 66?
Route 66 runs through several major cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles. Each city offers a unique experience reflective of the region’s history and culture.
What are the reasons behind Route 66’s reputation for being dangerous?
Route 66 earned a dangerous reputation due to narrow lanes, lack of shoulders, and sharp curves in certain sections. However, modern interstates have bypassed many parts of the road to improve safety.
Has Route 66 been completely closed, or can you still drive on parts of it?
Although Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, many sections remain drivable. Some stretches have been designated as National Scenic Byway and renamed Historic Route 66.
What makes Route 66 an iconic and famous roadway in American history?
Route 66 is iconic due to its role in westward migration during the Dust Bowl, its portrayal in pop culture, and its influence on American automobile travel and the economy.
Given its changes over the years, how do you navigate Route 66 today?
Today, navigating Route 66 involves following the Historic Route 66 signage and relying on travel guides and maps that highlight the existing roadbed and accessible segments.