U.S. Route 66 (also known as the Will Rogers Highway, “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road”) was a highway in the U.S. Highway System. One of the original U.S. highways, Route 66 (US Highway 66), was established on November 11, 1926. However, road signs did not go up until the following year.
The famous highway originally started from Chicago, Illinois, and ran through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, encompassing a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km).
It was recognized in popular culture by both a hit song (written by Bobby Troup and performed by the Nat King Cole Trio and The Rolling Stones, among others) and the Route 66 television show in the 1960s.
Route 66 underwent many improvements and realignments over its lifetime, changing its path and overall length. Many of the realignments gave travelers faster and safer routes, or detoured around city congestion. One realignment moved the western endpoint farther west from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.
Route 66 was a major path of the migrants who went west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and supported the economies of the communities through which the road passed through. People doing business along the route became prosperous due to the growing popularity of the highway, and those same people later fought to keep the highway alive even with the growing threat of being bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System.
US 66 (Route 66) was officially removed from the United States Highway System on June 27, 1985 after it was decided the route was no longer relevant and had been replaced by the Interstate Highway System. Portions of the road that passed through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona have been designated a National Scenic Byway of the name “Historic Route 66”. It has begun to return to maps in this form. Some portions of the road in southern California have been redesignated “State Route 66” and others bear “Historic Route 66” signs and relevant historic information.
Over the years, U.S. Route 66 received many nicknames. Right after Route 66 was commissioned, it was known as “The Great Diagonal Way” because the Chicago-to-Oklahoma City stretch ran northeast to southwest. Later, Route 66 was advertised by the U.S. Highway 66 Association as “The Main Street of America”. The title had also been claimed by supporters of U.S. Route 40, but the Route 66 group was more successful. In the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath, the highway is called “The Mother Road”, its prevailing title today. Lastly, Route 66 was unofficially named “The Will Rogers Highway” by the U.S. Highway 66 Association in 1952, although a sign along the road with that name appeared in the John Ford film, The Grapes of Wrath, which was released in 1940, twelve years before the association gave the road that name. A plaque dedicating the highway to Will Rogers is still located in Santa Monica, California. There are more plaques like this; one can be found in Galena, Kansas. It was originally located on the Kansas-Missouri state line, but moved to the Howard Litch Memorial Park in 2001.
Before the U.S. Highway system
In 1857, Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a Naval officer in the service of the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, was ordered by the War Department to build a government-funded wagon road across the 35th Parallel. His secondary orders were to test the feasibility of the use of camels as pack animals in the southwestern desert. This road became part of U.S. Route 66.
Before a nationwide network of numbered highways was adopted by the states, named auto trails were marked by private organizations. The route that would become Route 66 was covered by three highways. The Lone Star Route passed through St. Louis on its way from Chicago to Cameron, Louisiana, though US 66 would take a shorter route through Bloomington rather than Peoria. The transcontinental National Old Trails Road led via St. Louis to Los Angeles, but was not followed until New Mexico; instead US 66 used one of the main routes of the Ozark Trails system, which ended at the National Old Trails Road just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Again, a shorter route was taken, here following the Postal Highway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo. Finally, the National Old Trails Road became the rest of the route to Los Angeles.
Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not realized until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development.
While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction.
Officially, the numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came its acknowledgment as one of the nation’s principal east–west arteries.
From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.
Birthplace and Rise of Route 66
Officially recognized as the birthplace of US Route 66, it was in Springfield Missouri on April 30, 1926 that officials first proposed the name of the new Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. A placard in Park Central Square was dedicated to the city by the Route 66 Association of Missouri, and traces of the “Mother Road” are still visible in downtown Springfield along Kearney Street, Glenstone Avenue, College and St. Louis streets and on Missouri 266 to Halltown.
Championed by Tulsa, Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery when the first talks about a national highway system began, US 66 was first signed into law in 1927 as one of the original U.S. Highways, although it was not completely paved until 1938. Avery was adamant that the highway have a round number and had proposed number 60 to identify it. A controversy erupted over the number 60, largely from delegates from Kentucky which wanted a Virginia Beach–Los Angeles highway to be US 60 and US 62 between Chicago and Springfield, Missouri. Arguments and counter-arguments continued and the final conclusion was to have US 60 run between Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Springfield, Missouri, and the Chicago–L.A. route be US 62. Avery settled on “66” (which was unassigned) because he thought the double-digit number would be easy to remember as well as pleasant to say and hear.
The state of Missouri released its 1926 state highway map with the highway labeled as U.S. Route 60.
After the new federal highway system was officially created, Clayton Avery called for the establishment of the U.S. Highway 66 Association to promote the complete paving of the highway from end to end and to promote travel down the highway. In 1927, in Tulsa, the association was officially established with John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri elected the first president.
In 1928, the association made its first attempt at publicity, the “Bunion Derby”, a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, of which the path from Los Angeles to Chicago would be on Route 66. The publicity worked: several dignitaries, including Will Rogers, greeted the runners at certain points on the route. The race ended in Madison Square Garden, where the $25,000 first prize was awarded to Andy Hartley Payne, a Cherokee runner from Oklahoma. The association went on to serve as a voice for businesses along the highway until it disbanded in 1976.
Traffic grew on the highway because of the geography through which it passed. Much of the highway was essentially flat and this made the highway a popular truck route. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s saw many farming families (mainly from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas) heading west for agricultural jobs in California. Route 66 became the main road of travel for these people, often derogatorily called “Okies” or “Arkies”. And during the Depression, it gave some relief to communities located on the highway. The route passed through numerous small towns, and with the growing traffic on the highway, helped create the rise of mom-and-pop businesses, such as service stations, restaurants, and motor courts, all readily accessible to passing motorists.
Much of the early highway, like all the other early highways, was gravel or graded dirt. Due to the efforts of the US Highway 66 Association, Route 66 became the first highway to be completely paved in 1938. Several places were dangerous: more than one part of the highway was nicknamed “Bloody 66” and gradually work was done to realign these segments to remove dangerous curves. However, one section just outside Oatman, Arizona (through the Black Mountains) was fraught with hairpin turns and was the steepest along the entire route, so much so that some early travelers, too frightened at the prospect of driving such a potentially dangerous road, hired locals to navigate the winding grade. The section remained as Route 66 until 1953, and is still open to traffic today as the Oatman Highway. Despite such hazards in some areas, Route 66 continued to be a popular route.
During World War II, more migration west occurred because of war-related industries in California. Route 66, already popular and fully paved, became one of the main routes and also served for moving military equipment. Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri was located near the highway, which was locally upgraded quickly to a divided highway to help with military traffic. When Richard Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, he used to travel the nearly 100 miles (160 km) to visit his wife, who was dying of tuberculosis, in a sanatorium located on Route 66 in Albuquerque.
In the 1950s, Route 66 became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles. The road passed through the Painted Desert and near the Grand Canyon. Meteor Crater in Arizona was another popular stop. This sharp increase in tourism in turn gave rise to a burgeoning trade in all manner of roadside attractions, including teepee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands, Indian curio shops, and reptile farms. Meramec Caverns near St. Louis began advertising on barns, billing itself as the “Jesse James hideout”.
The Big Texan advertised a free 72-ounce (2 kg) steak dinner to anyone who could consume the entire meal in one hour. It also marked the birth of the fast-food industry: Red’s Giant Hamburgs in Springfield, Missouri, site of the first drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, California. Changes like these to the landscape further cemented 66’s reputation as a near-perfect microcosm of the culture of America, now linked by the automobile.
Changes in routing
Many sections of US 66 underwent major realignments.
- In 1930, between Springfield and East St. Louis, Illinois, US 66 was shifted further east to what is now roughly I-55. The original alignment followed the current Illinois Route 4.
- From downtown St. Louis to Gray Summit, Missouri, US 66 originally went down Market Street and Manchester Road (now, largely, Route 100). In 1932, this route was changed, the original alignment never being viewed as anything more than temporary. The planned route was down Watson Road (now Route 366), but Watson Road had not yet been completed.
- From west of El Reno, Oklahoma, to Bridgeport, Oklahoma, US 66 turned north to Calumet, Oklahoma, and then west to Geary, Oklahoma, then southwest across the South Canadian River over a suspension toll bridge into Bridgeport, Oklahoma. In 1933, a straighter cut-off route was completed from west of El Reno directly to a point one mile (1.6 km) south of Bridgeport, crossing over a 38-span steel pony truss bridge over the South Canadian River and bypassing both Calumet and Geary by several miles.
- From west of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, to north of Los Lunas, New Mexico, the road originally turned north from current I-40 along much of what is now US 84 to near Las Vegas, New Mexico, followed (roughly) I-25 — then the decertified US 85 through Santa Fe and Albuquerque to Los Lunas and then turned northwest along the present State Highway 6 alignment to a point near Laguna. In 1937, a straight-line route was completed from west of Santa Rosa through Moriarty and east–west through Albuquerque and west to Laguna. This newer routing saved travelers as much as four hours of travel through New Mexico. According to legend the rerouting was done at the behest of Democratic Governor Arthur T. Hannett to punish the Republican Santa Fe Ring which had long dominated New Mexico out of Santa Fe.
- In 1940, the first freeway in Los Angeles was incorporated into Route 66: The Arroyo Seco Parkway, later known as the Pasadena Freeway.
- Since the 1950s, as interstates were constructed, sections of Route 66 not only saw the traffic drain to those interstates, but often the name itself was moved to the faster means of travel. In some cases such as to the east of St. Louis this was done as soon as the interstate was finished to the next exit.
- In 1936, Route 66 was extended from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, terminating at US 101 ALT, today the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard (a segment of State Route 1). Even though there is a plaque dedicating Route 66 as the Will Rogers Highway placed at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard, the highway never terminated there.
- US 66 was rerouted around several larger cities via bypass or beltline routes to permit travelers to avoid city traffic congestion. Some of those cities included Springfield, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Rolla, Missouri; Springfield, Missouri; Joplin, Missouri; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The beginning of the end for Route 66 came in 1956 with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by President Dwight Eisenhower who was influenced by his experiences in 1919 as a young Army officer crossing the country in a truck convoy (following the route of the Lincoln Highway), and his appreciation of the German Autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system.
During its nearly 60-year existence, Route 66 was under constant change. As highway engineering became more sophisticated, engineers constantly sought more direct routes between cities and towns. Increased traffic led to a number of major and minor realignments of US 66 through the years, particularly in the years immediately following World War II when Illinois began widening US 66 to four lanes through virtually the entire state from Chicago to the Mississippi River just east of St. Louis, Missouri, and included bypasses around virtually all of the towns. By the early-to-mid 1950s, Missouri also upgraded its sections of US 66 to four lanes complete with bypasses. Most of the newer four-lane 66 paving in both states was upgraded to freeway status in later years.
One of the remnants of Route 66 is the highway now known as Veterans Parkway, east and south of Normal, Illinois, and Bloomington, Illinois. The two sweeping curves on the southeast and southwest of the cities originally were intended to easily handle traffic at speeds up to 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), as part of an effort to make Illinois 66 an Autobahn equivalent for military transport.
In 1953, the first major bypassing of US 66 occurred in Oklahoma with the opening of the Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The new 88-mile (142 km) toll road paralleled US 66 for its entire length and bypassed each of the towns along 66. The Turner Turnpike was joined in 1957 by the new Will Rogers Turnpike, which connected Tulsa with the Oklahoma-Missouri border west of Joplin, Missouri, again paralleling US 66 and bypassing the towns in northeastern Oklahoma in addition to the entire state of Kansas. Both Oklahoma turnpikes were soon designated as Interstate 44, along with the US 66 bypass at Tulsa that connected the city with both turnpikes.
In some cases, such as many areas in Illinois, the new interstate highway not only paralleled the old Route 66, it actually incorporated much of it. A typical approach was to build one new set of lanes, then move one direction of traffic to it, while retaining the original road for traffic flowing in the opposite direction. Then a second set of lanes for traffic flowing in the other direction would be constructed, finally followed by abandoning the other old set of lanes or converting them into a frontage road.
The same scenario was used in western Oklahoma when US 66 was initially upgraded to a four-lane highway such as from Sayre through Erick to the Texas border at Texola in 1957 and 1958 where the old paving was retained for westbound traffic and a new parallel lane built for eastbound traffic (much of this section was entirely bypassed by I-40 in 1975), and on two other sections; from Canute to Elk City in 1959 and Hydro to Weatherford in 1960, both of which were upgraded with the construction of a new westbound lane in 1966 to bring the highway up to full interstate standards and demoting the old US 66 paving to frontage road status. In the initial process of constructing I-40 across western Oklahoma, the state also included projects to upgrade the through routes in El Reno, Weatherford, Clinton, Canute, Elk City, Sayre, Erick, and Texola to four-lane highways not only to provide seamless transitions from the rural sections of I-40 from both ends of town but also to provide easy access to those cities in later years after the I-40 bypasses were completed.
In New Mexico, as in most other states, rural sections of I-40 were to be constructed first with bypasses around cities to come later. However, some business and civic leaders in cities along US 66 were completely opposed to bypassing fearing loss of business and tax revenues. In 1963, the New Mexico Legislature enacted legislation that banned the construction of interstate bypasses around cities by local request. This legislation was short-lived, however, due to pressures from Washington and threat of loss of federal highway funds so it was rescinded by 1965. In 1964, Tucumcari and San Jon became the first cities in New Mexico to work out an agreement with state and federal officials in determining the locations of their I-40 bypasses as close to their business areas as possible in order to permit easy access for highway travelers to their localities. Other cities soon fell in line including Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Grants and Gallup although it wasn’t until well into the 1970s that most of those cities would be bypassed by I-40.
By the late 1960s, most of the rural sections of US 66 had been replaced by I-40 across New Mexico with the most notable exception being the 40-mile (64 km) strip from the Texas border at Glenrio west through San Jon to Tucumcari, which was becoming increasingly treacherous due to heavier and heavier traffic on the narrow two-lane highway. During 1968 and 1969, this section of US 66 was often referred to by locals and travelers as “Slaughter Lane” due to numerous injury and fatal accidents on this stretch. Local and area business and civic leaders and news media called upon state and federal highway officials to get I-40 built through the area; however, disputes over proposed highway routing in the vicinity of San Jon held up construction plans for several years as federal officials proposed that I-40 run some five to six miles (10 km) north of that city while local and state officials insisted on following a proposed route that touched the northern city limits of San Jon. In November of 1969, a truce was reached when federal highway officials agreed to build the I-40 route just outside of the city, therefore providing local businesses dependent on highway traffic easy access to and from the expressway via the north–south highway that crossed old US 66 in San Jon. Interstate 40 was completed from Glenrio to the east side of San Jon in 1976 and extended west to Tucumcari in 1981, including the bypasses around both cities.
Originally, highway officials planned for the last section of US 66 to be bypassed by interstates in Texas, but as was the case in many places, lawsuits held up construction of the new interstates. The US Highway 66 Association had become a voice for the people who feared the loss of their businesses. Since the interstates only provided access via ramps at intersections, travelers could not pull directly off a highway into a business. At first, plans were laid out to allow (mainly national chains) to be placed in interstate medians. Such lawsuits effectively prevented this on all but toll roads. Some towns in Missouri threatened to sue the state if the US 66 designation was removed from the road, though lawsuits never materialized. Several businesses were well known to be on US 66, and fear of losing the number resulted in the state of Missouri officially requesting the designation “Interstate 66” for the St. Louis to Oklahoma City section of the route, but it was denied. In 1984, Arizona also saw its final stretch of highway decommissioned with the completion of Interstate 40 just north of Williams, Arizona. Finally, with decertification of the highway by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials the following year, U.S. Route 66 officially ceased to exist.
With the decommissioning of US 66, no single interstate route was designated to replace it. Interstate 55 covered the section from Chicago to St. Louis; Interstate 44 carried the traffic on to Oklahoma City; Interstate 40 took the largest chunk, replacing 66 to Barstow, California; Interstate 15 took over for the route to San Bernardino; and Interstate 210 and State Route 2 or Interstate 10 carried the traffic of Route 66 across the Los Angeles metropolitan area to Santa Monica, and the seashore.
When the highway was decommissioned, sections of the road were disposed of in various ways. Within many cities, the route became a “business loop” for the interstate. Some sections became state roads, local roads, private drives, or were abandoned completely. Although it is no longer possible to drive Route 66 uninterrupted all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles, much of the original route and alternate alignments are still drivable with careful planning. Some stretches are quite well preserved, including one between Springfield, Missouri, and Tulsa. Some sections of Route 66 still retain their historic eight-foot-wide “sidewalk highway” form, never having been resurfaced to make them into full-width highways.
Some states have kept the 66 designation for parts of the highway, albeit as state roads. In Missouri, Routes 366, 266, and 66 are all original sections of the highway. State Highway 66 in Oklahoma remains as the alternate “free” route near its turnpikes. “Historic Route 66” runs for a significant distance in and near Flagstaff, Arizona. Farther west, a long segment of Route 66 in Arizona runs significantly north of Interstate 40, and it is designated as State Route 66. This runs from Seligman to Kingman, Arizona, via Peach Springs. A surface street stretch between San Bernardino and La Verne (known as Foothill Boulevard) to the east of Los Angeles retains its number as State Route 66. Several county roads and city streets at various places along the old route have also retained the “66” number.
First Route 66 associations were founded in Arizona in 1987, New Mexico incorporated on August 23rd of 1989. and Missouri in 1989 (incorporated in 1990). Other groups in the other Route 66 states soon followed. In 1990, the state of Missouri declared Route 66 in that state a “State Historic Route”. The first “Historic Route 66” marker in Missouri was erected on Kearney Street at Glenstone Avenue in Springfield, Missouri (now replaced — the original sign has been placed at Route 66 State Park near Eureka). Other historic markers now line—at times sporadically—the entire 2,400 mile (3,860 km) length of road. There are instances in California, Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma where the road surface itself has been painted with one of a number of similar symbols. Some of those symbols include:
- An outline of a federal highway shield with the number “66” and the state name, painted entirely in white.
- A black outline of the shield with the state also painted in black, but with the “66” painted in white.
- A solid white square with a shield outline, state name, and “66” painted in black over it.
- A solid white shield with patches of the pavement exposed to depict a horizontal line and the number “66” (and no other words).
A section of the road in Arizona was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; the Arroyo Seco Parkway in the Los Angeles Area and Route 66 in New Mexico have been made into National Scenic Byways; and in 2005, the State of Missouri made the road a state scenic byway from Illinois to Kansas. In the cities of Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, and San Bernardino in California, there are US 66 signs erected along Foothill Boulevard, and also on Huntington Drive in the city of Arcadia. “Historic Route 66” signs may be found along the old route in Pasadena (on Colorado Boulevard), San Dimas, LaVerne, and Claremont, California (along Foothill Boulevard). The city of Glendora, California renamed Alosta Avenue, its section of Route 66, by calling it Route 66. Flagstaff, Arizona renamed all but a few blocks of Sante Fe Avenue as Route 66.
Many preservation groups have also tried to save and even tried to landmark the old motels and neon signs along the road in different states.
In 1999 the National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which provided for $10 million in matching fund grants for preserving and restoring the historic features along the route.
Modern-day sign in New Mexico, along a section of Route 66 named a National Scenic Byway
In 2008, The World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to its World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Sites along the route, such as gas stations, motels, cafes, trading posts, and drive-in movie theaters are threatened by development in urban areas, and by abandonment and decay in rural areas.
As the popularity and mythical stature of Route 66 has continued to grow, demands have begun to mount to improve signage, return Route 66 to road atlases and revive its status as a continuous routing. Along these lines Route 66 has been established as a National Scenic Byway in Illinois, Arizona and New Mexico with National Scenic Byway status pending in Oklahoma and Missouri as of 2007. Another move is also afoot that aims to reinstate Route 66 as an official U.S. Route.
Today, many domestic and international travelers are on Route 66 driving it, experiencing it, and saving it. Not only do state and national Route 66 associations exist, but many from countries like Japan, Germany, Australia, Italy and so on. 80% of the original Route 66 is still driveable and many older original sections still exist next to the newer ones. Businesses are being reopened, buildings being renovated, signs being restored and now there are several websites (like this one) and social media groups about Route 66. Campaigns to save bridges, to hold festivals (both local, state, national and now international) as well as dedicated ‘roadies’ who are the new gatekeepers and guardians of Route 66.
National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. has a section on U.S. Route 66 in its “America on the Move” exhibition. In the exhibit is a portion of pavement of the route taken from Bridgeport, Oklahoma and a restored car and truck of the type that would have been driven on the road in the 1930s. Also on display is a “Hamons Court” neon sign that hung at a gas station and tourist cabins near Hydro, Oklahoma, a “CABINS” neon sign that pointed to Ring’s Rest tourist cabins in Muirkirk, Maryland, as well as several post cards a traveler sent back to his future wife while touring the route.
Route 66: ‘once you drive part of it – you’ll want to drive all of it!’