For decades, Route 66 was known as “Bloody 66” because of the many car crashes that occurred on that busy and often-narrow highway.
When I first talked to old-timers about Route 66 during the late 1990s, many of them recalled those “Bloody 66” memories. The few books about the Mother Road published at the time also recounted its deadly history.
But it appears the highway’s “Bloody 66” largely has faded from public memory. Many of those people who traveled when Route 66 was a narrow, twisty and ill-engineered have died. The ones who traveled it during the 1960s and ’70s already were the beneficiaries of improved design and the coming of the interstate highway system that moved traffic away from the old road.
The “Bloody 66” angle may get new life in the public consciousness with Barry Duncan’s new book, “Route 66: A Trail of Tears.” It collects photographs of serious crashes taken by former Carthage mayor Carl Taylor on Route 66 in Jasper County, Missouri.
A Joplin Globe story about the book recounted this factoid:
In one bloody nine-month period in 1941, the area around Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri saw 454 accidents on the highway.
Fifty-four people died, including 19 U.S. soldiers, between January and September of that year.
I’ll write about “Route 66: A Trail of Tears” at a future date. In the meantime, here are more facts that convey why Route 66 became “Bloody 66”:
— A nasty stretch near Towanda, Illinois, was called Dead Man’s Curve, which survives for travelers to see.
— One in seven accidents in Arizona after World War II occurred on Route 66. One notorious stretch was Ash Fork Hill, west of Flagstaff.
— In one month in 1959, 11 people died on Route 66 near Peach Springs, Arizona, according to the book “Route 66 in Arizona.”
— A 1953 article in the Gallup Independent newspaper in New Mexico called Route 66 “traditionally the state’s most dangerous highway.”
— A dangerous stretch of Route 66 north of Pontiac, Illinois, was called “Dead Man’s Alley” by state trooper Lt. Chester Henry.
— Oatman Road leading to Oatman, Arizona, and its dozens of hairpin curves terrified drivers so much, a few hired locals to drive over Sitgreaves Pass.
— La Bajada Hill, an early alignment of Route 66 south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, contained about two dozen switchbacks, featured an ominous warning sign to motorists, and even had drivers who would take motorists’ vehicles up the mountain.
— From one of the first Route 66 books, “Route 66: The Highway and Its People”:
“Bloody 66 — it was a thing. Devil’s Elbow was supposed to be the death corner of the world. I remember Dad would get white knuckles 10 minutes before we would get there.” — Bill Roseman, 66 Terminal, Staunton, Illinois.
Here’s more about a dastardly curve near Devil’s Elbow, Missouri:
The danger in the curve came from a lack of a fence or barrier between the curve and the steep drop below. A wooden fence was built in 1928, then a post and cable fence, and finally the low stone wall that is there now in 1938.
— From a Decatur Herald & Review report from 2011:
The one big drawback to getting your kicks on old Route 66 was getting killed: Head-on drivers obliterated each other on the too-narrow road or lost it on lots of interesting local highway features such as “dead man’s curve” in the town of Lincoln. Drivers who survived that wicked bend found themselves rocketing along a straight downhill stretch between two conveniently placed Lincoln cemeteries, only to come to grief at the hazard formed by the infamous “ghost bridge” bestriding Salt Creek.
Michael Wallis’ best-selling book “Route 66: The Mother Road,” also mentioned Lincoln::
“Old-timers claim that near Lincoln, Illinois, car crashes occurred every few hours. On that part of the highway — as was the case for similar stretches in Missouri — the route earned the nickname ‘Bloody 66.”
“With World War II over, civilian travelers learned that Route 66 in the Mojave Desert was a dangerous place. The 18-foot bridges that crossed the washes were too narrow for two speeding cars to pass safely in opposite directions. One car would hit another or worse impale itself, and sometimes its driver, on the wooden guard rail. Every wrecker had a litany of horror stories.”
— A Route 66 stretch from Glenrio to Tucumcari, New Mexico, also was called “Slaughter Lane.”
— The book “The Big Roads” went into detail about 1950s cars:
By today’s standards, the cars were primitive — unreliable, quick to wear, blundering, dangerous. […] Tires had tubes prone to catastrophic blowouts. Nylon-ply models were leaky, quick to bald, weak at the sidewalls. […] In a collision, the ’57 didn’t absorb energy; it was a battering ram a foot longer than a Hummer H3, nearly two tons of dumb metal strapped to a big-assed engine, its steering column a spear aimed at the driver’s breastbone, its beltless passengers free to carom about an all-metal cabin softened only by a third layer of paint. Imagine this car by the millions crowded onto the narrow U.S. highways linking city and country, too heavy and big and loose to handle unexpected curves or come to a safe, fast stop, flanked by driveways and intersecting streets that at any moment might spit cross traffic the Chevy was ill-equipped to handle.
This story isn’t meant to depress readers. But Route 66 aficionados should know about the heartache and terror the highway brought to motorists and their families as well as the good times.
Learning about such history will help people comprehend what the early days of highway travel were like and how far we’ve come since then.
(Image of a truck wreck on old Route 66 near Sullivan, Missouri, via 66Postcards.com)