History of Route 66

The Beginning

Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an inter-regional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not realized until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development.

While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction.

Officially, the numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came its acknowledgment as one of the nation’s principal east-west arteries.

From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.

How Route 66 was founded

John Steinbeck gave it one of its most famous nicknames

John SteinbeckUS novelist John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968). (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” about Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s, Steinbeck devoted a chapter to Route 66, which he dubbed “the mother road,” a nickname that stuck. Like the bestselling book’s displaced farm family, the Joads, thousands of real-life Americans fled drought and poverty in Oklahoma, Texas and neighboring states during the Great Depression and traveled west along Route 66 in search of employment. Contrary to myth, Steinbeck never ventured from Oklahoma to California with migrants as part of his research for “The Grapes of Wrath,” although the author did drive west on Route 66 with his wife in 1937.

Part of Route 66 follows the Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

A portion of Route 66, from Rolla to Springfield, Missouri, overlaps with part of the northern route of the Trail of Tears, followed by the Cherokee Indians during their forced 1838 relocation from their traditional homelands in the southern Appalachians. In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which granted the president the authority to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for unsettled lands west of the Mississippi. While some Indians ceded their land and left peacefully, the Cherokee, among other tribes, resisted. In 1838, the Cherokee were forcibly removed by U.S. troops and made to trek west to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Of the four main removal routes used by the tribe, the northern route, from Tennessee to Oklahoma, was followed by the largest group—12,000 people, according to some estimates. In all, 15,000 to 16,000 Cherokee traveled the Trail of Tears, and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 of them died along the way from disease, malnutrition and exposure.

The “Father of Route 66” was an Oklahoma businessman

Delgadillos Snow Cap Drive eatery

Landmark Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive- eatery and roadside attraction located along Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona. (Credit: littleny/www.istockphoto.com)

Cyrus Avery (1871-1963), a Tulsa businessman, championed the establishment of the highway and helped promote it, earning him the nickname “Father of Route 66.” As a boy, Avery and his family journeyed west from Pennsylvania by covered wagon to Missouri and later settled in Indian Territory. He went on to make his living in farming, real estate and oil, among other ventures, and became a civil leader in Oklahoma. Avery was a participant in the Good Roads Movement, which advocated for improved American roadways (the movement was started in the late 1800s by bicyclists and grew during the early 1900s with the arrival of mass-produced automobiles). He served as chairman of his adopted home state’s highway commission and also took part in developing a national system of numbered highways. During Route 66’s planning, Avery was instrumental in getting it to pass through Oklahoma. In 1927, he was involved in founding the U.S. Highway 66 Association to boost tourism on the roadway he dubbed the “Main Street of America.” Additionally, Avery pushed to get the entire highway paved, a task that was completed by the late 1930s.

It served as the course for an epic endurance race

Route 66 cartoon map

Roue 66 cartoon map. (Credit: drmakkoy/www.istockphoto.com)

In 1928, runners traversed the length of Route 66—some 2,400 miles—as part of a coast-to-coast, 3,400-mile marathon from Los Angeles to New York. Nicknamed the Bunion Derby by the press, the grueling event was organized as a promotional stunt by sports agent C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle. Of the 199 men who began the 84-day race, 55 finished it. Andy Payne, a 20-year-old Oklahoman who was part Cherokee, took home the $25,000 grand prize.

 Facts about route 66

African Americans were barred from some businesses along Route 66

Old motel sign along historic route 66

Old motel sign along historic route 66. (Credit: FrankvandenBergh/www.istockphoto.com)

During the segregation era, African Americans were banned from many motels, restaurants and other businesses along Route 66. A number of “sundown towns” bordered the highway, communities where blacks were unwelcome after dark and kept out through intimidation, force and local ordinances. In 1936, Victor H. Green, a black postal worker from New York City, started publishing the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide featuring places to stay, eat and shop that were friendly to African Americans. The Green Book series continued to be published until 1966.

A TV series was named for the legendary highway

Blue Corvet

American actors George Maharis (standing) and Martin Milner pose with their blue Corvet from the television show ‘Route 66.’ (Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

“Route 66,” a TV drama about two young men who wander America in a Corvette, aired from 1960 to 1964. During their travels, the two drifters, originally played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, encounter a broad variety of characters, and the show featured guest stars ranging from Joan Crawford to a young Robert Redford. Despite the program’s name, it ventured beyond Route 66 and was shot on location in more than 20 states and Canada; the real-life Route 66 passed through eight states.

Haunted by the ghost

KiMo Theater

The famous KiMo Theater along the Mother Road in Albuquerque, New Mexico is said to be haunted by the ghost of a six year old boy by the name of Bobby Darnall who was killed at the theater in 1951 from a boiler explosion. According to legend the impish spirit causes the performers problems by tripping them and creating a ruckus during performances. To appease the spirit, the cast leaves doughnuts backstage, which are gone the next morning.

Oklahoma has more miles of the original Route 66 than any other state

Route 66 Building

Route 66 does not end along 6th Street in Amarillo, Texas, Kathy Weiser, November, 2005. (The sign is no longer there).

You can own or adopt a stretch of old Route 66. Arizona has the longest stretch of the historic highway still in use today.

Most often photographed barn on Route 66

Old Round Barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma

The old round barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma is the most famous and most often photographed barn on Route 66.

Numerical designation 66

Numerical route 66 on road

The numerical designation 66 was official assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. Route 66 starts in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Santa Monica, California. The Corvette has become a Route 66 icon. 91% of the original Route 66 is still in use in Texas.

On the corner of Route 66 and First Street in Tucumcari, New Mexico is a Texaco Station that is the only service station to have operated continuously through the Route 66 era to the present.

 Some Other Facts about Route 66

Kansas has the shortest section of the Mother Road with only 13 miles. However, three historic Route 66 towns are located on this short segment including Baxter Springs, Galenaand Riverton. As a publicity stunt in 1928, promoters of Route 66 held a coast to coast foot race that included all 2448 miles of the Mother Road and then some. The race kept right on going far beyond Chicago all the way to New York City.

Route 66 between Oatman and Kingman

Route 66 between Oatman and Kingman

In 1953, the Oatman Highway through the Black Mountains was completely bypassed by a new route between Kingman, Arizona, and Needles, California’by the 1960s, Oatman, Arizona, was virtually abandoned as a ghost town. In 1985 Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a federal highway. However, daily use of the road had been gradually replaced in earlier years by the Interstates. The road was decommissioned due to public demand for better transportation as the old road deteriorated after World War II. Route 66 is also known as “Mother Road”, “The Main Street of America” and “The Will Rogers Highway”. 85% of the road is still drivable.