The Historic Story of Route 66
Route 66 History
They weren't any different than you and me.
They didn't know they were creating history.
They were simply traveling from one place to another.
When the highways came, Americans suddenly had somewhere to go. For the first time in American history, you no longer had to be a pioneer or an adventurer to travel from one coast to the other. The ordinary person could make the trip in a matter of days and in relative comfort. They could see how people and places differed from the familiar. Distant relatives were no longer distant. And you could travel just for pleasure.
Route 66, 2,448 miles of the National Highway System created in 1926, is a journey to the heart of America. . It began in Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, ran through the Middle West, moved on across the Great Plains, opened up the great Southwest and finally ended at the Pacific Ocean. Like the country that the road traversed, history was made and imprints were left by the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the war years, and the exciting fifties and sixties.
The first people to travel the road in the height of the Depression were driven by desperation rather than adventure. Destitute families trading starvation in the drought-stricken dust bowls of the Middle West for hope in California were vividly portrayed in John Steinbeck's classic novel
The Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie's ballads added to the sense of loss that is still a part of the lure of "the Mother Road".
The bombing of Pearl Harbor and war in Europe and Japan created a new use for the road as millions of soldiers traveled in convoys on their way to preserve the American way of life. Joining the war against Hitler meant gasoline rationing and a shortage of new tires. The War Department chose the West as ideal for military training bases partly because of its geographic isolation. Route 66 was responsible for the single greatest war time manpower mobilization in the history of the country that created thousands of civilian jobs in the munitions and airplane factories that cropped up in California. Throughout the war, there were almost as many hitch-hikers as drivers traveling Route 66.
The magic begins
The soldiers who had survived the battlefields returned home to their families on the great highway. During this time period, Jazz composer Bobby Troupe created the classic lyrics to
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
to tell the story of his postwar return trip. This was the beginning of the magic that was to become associated with this Main Street of America.
American prosperity was once again on the rise. Rationing ended and new inventions created more opportunities for adventure. An abundance of gasoline as well as the newly introduced "paid vacation system" opened new vistas with travel to National Parks, Indian reservations, Las Vegas, and Hollywood. Air conditioning was the impetus needed to create cities out of small towns in the once hostile desert communities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. The new phenomena of television created even more magic as viewers followed the adventures of Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buzz Murdoch, two young guys traveling
in a 1960 Corvette convertible in search of adventure.
The saga of Route 66, christened
"The Mother Road"
by Steinbeck is the story of the rise and fall of small "Mom and Pop" owned businesses. In the beginning, small locally-owned gas stations, tourist camps, and diners were built as entrepreneurs provided new opportunities to get the travelers to stop and spend money. New signs were planted along the highway. They ranged from the small Burma Shave jingles to the large bright yellow billboards with red letters proclaiming the location of the next Whiting Brothers Gas Stations. Creativity abounded with neon, wigwam motels, trading posts filled with imported trinkets and postcards picturing a new species called jackalopes.
Some of these small businesses developed into corporations, building franchised locations in state after state. Soon travelers deserted the small eateries, gas stations, and tourist camps located in the center of towns for the familiarity of heavily-advertised McDonalds, Whiting Brothers, and Howard Johnson.
The prosperity also foretold the end of the great highway. As travel increased and larger cars were built, the road simply wasnt adequate for the amount of traffic. By 1970, nearly all of the original Route 66 was replaced by a more efficient four-lane highway. The final section of the original road was replaced by Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona.
Like the early trails of the late 19th century, Route 66 stimulated the largest westward movement in United States history. Often called "America's Main Street", it linked the isolated and under-populated Midwest and Southwest with two important 20th century cities -- Chicago and Los Angeles. Even though the road has disappeared from the maps, it continues to thrive in the hearts of people worldwide.