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 Get Your Kicks on Route 66
by Bob Brooke


Ever since the invention of the first automobile, America’s culture, economy, and even its architecture has been defined by the road. Many people associate roads with memories—a trip to grandma’s along a winding road during a gentle snow, the new landscapes rolling by the backseat window on the first big family vacation, a favorite drive where the automobile and the road become one. One of these iconic highways, dubbed the “Mother Road,” was U.S. Route 66.

John Steinbeck immortalized Route 66 in the Grapes of Wrath with his vivid descriptions of the dirty and desperate faces of the “Okies” fleeing the oppression of environmental degradation and financial injustice during the dust bowl. And later he took his readers on a romantic driving journey across the nation in Travels With Charley. William Least Heat-Moon gave his readers Blue Highways and MGM gave audiences a Technicolor yellow-brick road.

U.S. Route 66 , also known as the Will Rogers Highway or the Main Street of America, was one of the original highways within the U.S. highway system. The U.S. Congress established it on November 11, 1926, with road signs erected the following year. The highway originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California, near Los Angeles, spanning 2,448 miles.

Route 66 served as a primary route for hundreds of immigrants from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The road supported the economies of the communities through which it passed. People doing business along it became prosperous. As the route grew in popularity, business along it became prosperous.

Over its lifetime, Route 66 underwent many improvements and realignments. The Government officially removed it from the nation’s highway system in 1985. After it had been replaced by segments of the Interstate Highway System, portions of the road passing through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona became a National Scenic Byway with the name "Historic Route 66."

In 1857, the War Department ordered Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a Naval officer in the service of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, to build a government-funded wagon road along the 35th Parallel. It also ordered him to test the feasibility of the use of camels as pack animals in the southwestern desert. Eventually, this road became part of Route 66.

Before the states adopted a nationwide network of numbered highways, private organizations named and marked auto trails. The route that would become US 66 consisted of three of these early highways. The Lone Star Route passed through St. Louis on its way from Chicago to Cameron, Louisiana. The transcontinental National Old Trails Road continued from St. Louis to Los Vegas, New Mexico. And the National Old Trails Road which began just south of there and continued to Los Angeles.

The original inspiration for a roadway between Chicago and Los Angeles came from entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri.

How Route 66 Came to Be
Route 66 received its numerical designation on April 30, 1926 in Springfield, Missouri. Championed by Avery when the first talks about a national highway system began, Route 66 became one of the original U.S. highways in 1927.He was adamant that the highway have a round number and had proposed the number 60 to identify it. After many arguments, Avery and highway engineer John Page settled on the number "66," which had yet to be assigned.

Traffic grew on the highway because of the geography through which it passed. Since much of the highway was essentially flat, it became 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.

During the Depression, the route helped create many mom-and-pop businesses, such as service stations, restaurants, and motor courts, all easily accessible to passing motorists.

Much of the early highway, like all the others, was gravel or graded dirt. Route 66 became the first highway to be completely paved in 1938. But it did have some dangerous curves, earning part of it the nickname of "Bloody 66." Gradually, the Government realigned many of these bad segments to remove dangerous curves. However, one section through the Black Mountains outside Oatman, Arizona, had 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 part of Route 66 until 1953 and is still open to traffic today as the Oatman Highway.

Buildings Along the Way
Notable structures along Route 66 include the Art Deco–styled U-Drop Inn, constructed in 1936 in Shamrock, in Wheeler County east of Amarillo, Texas, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s also a restored Magnolia fuel station located in Shamrock as well as Vega, in Oldham County, west of Amarillo.

During World War II, more migration west occurred because of war-related industries in California. US 66, already popular and fully paved, became one of the main routes and also served for moving military equipment.

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 variety 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 steak dinner to anyone who could consume the entire meal in an hour.

Route 66 marked the birth of the fast-food industry. Red's Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, was the site of the first drive-through restaurant, as well as the first McDonald's in San Bernardino, California. The route became a near-perfect microcosm of the culture of America, now linked by the automobile.

The Beginning of the End
The beginning of the decline for US 66 came in 1956 with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was influenced by his experiences in 1919 as a young Army officer crossing the country in a truck convoy and an appreciation of Germany’s autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system.

During its nearly 60-year existence, Route 66 underwent 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 Route 66 through the years, particularly in the years immediately following World War II.

Although it’s no longer possible to drive US 66 uninterrupted from Chicago to Los Angeles, much of the original route and alternate alignments are still drivable with careful planning.

Over its lifetime, Route 66 underwent many improvements and realignments. The Government officially removed it from the nation’s highway system in 1985. After it had been replaced by segments of the Interstate Highway System, portions of the road passing through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona became a National Scenic Byway with the name "Historic Route 66."

Preserving the Past
All along Historic Route 66, preservation efforts are under way to preserve original buildings. The route was also responsible for the founding of many chain stores back in the 1920s that sprouted up next to it to increase business and sales. But when the US 66 signs disappeared, businesses along it were forced to close because motorists couldn’t find them.

American pop-culture artists publicized Route 66 and the experience of driving it, through song and television. Bobby Troup wrote "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66", and the highway lent its name to a TV series in the 1960s that still plays today on Retro TV.

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