By Jennifer Thompson
It becomes clear how drastically the lifestyle of Americans have changed when asking folks to reminisce about old Route 66. It was a time when so many were becoming mobile and moving into cities across the country. Yet memories revealed a slow pace of life, with family trips and plenty of time to stop at an old diner or spend the night in a roadside motel.
The origin of Route 66 can be traced back as far as pre-Civil War era, when the government sponsored a wagon road program to link the rural areas to populated centers by rough trails. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was decided that all-weather roads were necessary, to connect not only metropolitan areas but also coast to coast.
This became increasingly important during the movement into the automobile age, where personal mobility became a priority to many Americans. The National Old Trails Road Association was greatly responsible for the idea of an ocean-to-ocean passageway to retrace the historic trails and road construction, with which the federal government had been directly involved. This was the beginning of the tracing of the trails.
The first was the Cumberland Road from Washington D.C. to St. Louis, then the highway in Missouri that followed the Santa Fe Trail to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and then south through Arizona to Flagstaff, the gate to the Grand Canyon.
In 1921, the Federal Aid Highway Act brought new legislation, and Route 66 a few years later. This was neither the first nor the longest, but it was significant. Not only did it eliminate two hundred miles of travel between Chicago and San Francisco, but it was much easier travel than the uneven course of the Lincoln Highway, which was about ten years old then, and like the Dixie, a linear highway. Route 66 followed a sort of diagonal formation, linking several cities.
Although entrepreneurs, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, knew the importance of their idea, it was doubted that they knew the importance of their plan being realized. Credit is also due in part to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at the time was a young captain in the Army, for the nations development of highways to aid in the war effort. On a coast-to-coast maneuver, his command became immobile near Fort Riley, Kansas, due to the mud left from a springtime storm. During World War II, the War Department decided that the west was ideal for military training bases, and several military bases were established near Route 66.
Further highway development occurred after World War II, when again Dwight D. Eisenhower, then in his second term as president, spoke of how impressed he was while in Germany, with Hitlers Autobahn. He commented, During World War II, I saw the superlative system of German national highways crossing in that country and offering the possibility, often lacking in the United States, to drive with speed and safety at the same time.
The highway had become famous for other reasons as well. In 1939, author John Steinbecks novel, The Grapes of Wrath, titled Route 66 The Mother Road, to which it has been referred several times since.
During the Great Depression approximately 210,000 people left their farms and homes across the Midwest and headed to California to escape the Dust Bowl and to search for new lives. More recent study shows that most did return to the area from which they originally came. Although after the publication of the book and a year later the movie, it was shown that in lieu of finding prosperity traveling the road to California, more unemployed people actually found an opportunity working on the highway. This was due to President Roosevelt’s New Deal program for work relief. However, in the forty years following World War II, the mass population of the west was greatly attributed to the existence of Route 66.
Route 66 is better known for all of the old gas stations, campgrounds (to eventually hotels) and diners along the way. After the war, many people felt nostalgic when taking a vacation drive down the highway, remembering trips with their parents. This was the highway, after all, which granted freedom to so many to travel after ownership of automobiles became more common.
This was the signature highway of the time when the country underwent such major changes, and for most played a very important role in what they thought to be the good times. For many the construction of this roadway had made it possible for them to see new parts of the country that otherwise would have been near impossible to travel, including the mountains, deserts, and Indian reservations.
Its popularity spawned a television series, Route 66, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis in the 1960s, and of course the ever popular song by Bobby Troupe, (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.
Although the highway was fully replaced by the late 1970s, it is legendary and will always remain a great part of American history. There are actually old segments left, still in physical existence as well as many of the old gas stations, hotels and diners, of which only a few are still open.
There are Route 66 associations that provide memorabilia, as well as travel guides for those who want to explore the regions where the old highway ran. Old signs have been also posted to commemorate the highway. Many who have taken the trip retracing the old highway, to try to capture the experience of a time past, claim to have actually felt the spirit of the old Mother Road.
By Jennifer Thompson,
Column Editor and Contributing Writer
U S Legacies Magazine November 2003