It was born on November 11, 1926 when the U.S. Highway System officially came into being, and it was withdrawn from the route system on June 27, 1985 when the last bit of it had been replaced by interstates. Just eight years to the day before its creation, the armistice that ended the Great War with Germany had been signed, and the fighting ended at 11 a.m., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (thus, the origin of Veterans Day, aka Armistice Day). Route 66 was birthed into the middle of the Roaring Twenties, the decade of prosperity and Prohibition, the Charleston and Jazz, permissiveness and people wanting to forget the after-effects of WW II, not knowing that the decade would end with even greater desperation and tragedy once the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday and the Great Depression began.
The road began in Chicago for a reason: it was the transportation hub of the center of the nation, connecting both coasts with railroads, the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico through its waterways, and already smack in the center of a network of roads as well. The length of Illinois was already paved from Chicago to St. Louis, and that pavement would become the basis of Route 66 in Illinois. In fact, Illinois would be the first state to have its portion of Route 66 completely paved. On day one of the route’s existence. Today, it’s the state with the greatest portion of its section of the historic road still extant. In Illinois, Route 66 is still there to be driven, for most of its length.
U.S. Route 66 was the first all-weather road from Chicago to Los Angeles, and it was originally 2,448 miles long (the length altered over the years as later alignments bypassed many towns to speed traffic, just as the interstates would do later). At first, it was known as the Main Street of America, though the Lincoln Highway vied with it for that title. Then it was christened the Mother Road by John Steinbeck in his 1939 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath, immortalized on film the following year by director John Ford. After that, everyone knew what Route 66 was: a road of promise.
By the time it was renamed the Will Rogers Highway (a label nobody outside of Oklahoma or Hollywood uses, by the way), it was the most famous road in the country. It’s known all over the planet as that most quintessential American road, the one you travel if you want to know what the people here are really like. The one laid to connect the heartland with the West, the third coast with the second. It was all about the automobile, that ultimate 20th century symbol of freedom, and its sibling: the open road that let you see the many landscapes of the country. The last continental frontier. Even now, it grabs the imagination, infects it with wanderlust and won’t let go. The best American road trip ever.
If you know about the origins of Route 66, you know about entrepreneur Cyrus Avery and all the delegates of the state highway associations who met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (no U.S. DoT back then) to create the national route system. What you many not know, however, it that it was necessary because private road building wasn’t working for the citizenry, and state road building varied quite a bit from state to state. Let me repeat that, lest you miss the point: privatization wasn’t working. Not for the people who had to use the roads designated as national trails.
Oh, the national trail system was working fine for the members of the National Old Trails Association, who were mostly businessmen whose enterprises lined the various auto ‘trails’ drawn up by local organizations to get from point A to point B. The trouble was, those trail groups were more interested in leading drivers past their businesses than in directing automobile drivers efficiently to wherever they wanted to go. the trail system was usually not the shortest route between point A and point B. The trouble was, if a state tried to create a more direct road (if it had the money and incentive to do so), it often ran into opposition from local interests whose businesses weren’t going to be on that new road. A national system, however, could overcome local opposition because it would consider the general welfare first. Imagine that: a road system created to better serve the public good, not local private interests.
The American Association of State Highway Officials agreed it was necessary (and oh, they needed some federal money to help build that system, too). Federal money hadn’t been involved in road building in a big way before that. The U.S. route system would mark the beginning of an enormous change, in that respect. Although the delegates chose whenever possible to draw the routes along already existing roads that met their requirements, the truth was that in newer states out west (such as Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma, for example), railroads had been so successful that road building had fallen behind. The U.S. route system and the federal financing that came with it was intended as much to stimulate road building in those states as to make sense of the existing road network and allow commerce to flow freely from one coast to another along those roads. Commerce and tourists, of course.
As the National Park Service notes on its web pages about Route 66, “The official origin of Route 66 was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 [aka the Phipps Act]. A road assessment of a decade earlier estimated the total mileage of rural roads in America at approximately 2.5 million miles, 10.5% of them surfaced. Of those 257,291 miles, only 32,180 had pavement of bituminous material, brick, or concrete. The intent of the … Highway Act of 1921, successor to the earlier highway appropriations legislation of 1916, was to create a coherent highway network” by focusing federal funds on projects that would help complete “an adequate and connected system of interstate highways. A minimum of 60% of Federal funds were to be spent on what was designated the primary or interstate network.” Thus, the federal funding was both carrot and stick to get those new roads built.
And they were needed: the rise in car ownership exerted its own pressure. In 1910, there were 180,000 registered automobiles in the U.S., or about one car for every 5,000 people. That in itself was enough to spur the formation of the national trails movement. But thanks to Henry Ford and his Model T, by 1920, there were 17 million more cars, trucks, and buses. It’s no surprise that the citizenry demanded better highways to serve the growing number of privately owned cars.
Even the national trails system had its origins in something else, however: pioneer trails and the Good Roads Movement. Which, ironically, was begun by bicyclists during the last quarter of the 19th century so that they had surfaced roads on which they could ride their bikes (don’t laugh: it was a big deal back then). Once automobiles began to gain popularity and become more numerous, the drivers joined the Good Roads Mmovement. Trail associations promoted their particular roads to drivers by creating maps and guides, letting tourists and commercial drivers know where they could find reliable lodging and food along the roads. And yet, this was insufficient for people doing distance driving. The direct route was often not what the trail associations had in mind. Of course, redrawing roads so that they better served drivers meant that somebody’s ox was going to get gored. Most certainly, representatives of the trail associations argued long and hard with those designing the national route system to keep their designations. That fell apart when the state representatives agreed that a numerical labeling system was the better option.
The states had their own issues. The U.S. routes would be overwhelmingly drawn either north-south or east-west. The most important roads would be designated by numbers that ended in 0 or 1. As it happened, the diagonal road that would be the main all-weather artery between Chicago and Los Angeles was supposed to be designated as one of those major roads, Route 60. Except for one thing: the delegates doing the labeling got a cacophanous complaint from the delegates from Kentucky, who protested that not one major road went through their state. Bluntly, they were jealous that Chicago would have more than one and they would have none. It was a matter of prestige, and Kentucky was willing to hold up the entire process to get its way. So much for the manners of genteel Kentucky colonels.
As it happened, Kentucky didn’t get its way (turns out that its delegation hadn’t paid its dues yet and therefore couldn’t vote anyway). Not completely. But Cyrus Avery, after long debate for two days, finally just asked whether any road had yet been designated as 66. None had. So Avery suggested that the all-weather road running through eight states to link Chicago and Los Angeles be designated Route 66 (he figured 66 would be memorable). And history was made.
Memorable? And how. Route 66 didn’t originally end in Santa Monica, either: it ended in central L.A. But that’s a story for another time.
Ciao for now, fellow roadies!