Route 66: A Continuing Saga of Americana

Wed August 13, 2003 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

Route 66, America’s legendary highway, is a worldwide symbol of lost dreams and new searches.

In the mid-1930s, “Okies” and “Arkies,” heading west seeking a living in California for their families, putt-putted along it in beaten-up jalopies, carrying mattresses, chicken coops and other scant possessions atop their vehicles.

Route 66 (U.S. highway 66) was one of America’s busiest roads for 50 years. It connected many rural areas to cities for the first time, a boon to farmers and businesses.

Millions traveled the two-lane road on vacations, sleeping in inexpensive wooden cabins or motels with flashy neon signs, eating in metal diners or roadside cafes, and enjoying Burma Shave signs, one by one, as they went by: “Don’t stick elbow out too far … It might go back in another car.”

Motorists saw marvelously changing landscapes — the green fields of Kansas, the ranches of the Texas Panhandle, adobe structures of Santa Fe, the nightlife of Gallup, NM, national treasures such as the Petrified Forest, Meteor Canyon, Pike’s Peak, or — a short drive from Flagstaff — the Grand Canyon. They passed oil drills and windmills, water towers and canyons, rushing rivers and the bone-dry Mohave Desert, before finally gazing on the deep-blue Pacific.

On Route 66, travelers could also stop at attractions such as the Snow Cap burger joint; Joe’s Big Indian Trading Post, with a two-story giant Indian sign; the Wigwam Village motel, where travelers could stay overnight in a tepee; or the Uranium Cafe with its Mexican food and chicken-fried steak.

It didn’t matter that the car clonked and bumped along the joined flat rectangles of concrete. You were on the road. Service stations could be many miles apart, but the local owner would fill ’er up, check the engine and the tires, wipe the windows, while the car and riders got “r and r.”

For many years, Route 66 was the main East-West highway, its two-lane concrete running along farmlands, mountains and deserts for 2,248 mi. between Chicago, IL, and Santa Monica, CA.

It ran through eight states — Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California – and crossed three time zones.

John Steinbeck immortalized the “Mother Road,” and the weary Okies riding it, in “The Grapes of Wrath,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and also became an Academy Award-winning film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. Songwriter Bobby Troup put the adventure of a 10-day trip in a 1941 Buick, which gulped 75 quarts of oil, into the blues song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” which Nat King Cole recorded for the pleasure of millions worldwide. From 1960 to 1964, the TV show “Route 66” featured two high-energy youths riding this and other roads in a Corvette.

All of this has captured the imagination of millions around the world, especially in Europe.

“Europeans look upon Route 66 a little differently than you in the states,” said Swa Frantzen, a computer security expert in Herent, Belgium, who traveled the road with his wife in 1994 and plans a 10th anniversary trip in 2004. “It’s more of a collective feeling of being on the road, of freedom, even of rock and roll. It’s a legend and icon more than a road. People know what the icon stands for without actually knowing where it all began or that Route 66 has been decommissioned — that you cannot find it any longer without a specialized map.”

Frantzen has established a Web site ( with photos and background on this road of hope, dreams, and nostalgia that represents a significant era in the nation’s growth.

Began with Dirt Roads

Many stretches of Route 66 are still used, often not far from the interstates that replaced them. Currently, there’s a renaissance of restoring neon signs and other colorful reminders of the road’s past.

According to some estimates, approximately 90 percent of the old road, in fact, is still navigable, though it can be hard to find. But other segments lie as bleak abandoned patches of concrete or asphalt, alone and untraveled, amid high grass.

The story of U.S. 66 is really about America’s highways: how they grew from bicycle paths, farmer’s lanes, and wagon trails to paved roads, only to be bypassed and replaced by new interstates.

Many parts of Route 66, for instance, were originally roads maintained by towns or counties that paid farmers to pull logs along muddy lanes with horses or mules to keep the surfaces flat after each rainfall.

Many of these early roads were marked by color signs. Try following colors rather than route signs. Drivers sometimes got hopelessly lost, especially if they were color-blind, or if two roads used the same colors.

A movement grew in the first quarter of the 20th century for a coherent national highway system aided by the federal government. The Federal Aid Road Act in 1916 gave states federal funds for road construction. The Federal Highway Act in 1921 required each state to designate 7 percent of its highways under the federal system. Cyrus Avery, a businessman in Tulsa, OK, is credited with making Route 66 a reality. He was a member of the executive committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) and also on a joint board, which the secretary of agriculture named in 1925 to designate and number a national system of highways.

For his region, Avery drew a path connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles as part of the new national system, which would eventually include 75,884 mi. of pavement.

Avery first wanted the road to be called Route 60, but met problems because another proposal called for a Route 60 between Springfield, MO, Kentucky, North Carolina and Newport News, VA. The AASHTO executive committee then assigned Avery’s brainchild the number 66, which hadn’t been used yet.

U.S. Highway 66 was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1926. At that time, roadways included wooden planks, ruts in dirt, sand, brick, crushed rock, concrete slabs, asphalt and other materials. Less then 800 mi. of Route 66 were actually paved in 1926. Manpower and animals — mules and horses — started getting it into better shape as a two-lane highway. Initially they often surfaced it with crushed rock, but later went to concrete and sometimes asphalt. Workers also improved alignments, like straightening a previously saw-toothed route in Illinois.

By 1929, much of Route 66 in Illinois and Kansas had been paved. Missouri was two-thirds paved and Oklahoma was one-fourth paved. But only 64 mi. of pavement had been poured on the highway’s westernmost 1,221 mi. across New Mexico, Arizona and California. In 1930, only 23 percent of the total U.S. highway mileage was surfaced.

The Works Projects Administration (WPA) during the Depression in the 1930s spent many millions on roadbuilding. During this decade, the rest of Route 66 was paved.

Pavement on Route 66 was laid in two lanes, each 9 ft. wide. Concrete slabs were 6 to 10 in. thick, depending on the subgrade. Each lane was separated by a center line to control cracking, and abutting slabs were tied together with steel bars.

By 1937, Route 66 became the first national highway to be completely paved, end to end. In contrast to today’s interstates, it ran right through towns. Some called it “America’s Main Street.”

Road to Adventure

Route 66 has always offered adventure.

In 1928, an impresario named C.C. Pyle promoted a 3,400-mi. footrace from Los Angeles to New York City called “The Great Transcontinental Footrace.” It also was dubbed “The Bunion Derby.” Millions of spectators cheered-on participants, who included an old man with a cane, a youth playing a ukulele — and accompanied by two hound dogs — and a long-haired actor wearing long robes from his biblical movie.

The race covered the entire length of Route 66, with runners cheered on as they passed through towns, where schools were closed and residents, young and old, lined the road.

The initial 275 starters were pared to 55 by the time Andy Payne, a Cherokee Indian near Claremore in northeastern Oklahoma, crossed the finish line in Manhattan and won the $25,000 first prize. It took him a month and a half to cross the continent.

The race was a sensation, especially in the rural areas that it passed through, and helped bring Route 66 to national attention.

There also was a different kind of adventure. The bank robber “Pretty Boy” Floyd used Route 66 as a preferred escape route through Missouri and Oklahoma in the late ’20s and early ’30s. John Dillinger, Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran also drove it.

And there were other unusual people on the road. Dick Zimmerman, 78, walked it from California to Michigan pushing a wheelbarrow to visit his mother, age 101. Pete McDonald covered all 2,248 mi. on stilts. “Shopping Cart” Dougherty walked 10 to 15 mi. a day pushing all his earthly possessions in a shopping cart.

Many thousands of hitchhikers also enjoyed high adventure “thumbing it” west.

Route 66 also had its tragedies. Its high-accident rate caused it to be dubbed “Bloody 66” or “Killer 66.”

In 1934, the highway was the scene of the desperate exodus of farmers from Oklahoma and Arkansas to the promised land of California, which offered hope of a new life after dust storms blew away 300 million tons of precious topsoil from their land. Many people along the way helped the migrant workers with temporary jobs, or even sold food to them on credit.

The Interstates Arrive

The paved Route 66 lured many thousands of returning servicemen after World War II, who realized their dream of driving to the West Coast. Countless families used it on vacation trips during the ’50s, ’60s, and even ’70s. To others, it was the golden road to new business opportunities.

But old U.S. 66, as a major route to the coast, was doomed by the interstates, which bypassed more of it in each decade until the famous highway was finally decommissioned in 1985.

The interstates resulted in part from the 1934 Hayden-Cartwright Act, which designated funds for highway-use surveys. These surveys pointed the way towards wider highways, which bypassed the towns and their small independent businesses.

Then, in 1956, Congress legislated, and President Eisenhower approved, the Interstate Highway System, with the federal government providing 90 percent for its construction. As the new system was slowly constructed — the last portion being completed in 1990 — Route 66 began to die a slow death as a federal highway.

Five interstates replaced the colorful old road: I-55 in Illinois; I-44 from St. Louis to Wichita Falls, TX; I-40 from Oklahoma City to Barstow, CA; and I-15 and I-10 in Southern California. Motorists drive interstates to reach destinations fast, rather than to enjoy the journey. Chain restaurants and motels are the same everywhere.

These advanced roads don’t offer the variety and independent style of old Route 66.

The last Route 66 town to be bypassed was Williams, AZ, in mid-1985. Its main street was the last part of the old national highway system. A few weeks after the bypass was completed, AASHTO voted to decommission U.S. 66.

An Icon of the Open Road

But the old highway isn’t dead. Millions have visited it since the 1990s, when people began recognizing Route 66 as a treasured artifact. Each state along the original road has a Route 66 association. There’s a national Route 66 fan club in Manchester, MI, a National Historic Route 66 Federation in Lake Arrowhead, CA, and Route 66 associations in Canada, The Netherlands, and Norway.

Travelers can visit Route 66 museums in Clinton, OK; Elk City, OK; and Victorville, CA, plus a Route 66 Hall of Fame in McLean, IL. It also is possible to purchase Route 66 blue jeans in Kmart.

Now, numerous icons of the old highway are being restored. These include nine historic neon signs on places like the Aztec Motel (1931) and Westward Ho Motel in Albuquerque, NM, and the Lexington Hotel (1931) in Gallup, NM.

The historic Wigwam Village No. 6 motel in Holbrook, AZ, also has reopened, with a concrete-and-steel “Big Wigwam” as its centerpiece.

Route 66 is 77 years old this year. You can still get your kicks, hear the wind as its sings a song of mountains, desert, hope and freedom.

Books on this highway include “Route 66 — The Mother Road,” by Michael Wallis, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; “Route 66 Remembered,” by Michael Witzel; and “Route 66, Lives on the Road,” by Jon Robinson.

(Sources for this article include Swa Frantzen in Belgium and “Route 66, The Highway and Its People,” by Susan Kelly with photos by Quinta Scott, University of Oklahoma Press).