Historic Route 66

By the time the last part of Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, the legendary Mother Road had served as a path of hope for depression era families, a supply line for World War II industries, and a symbol of freedom to young adventurers. Like the Santa Fe, the Oregon, and other east-to-west trails that came before it, Route 66 is cemented in the American consciousness.

The idea of a super-highway that would go across the country took shape in 1926 and was the brainchild of several Midwestern businessmen. At the time, there were other routes that went from East to West, but they were exclusively for transportation of goods. The routes were linear and didn’t connect small towns. After much petitioning, funding was found to start building the road. After the depression halted construction for a few years, work began again in 1933. By 1938, the 2,300 mile highway was complete and stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. As it winded through the country, the two-lane highway passed through small towns in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

John Steinbeck was the first to coin the term “Mother Road” in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He described how his literary Joad family, like so many other American families at the time, used the road to escape the Depression. They headed West out of the Dust Bowl and on to California where there was promise of a new life.

During World War II, the US government established a heavy war industry in California and Route 66 was invaluable in the delivery of men and equipment. When the war ended, and America was beginning to experience a new prosperity, the tourism industry began to grow. Diners, motels, and roadside tourist traps all made their appearances. As popular as the road had become, the heavy truck traffic of the 40s had left it in disrepair.

  • Shadows of Route 66 – Explore the different states that hosted parts of Route 66
  • Road Trip USA – Descriptions and maps to help you plan a trip on the route

The lobby for the National Highway Act succeeded in the 1950s and it was only a matter of time before divided lane highways would replace Route 66. Despite this, the 1960s television show, “Route 66” renewed interest in the road as each episode took place along the route. A new generation discovered the pleasure and freedom of the open road as they discovered the country on cross-country drives.

Slowly, progress brought the old road to an end. In 1985, the last bit of the Route 66 was bypassed in Wilson, Arizona by the modern Interstate 40. Though Route 66 is gone, many parts of the new interstate systems follow the old road and remnants in the form of old attractions and signs can still be seen. Route 66 Associations in each state still manage to keep the Mother Road’s memory alive.

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