It’s time for the Route 66 community to talk to congressmen about eventually designating the Mother Road as a National Historic Trail, under the auspices of the National Park Service.
Of the eight states where the old highway traverses, six have attained Byways or All-American Road status for Route 66. A seventh — California — soon will gain that status as well. (Texas remains the only holdout.)
With that in mind, it’s time for Route 66ers to set sights on a new and bigger goal — getting National Historic Trail status in time for Route 66’s 100th anniversary in 2026.
The benefits of a National Historic Trail designation for Route 66 are:
— Better and more consistent directional signs. Signs directing travelers to Route 66 are scattershot or even nonexistent in several areas, much like America’s road system was before highway federalization in 1926. The lack of signage remains travelers’ No. 1 complaint about Route 66, according to the recently released Route 66 Economic Impact Report. Attaining Historic Trail status would require better signage throughout the route, largely solving that persistent problem.
— Boosting local economies. With a National Historic Trail designation, the greater number of Route 66 travelers would give an economic shot in the arm for many communities along the route. The Economic Impact Report says Route 66 generates $127 million annually to the U.S. economy. As a Historic Trail, that figure could rise to $200 million and above.
— More preservation of historic properties. Because of the subsequent increased economic activity of a Route 66 National Historic Trail, this would give more incentive to maintain or enhance historic properties. Route 66 travelers want to see landmarks from a bygone era. With more of those travelers, most of those owners will keep their historic places shored up.
Nearly 20 trails exist under the National Historic Trail Act. Nearly all were deemed historically relevant in the 19th century and even before. Route 66 would become one of the few trails in the National Park Service that hearkens to the 20th century. And it instantly would be the most famous of all the trails.
About 10 days ago, I participated in a conference call with National Park Service officials about the possibility of making Route 66 a Historic Trail. Also there were Kaisa Barthuli, program manager of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program; Jim Ross, a prominent Route 66 historian; and Michael Wallis, author of “Route 66: The Mother Road” and chairman of the Route 66 Alliance.
Aaron Mahr, superintendent of the National Historic Trails in the Intermountain Region, said during the call that Route 66 boasts “thousands” of high-potential historic sites, while the 2,000-mile El Camino Real, in comparison, totals maybe 100.
Mahr said property rights would continue to be respected even if Route 66 became a Historic Trail. “There is a clause in the Trail Act where the federal government can purchase land, but only from willing suitors,” he said. “There is absolutely no threat to land owners from the federal government.”
Mahr said the initial study of Route 66 in the early 1990s concluded that the Mother Road qualified for Historic Trail status. But the public rejected the idea at that time because of potential federal involvement.
However, the goodwill generated in subsequent years by the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has lessened those concerns.
“The Corridor Preservation Program has done a marvelous job demonstrating that government involvement can be a good thing,” Ross said, who acknowledged he was one of those skeptics.
Generally, a feasibility study is required before a National Historic Trail is designated. However, John Conoboy, a retired National Park Service manager who help draft the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program legislation, said a feasibility study is not needed. Conoboy says the 1990s study already shows that Route 66 meets the criteria. Therefore, Route 66 can avoid a costly, time-consuming step to attain Historic Trail status.
Conoboy and Mahr agreed that Route 66 stakeholders need to ensure the noteworthy alignments of Route 66 (such as the 1926-34 loop that went to Santa Fe) be represented in the National Historic Trail.
Conoboy said NPS trail administrators also should avoid putting too many interpretive centers or kiosks along the Mother Road.
“You want the mom-and-pops to tell the story,” he said, “to keep the essential character of Route 66 alive.”
But those are future concerns. What’s needed now from the Route 66 community is to discuss the National Historic Trail idea at association meetings and at roadie gatherings. Route 66 fans should bring up the idea to local congressmen, especially in the states where Route 66 exists.
(The U.S. House of Representatives website has a handy page where you can look up and write to your congressman here.)
Write lawmakers a letter, or talk to them at constituent meetings. You might be surprised how much they might like the idea. For instance, Mahr says U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma is an enthusiastic backer of National Historic Trails, especially the Trail of Tears Historic Trail due to his Chickasaw Indian heritage.
It would be ideal if a majority of Route 66’s states landed sponsors in Congress for Route 66 Historic Trail legislation. However, it’s not crucial. The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program bill was shepherded into law by one lawmaker from New Mexico. Even with just a few legislators on board, it can still be done.
I will write Route 66 state associations, asking them to support this idea and contact their U.S. representatives and senators about it. The National Historic Trail idea already has drawn support from the Route 66 Alliance, the National Historic Route 66 Federation, and the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.