Today — which also happens to be Veterans Day — marks the 90th birthday of the official existence of U.S. Highway 66, better known as Route 66.
Nov. 11, 1926, was the day the American Association of State Highway Officials formally adopted the 2,448-mile path from Chicago to Los Angeles and number for U.S. Highway 66 and all other U.S. highways as well.
A few boosters of Springfield, Missouri, claim a birth date of April 30, 1926. That’s when good-roads advocates. including the future Father of Route 66, Cyrus Avery, sent a telegram from Springfield accepting a compromise number of 66, instead of 60, for their highway. Kentucky advocates wanted U.S. 60 to go through their state, and weeks of quarreling over it almost sunk the entire highway deal.
But because the official ratification of U.S. 66 came Nov. 11, most historians accept that as the birth date.
In brief, the Route 66’s history can be summarized through the decades:
— The 1920s mostly served as Route 66’s development years. Large parts of the highway lacked pavement, and much of it wasn’t even signed until 1927. Yet the highway received a shot in the arm with the 1928 Trans-American Footrace, aka Bunion Derby, that put the fledgling U.S. 66 in newspapers across the country.
— The 1930s brought the Great Depression and the great Okie migration to California. That led to John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (including the phrase “the mother road”) and the Oscar-winning film version. Even before Route 66 turned 15, it already was being cemented into popular culture.
— The 1940s. Route 66 turned into an important supply road for soldiers and military equipment during World War II — although the road’s condition suffered when maintenance was deferred during the war. The year 1946 also marked the first recording of Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” by Nat King Cole. Acts including the Rolling Stones, Asleep at the Wheel, Depeche Mode and Chuck Berry are among the hundreds of acts that have covered the song.
— The 1950s. Historians often consider this as Route 66’s peak. It became an era of postwar prosperity where Americans often took road trips for vacation. Images of big-finned cars and poodle skirts and the sounds of rockabilly music inevitably are associated with the Mother Road even today.
— The 1960s. The downfall started to take hold. Beset by too much traffic and too many accidents, road engineers began building four-lane interstates to replace the Mother Road in earnest. The acclaimed “Route 66” television drama — starring Martin Milner and George Maharis — aired for four seasons and brought the road more prominence, though the program seldom was filmed on it.
— The 1970s. Route 66 withered on the vine quickly amid the continued onslaught of the interstates. Hundreds of businesses along the Mother Road went defunct after they were bypassed. Travelers see many of their ruins today.
— The 1980s. U.S. 66 finally was fully decommissioned by 1984 and presumably left for dead. But the decommissioning led to several network news shows devoting air time to old Route 66. State Route 66 associations sprang up during the latter part of the decade.
— The 1990s. Several books about Route 66 trickled into stores, but the big one was Michael Wallis’ best-selling “Route 66: The Mother Road.” The renaissance of Route 66 — and efforts to preserve what was left — began. Old 66 saw a surge of travelers again, many whom never had been on that road before. The National Historic Route 66 Federation shepherded a bill through Congress to form the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.
— The 2000s. Route 66 experienced a new surge of travelers when Disney-Pixar released the animated film, “Cars,” about a fictional Route 66 town of Radiator Springs inspired by real-life places and people. A relatively new medium — the Internet — made a big impact in how prospective travelers learned about the Mother Road.
— The 2010s. This obviously still is being written, but Congress renewed the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program for another 10 years. The Route 66 Economic Impact Study prompted more towns and chambers of commerce to devote resources to Route 66 tourism.
What’s next? The Route 66: The Road Ahead Initiative is working to get Route 66 designated as a National Historic Trail before it turns 100, plus set up some sort of replacement for the expiring Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. (My case for a National Historic Trail is here.)
Old businesses and landmarks disappear here and there because of fire, severe weather, development or neglect. Maintaining historic bridges for future travelers continues to be an ongoing issue. But preservation successes keep blunting the losses. Relatively new businesses (such as Pops in Arcadia, Oklahoma) and re-created ones (such as Cool Springs Camp near Kingman, Arizona) create new traditions.
Route 66 will continue to evolve, as it always has.
(Image of old Route 66 near Oatman, Arizona, by Vicente Villamon via Flickr)