The History of the Route 66
Route 66 was popular among American citizen in early and mid-20th century with several names such as the “Mother Road” and “The Main Street of America.” For more than five decades, Route 66 served travelers before succumbing to the new and improved road network defined by the interstate system. During its decades of operation, Route 66 existed as a two-lane road, which ran 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles (VOA 1). The significance of the road emanates from the understanding that it provided American citizens with a path of not only travelling for different purposes but also seeking better economic, political and lifestyle opportunities. In addition, through this road, more businesses targeting travelers and other recreational centers were created hence promoting the economic wellbeing of the American citizens and the states. Despite its popularity as the artery upon which most American travelers measure the country’s pulse, Route 66 began losing its purpose due to the introduction of interstate road network system. By mid 1980s, the road was declared obsolete and it was eventually decommissioned (Crapanzano 1). Even as the motels, restaurants, gas stations, and shops that were erected along the road continued to disappear, the tales of America’s “Mother Road” continue to develop.
The main objective of this essay is to provide an in-depth look into the history of Route 66. This will be through an in-depth look into the role of the road during different historical events such as the Great Depression of 1930s, World War II, postwar years and the introduction of interstate road network, which was perceived as one of the major contributors to the decommissioning of the highway. Furthermore, this essay will also focus on the activities and programs that have been developed to preserve the legacy of Route 66.
The construction of Route 66
“The Mother Road,” one of the most popular names of Route 66, was considered as essential artery linking different parts of the United States. For other Americans, the road was a representation of the American Odyssey and the source of good American values (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html). From the perspective of American tourists, Route 66 symbolizes the history of the United States. There are numerous reasons why Route 66 was developed (Crapanzano 1). One of the reasons was the need to develop the country’s economic and technological infrastructure and to ensure that success of small and upcoming business enterprises. In addition, the road was also constructed as way of improving the mobile notion of the migrant population. Since its construction and eventual decommissioning, Route 66 had served both social and economic purposes with regard to provision of improved infrastructure and more tourism opportunities for the United States (VOA 1).
In early 1920s, the federal highway administrators were faced with the challenge of the growth of automobiles. This was based on the understanding that the registration of motor vehicles in the united sate was experiencing an exponential growth (Crapanzano 1). In 1910, about 500,000 automobiles were registered with the federal highway officials. However by 1920s more than 10 million automobiles had been registered and there was a high probability that the number would increase. The challenge with the increase in the number of motor vehicles arose from the impracticality of disjointed and named trails, which necessitated the development of a number road system. Through the advocacy of Cyrus Avery, a real-estate agent in Oklahoma and John Woodruff, one of the proponents of highway development, there was an increase in the awareness and acclamation of a diagonal road running from Chicago to Los Angeles (Crapanzano 1). Being one of the leading advocates for the road from Oklahoma, Avery was charged with the responsbility getting this main highway a name. Upon its enactment and eventual construction, the American Association of State highway and Transportation officials (AASHTO) named the road Route 60 and later changed to Route 62. Avery and some of the proponents of the major highway protested the switch of names and this was substantiated in a letter that he wrote to the executive secretary at AASHTO. However, in April 1926, the road was renamed as Route 66 (Crapanzano 1).
Prior to the construction of the Route 66, US Congress adopted and enacted the Federal Highway Act, which provided the legislation that enabled the financing and construction of the two-lane highway. The more than 2000 miles of road began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html). Route 66 was considered as the channel that connected the America because it passed through eight federal states within the United States. These included Illinois, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, California, Missouri, Oklahoma md Arizona (Crapanzano 1). Other than acting as a link between states Route 66 also acted as a link for small and developing cities and towns to the Middle West with the developed regions east of the United States. Route 66 was also beneficial to the local merchants and travelers because it facilitate the reduction of the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles by approximately 200 miles making it more popular among the drivers (Crapanzano 1).
At the onset of its construction, a part from the first few miles, the route was not completely paved. The main objective was to ensure that Route 66 was paved from Chicago to Los Angeles considering that civil organizations desire better access to the business district. Most of the merchants in areas where Route 66 passed considered it as a platform that could provide much needed revenue from external sources into the previously isolated communities (Hingley 1). The process of paving the road took about 11 years and its completion was celebrated by the opening of the Neosho River in Miami in 1937. During the construction process, Route 66 was paved piecemeal because in most cases the federal funds were often unavailable. However, the success of its completion resulted in a number of changes such as historic alignments, which included the bypassing of certain communities (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html).
The highway and the establishment of number 66
Cyrus Avery is considered as the father of Route 66. Avery was born in Pennsylvania in 1871 and later moved to Oklahoma to begin a successful coffee business. In addition, he was also a major player in the improvement of the conditions of national roads. He was appointed to head the United States Highway 66 Association which was considered as one of the most influential and powerful organizations. In addition, Avery was highly involved in the Ozark Trails Association and the Good Roads Movement. Through these associations, Avery was able to participate in the creation of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. The changing of names of the Highway from Route 66 to Route 62 was based on disagreement between different states that formed part of the highway. Through the efforts of Avery and other civil organizations, they designated the road as Route 66 arguing that it was the only non-aligned and neutral solution
Advertising strategy for the promotion of the road
During the construction process, Route 66 was not so popular due to limited outlets that could be used in conducting promotional campaigns. However, through the federal and the initiative of state governments, the road was promoted in the early years because it provided better and more weather friendly option to the access of other roads located east of the United States (Charles River Editors10). Following the completion of the road more than eight delegates drawn from the eight states held meetings as members of the new formulated organization, the U.S 66 Highway Association (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html). The main responsbility of this newly formed organization was to promote the road to local and foreign merchants. In addition, the association was also charged with the responsbility of attracting tourist travelling from the east to west. The promotion of this road was done through the printing and publishing of guides, maps, postcards, and organized manifestations (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html).
Furthermore, businesses along the road such as motels, gas stations also organized events in the form of trade fairs, exhibitions, and other shows as a way of attracting merchants, tourists and the local population to engage in frequent use of the road. Later at the end of 1920s, Philip 66 Gasoline took over the role of promoting the road through the U.S Highway Association. An additional way that was developed to ensure that more people used the road was developed by organizations and business enterprises (Charles River Editors11). In March 1928, the First Annual International Trans-Continental Foot Race was organized. The event, which was, also known as the Bunion Derby was a footrace, which was organized to start from Los Angeles and ending in Chicago. The footrace was also to pass through the Madison Square Garden in the United States (Charles River Editors12). This meant that through the race the entire length of the highway was covered. Andrew Payne, a 20-year-old man from Oklahoma, won the race. The first price was $25,000 and Payne won the race after 84 days of competition with an actual running time of 573 hours. The advertising strategy that was developed to help in the promotion of the road was an essential action in the early years of Route 66.
Route 66 and major historic events
The Great Depression
On Black Tuesday of 1929, the Great Depression officially began and lasted until early 1940. This was considered as one the most challenging periods in American history. This was because it was not only negatively affecting the country’s economy but also the livelihoods and the economic opportunities of American citizens (William Least Heat Moon 1). The crushing of the stock market led to the bankruptcy and closer of many banks in the United States hence many American citizens lost their savings. Furthermore, the crash of the stock market and the closure of banking institutions led to the loss of capital for companies. The result was that most of these companies were completed to reduce the number of employees, their wages and working hours as a way of ensuring that they continued with their operations (Charles River Editors 20). An additional effect of the Great Depression was that there was little disposable income and families could only purchase that which was considered important. Small businesses were forced to close down considering that the purchasing power of customers was marginal and therefor it was less profitable to produces goods and services leaving many American unemployed. By early 1930s, the unemployment rate in the United States was at 25%. During this period, many families were left destitute considering that most of them lost their property because they could not pay their loans (Charles River Editor 20).
The struggles and hardships characterized by the inability among many American citizens to afford basic commodities or find employment opportunities compelled some people to move out of their hometowns into other Areas that had the potential of success. Most of these people, who were largely unemployed, hit Route 66 with the hope of finding better employment opportunities (William Least Heat Moon 1). Most of these people migrated west and the most attractive area during this period was California. Most of the migrating people moved west in old flat beds, old rattletraps, all these together with the little property they had were carried in the best way they could fit. Migrants moved westwards from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas with the hope that California and the rest of the western cities and states could provide them with better economic opportunities populated route 66 (William Least Heat Moon 1). During this period, the Route 66 to the west was all weathered and this made the migrants more vulnerable to different elements including the threat of wild animal attacks. This explains why in the story of Route 66 the Plight of the Oakies forms an essential part because the road opened the way to the Promised Land, California. Route 66 became the highway that fulfilled the dreams of many American in the time of hard economic times and great devastation (Charles River Editors 24).
The common adage that in times of difficulty individual help one another was replicated during the Great Depression among migrants en-route to the west through route 66. During this period, the road not only brought individuals from different cities and states into California. It also served the purpose of uniting these people along the way (William Least Heat Moon 1). Route 66 with its dangerous conditions and the bumpy nature of the road compelled those travelling through the route to help each other when faced with challenges. Desolate hitchhikers were assimilated into groups and to travel as members of a family. The children found families through migrant mothers while men began holding meetings and developing strategies on the best ways to travel through Route 66 and arrive at their destinations in safely. Despite originating from different states, the migrants were compelled to unite by their diverse backhands, existing problems, and the desire to survive. From this perspective, it is possible to attribute historical significance to Route 66 with regard to the existing unity among Americans (Charles River Editors 22).
Despite the threat of Great Depression, Route 66 provided business opportunities considering that the migration communities still needed to purchase different goods and acquire services en-route to California. The restaurants and gas stations along the road served the purpose of reducing the threat of the Great Depression considering they provided employment opportunities for different individuals. In addition, through the migrating population, Route 66 kept many businesses operational during the Great Depression. This population provided a major economic boost in the towns they passed through to California (William Least Heat Moon 1).
The dust bowl
The Dust Bowl, which was considered as another disastrous event in American history, also had a relationship with Route 66. The challenge was faced by Americas living in the Great Plains. The event lasted from 1930s until 1940s and tit was also known as the dirty thirties (William Least Heat Moon 1). This is because the period was characterized by severe dust storms that affected Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma among other states. The severe dust storms were caused by extensive and poor farming practices, which contributed to destruction of the soil structure and loss of top soil through soil erosion together with severe drought that had affected America (Charles River Editors 24). The resulting dry and unfertile land made it relatively impossible for the farming population to engage in sustainable farming practices. The farmers lost their crops and this affected both small and large-scale farmers who had acquired loans from banks and could not repay upon harvesting. The banks foreclosed the property of such farmers and most of them were left destitute and homeless and this compelled majority of the farming families to leave in search for better lives. Just like the destitute families affected by the Great Depression, the farming families moved west to California through Route 66 (Charles River Editors 24).
Other than the migration resulting from the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration was the largest migration ever recorded in the history of the United States. Route 66 was therefore credited as one of the road that hosted a large population of migrating farmers seeking better employment and farming opportunities in California(Charles River Editors 28)The large families and population into California facilitate the creation of employment opportunities. However, high supply of workforce resulted in the provision of employment at relatively low wages. The struggle of the migrating population through the 2400-mile stretch from Chicago to Los Angeles was an indication that Route 66 during this period was perceived as a highway of opportunities (Charles River Editors 28). This was because it presented the devastated population with the hope of finding a better future in California. It was a platform that provided an assurance to the migration population on the essence of struggle and unity in times of difficulty hence facilitating the creation and the development of Unity among culturally diverse American citizens (Charles River Editors 28).
In Classical novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck proclaimed Route 66 as the “Mother Road.” This was aimed at immortalizing the road in the consciousness of American citizens in mid 1930s and 1940s (William Least Heat Moon 1). The essence and the significance of the rad was demonstrated when more than 200,000 migrants from different cities in the eastern part of the United States used the road as a migration platform to escape the threat resulting from the Dust Bowl in late 1930 and early 1940s (William Least Heat Moon 1). Through the Dust Bowl, Route 66 was able to outlive the intended objective of its designers and architects. This is because the road had been constructed to facilitated movement of automobiles. However, the destructive storms that had destroyed the fields and farm products in the Great Plains compelled farmers to leave their homes and move west making Route 66 the road of flight towards a better future for the destitute American families (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/route-66-decertified).
Route 66 and World War II
December 1941 served as one of the most essential dates in the history of Route 66. This is because it was on this day that the United States decided to join the Second World War. This was following the events in the Pearl Harbor, the events happening in Europe and Japan, rationing of gasoline, halted production of automobiles, and the scarcity of tires. The companies in charge of manufacturing automobiles were affected by the shortage of essential materials such as steel, rubber, and glass (Moore 30). The shortage in automobiles was also necessitated by the decision among certain automobile companies especially those in Detroit became focused on the production of ordnance, aircraft engines and tanks to facilitate the military capacity of the United States army before the war. All these prevailing factors affected the situation in Route 66 not only because of the reduction in the production of automobiles and tires but also the growing need by the US government and the military for the production and delivery of American military equipment (Moore 32).
The Second World War became a growth opportunity and repair opportunity for Route 66 because it was considered indispensable for military traffic. The federal government dedicated additional financial resource to help in repairing the road because of its strategic use in cross-country transportation of war items. The road was especially used for the movement of mobilized military troops, military supplies, and equipment (Moore 33). In addition, it was also used in the transportation of other materials needed during the war and in meaningful facilitation of the entire military process. The strategic position of Route 566 was based on the understanding that it was the shortest and the most accessible corridor between the western coast and the industrial eastern part of the United States. This explains why from 1941 until the end of the war in 1945, it was common for those living along Route 66 to see long convoys transporting military troops and equipment (Moore 33).
The use of the Route 66 by civilians and military travelling to California during the Second World War resulted from the decision by the US government through the war department to announce for recruitment of military personnel to assist the military department with human resource capacity during the war. Thousands of interested Americans took to Route 66 creating a wave of migrating civilians destined for military training bases (Moore 33). The wave of migration resulted from the decision by the US military department to designate the west as the ideal location for its training bases. The west was considered idyllic because it was strategically isolated and with relatively dry weather which could allow for easy maneuvering of military machinery and automobiles in the fields and in air (Charles River Editors 36). This also led to the establishment of manufacturing companies, air bases, training facilities, and airplane factories in Californian. In addition, the US government through the military department established several milliard installations and ordnance depots in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. These depots and military installations were established along Route 66 (Moore 33). This was essential in the creation of more employment opportunities for the population that had been divested by the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and 1940 hence improve on the economic wellbeing of the United States and its population. At the need of the Second World War in 1945, the route transported military troops back home (Charles River Editors 36). From the perspective of the war Route 66 was a symbol of a new positive outlook that spread through the United States during and at the end of the war. For the thousands of military and service men returning from the war, the road was perceived as an icon that linked different parts of the United States creating a sense of unity and dedication towards developing the country as a world leader (Charles River Editors 40).
Despite the positive attributes of the war with regard to the creation of more employment opportunities, it also resulted to adverse effects on the condition of Route 66. There were convoys of heavy trucks transposing military items. This is because the road was inadequate for their weight and this resulted in the question of its maintenance during and after the war. These questions arose from the civic organizations, which argued that Route 66 had begun crumbling under the weight of these trucks. Furthermore, they also presented the argument that the highway was too narrow for the heavy machinery and there was need to engage more finances to facilitate its repair as a way of enhancing stability. At the end of the war, the road began losing its glare because of excessive truck travel (Moore 40).
Route 66 and the post war period
At the end of the Second World War in 1955, thousands of technicians, sailors, and aviators who were previously stationed in California, Arizona and Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico traveled back to their homes in different parts of the United States. Route 66 played an expedient role in the relocation of these military men and women. This resulted in the increase of mobility levels among American citizens. The post war period in the United States was marked by another migration to California. Service and military men who had seen economic and employment opportunities in the state orchestrated this migration (Charles River Editors 39). These Americans went to California with their families through Route 66 in search of opportunities for a new life. During the war, more car and aircraft manufacturing companies were established in California. This explains way after the war thousands of American citizens left for Southern California. In post war America, California is believed to have attracted more than 3 million new residents in 1960s and additional 2 million people in the 70s. It is through Route 66 that the post war migration, which was largely populated by ex-military and technicians, became part of the booming job market in California (Charles River Editor 40).
Prior to the Second World War, travelling for leisure was an unpopular activity among US citizens. However, with the economic and employment opportunities in Post war America, many citizens were in possession of additional disposable income hence they began engaging in summer vacations. Families took vacations and drove through Route 66 as a tourist attraction site. The road became a destination used by local and foreign tourists when seeking adventure. This led to the development of more tourist attraction sites along Route 66 such as national parks and other wonders aimed at luring more tourists (Charles River Editors 44).
In post war America, the increase in tourism activities necessitated roadside commerce and the development of the tourism industry. High and growing number of tourists facilitated the establishment of businesses along Route 66 targeting tourists and other road users. This was based on the recognition of the need for food, comfortable accommodation, and automobile maintenance (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/route-66-decertified). Through advertising strategies such as the use of bright shining neon signs, potential customers were beckoned to stop in gas stations, which were adjacent to shops, restaurants, motels, and cafes. Tourism along Route 66 played an essential economic role in the towns along the highway. Some of these towns that provided quality customer service in motels and restaurants gained popularity in the country (Charles River Editors 48). From this perceptive, it is possible to argue that the distinctive roadside culture began along Route 66. For Route 66 the new experience gained form tourism can be perceived as an essential element signaling prosperity and high-level achievement in the economy of the US in the post war period. This is because it not only provided employment opportunities for motel, restaurant, and gas station owners but also the institutions responsible for the construction and the maintenance of the Highway (Moore 42).
In the post war period Route 66 played an essential role in enhancing fortune and hole among Americans. This is because during this period the American population identified opportunities available for economic growth and sustainability despite the effect of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In addition, through tourism in Route 66, it became possible for those living along Route 66 to engage in the creation of employment opportunities hence boosting on their economic well-being (Charles River Editors 50).
Decommissioning and legacy of Route 66
At the end of the Second World War, the United States through its automobile manufacturing industry was experiencing an improvement in its economic prosperity. More individuals and companies were acquiring automobiles. This enormous traffic sent Route 66 into its bottom line due to issues of sustainability and the size of the road (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/route-66-decertified). The upcoming automobiles were relatively large and the road was unable to accommodate them. This signaled the beginning of the demise of Route 66 with regard to its economic and commercial worth to the United States. President Eisenhower who had witnessed the military superiority of the German Autobahn during the Second World War advocated for the enhancement of laws that could allow for the construction of large four lane divide highways. This was a strategy aimed at enhancing the speed and the ability of the road system to accommodate the increasing number of automobiles in the United States (Crapanzano 1).
The Federal Aid Highway Act was enacted in 1956 it represents of the current interstate traffic and road network system in the United States. The Act provided monetary resources essential in underwriting the American interstate and defense highway system. This explains why by 1970 modern four-lane highways replaced about 60% of the original routes designated as Route 66 (Crapanzano 1). Following the passing of the law, five interstate road networks gradually replaced Route 66 in three decades. The construction of the interstate road networks was merged with the powerful forces of major economic forces in the united states and this explains why there was a an exponential growth in the number of braded gasoline stations, restaurant and motel chains. In 1984, the last section of Route 66 was bypassed and this led to the official decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985. The decommissioning negatively affected numerous businesses and communities that benefited from the road hence necessitating the need for the preservation of its legacy (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/route-66-decertified).
After the decommissioning in 1985, private and public organizations including states and federal agencies that understood the historical significance of Route 66 to the American society began campaigns aimed at the preservation and commemoration of the highway. This led to establishment of organizations developed to preserve and improve travelling along Route 66. Through the efforts of pubic and state agencies, part of Route 66 was provided with new designations as state or national scenic byways. This facilitated the improvement of businesses along Route 66. The main targets were tourist who sought out the experience and the history of the route (https://www.ncptt.nps.gov/rt66/history-and-significance-of-us-route-66/).
Additional efforts were put by the US government in commemoration and preservation of the law in 1990 following the enactment of Public Law 102-400, the Route 66 study Act of 1990. The Congress passed this law with the aim of recognizing Route 66 as a symbol of heritage and travel among American citizens while seeking prosperous lives within the country (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html). The enactment of the law allowed the National Park Service to engage in Route 66 Special Resource study. This was aimed at the identification of the historical significance of the highway as a strategy of identifying the options for preservation, interpretation, and use. The study necessitated the enactment of the Public Law 106-45 providing the legal authority for the preservation of the cultural resource along Route 66 corridor (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html). In addition, through this law the Secretary of Interior was charged with the responsbility of providing assistance. An additional benefit of the law with regard to route 66 is that it provided a platform for the creation of the National park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. It was charged with the provision of financial and technical assistance to individuals, organizations state, and federal agencies engaging in the preservation of the most significant historic resources along Route 66 (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html).
In 2008, the World Monument Fund listed Route 66 as one of the most endangered historical sites. Following the listing, World Monument Fund partnered with American Express through is Sustainable Tourism Initiative to finance project-supporting Route 66. The main objective of these preservation and commemoration initiatives of Route 66 in the United States was to uphold the spirit and the legacy of the Route. Through these preservation initiatives, travelers have the opportunity of experiencing a remarkable journey of trailing through time on Route 66 (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/Route66_overview.html).
For more than 50 years, Route 66 served travelers before succumbing to the new and improved road network defined by the interstate system. During its decades of operation, Route 66 existed as a two-lane road, which ran 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration, and the Second World War were some of the largest migration ever recorded in the history of the United States. Route 66 was therefore credited as one of the roads that hosted a large population of Americans seeking better employment and improved livelihoods in California. After the decommissioning in 1985, private and public organizations including states and federal agencies that understood the historical significance of Route 66 to the American society began campaigns aimed at the preservation and commemoration of the highway. This led to establishment of organizations developed to preserve and improve travelling along Route 66.
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Hingley, Audrey. Memories of Route 66, American Profile, 2012.
Longfellow, Rickie. Route 66 The Mother Road. Web April 7, 2016.
VOA. Historic Route 66 : The Story Of America’s Mother 66. Learning English “VOA”. 2010.
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William Least Heat Moon. Legendary of Route 66. Legends Of America. 2015. Web.