Book review: “Here We Are … on Route 66”

Prolific author Jim Hinckey’s new book “Here We Are … on Route 66” (Amazon link) contains plenty of color photos of easily recognizable landmarks along the Mother Road.

Don’t let the familiarity fool you.

This volume is more of a deep dive into the obscure past of selected towns along the Mother Road. Noting that many people focus on the 1950s with Route 66, Hinckley states this is a “myopic” view that shortchanges the highway’s rich history.

Instead, much of Hinckley’s diligent research goes into many towns’ histories starting in the 19th century to the early 20th century. A few places — such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois — date back to the early 1600s and further. “Here We Are …” tends to apply the historical brakes around 1950, though there are a few exceptions.

“Even though the highway is lined with tangible links to centuries of history, Route 66 is often viewed as America’s longest attraction rather than a string of time capsules,” he writes in the preface.

Because Hinckley’s ventures go into more obscure history, he keeps digging up fascinating nuggets (this is list is by no means comprehensive):

  • The president of the National Old Trails Road Association came up the the “Main Street of America” tag that later was attributed to Route 66.
  • Brooks Catsup, which was the dominant brand in the St. Louis area for decades, once adverstised its product with 12-foot-tall neon bottles scattered around the region.
  • Stories about Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, being a spot on the Underground Railroad and Jesse James’ hideout probably are “embellished,” Hinckley writes. The cave served as a lead and copper-mining headquarers in 1760 and was known by white settlers as far back as 1719, so it was no secret to the locals.
  • The Old Stagecoach Stop in Wayneville, Missouri, deserves more attention due to its varied history that includes a tavern, Civil War hospital and boarding house for Fort Leonard Wood construction workers. It’s now a museum.
  • Carthage, Missouri, was the site of 13 (!) battles during the Civil War.
  • Harry Houdini debuted his “spiritualist” act in 1898 at an opera house in Galena, Kansas.
  • Baxter Springs, Kansas, also proved to be a flashpoint in the Civil War, including two attacks by the notorious Quantrill’s Raiders.
  • Future president Harry S. Truman was an early investor of Commerce Mines in Commerce, Oklahoma.
  • A ceremonial horse named Black Jack was trained a Fort Reno near El Reno, Oklahoma. Black Jack led funeral processions for presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
  • One of the city fathers of McLean, Texas, perished in the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Amarillo’s Sixth Street Historical District once was a suburb linked by a trolley line to the main city.
  • A sheriff in Holbrook, Arizona, mailed professionally printed invitations to residents to a public hanging. An appalled President McKinley persuaded the territorial governor to stay the man’s execution for 30 days.
  • Major league baseball player George Grantham, a native of Kingman, Arizona, arranged to have the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates play a spring-training game at the city’s fairgounds in 1924.

Stroud, Oklahoma, had a particularly memorable episode in 1915 involving bank robber Henry Starr, who tried to rob two banks in one day there. Hinckley writes:

Starr was an imposing figure at six feet seven inches tall. His criminal career commenced at age sixteen with the robbery of the Nowata Indian Territory (Oklahoma) Depot of $1,700. Starr would lead an amazing life that included bank robbery, the shooting of a U.S. Marshal, deftly maneuvering through the legal system to appeal a death sentence, getting a pardon from President Theodore Roosevelt, becoming a movie star, and then returning to bank robbery.

Starr was captured and sentenced for his attempted Stroud heist. He was paroled after being a model prisoner, then died in another bank robbery in Arkansas in 1921.

Hinckley does not include all towns on Route 66 in this book, Most recounted “Here We Are … on Route 66” are small burgs, but their populations range widely from the almost-deserted Glenrio at the Texas-New Mexico border to the behemoth that is Los Angeles.

Perhaps Hinckley has filed away additional research for a future volume. If true, history buffs wouldn’t object.


(Cover image of the “Here We Are … on Route 66” book)

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