Also known as “The Mother Road” and the “Will Rogers highway”, Route 66 was a national roadway that extended from the eastern region of the United States to the west coast. Its purpose was to connect both rural and urban streets to a major roadway system.
The idea for a road extending from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California was originally proposed by Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri – two businessmen that foresaw the increase in sales and business that could occur with better access to more remote regions of the country. There were already cross-country highways in existence at the time, but they were laid out on straighter courses, causing them to bypass small towns along the way. The two businessman lobbied for this new, meandering highway, and, in 1926, the government agreed to take existing roads and build connections to link smaller communities with big cities. They designated the new roadway “Route 66”. Conveniently, the new highway passed directly by Cyrus Avery’s filling station and restaurant.
The Great Depression hit soon after construction on the new highway began, but work was halted only for a brief time. Thousands of out-of-work men were hired to pave the road that stretched more than 2,300 miles. It was fully completed in 1938.
The newly constructed Route 66 played a major role during WWII, allowing the transport of troops and equipment to California, where many military bases and wartime factories were built. After the war, many men whom had been trained in California decided to leave their less temperate home states and settle in California permanently.
With the advent of postwar prosperity, there was an economic boom as diners and motels sprang up along Route 66. There were unique places to eat along the way, with names like the The Cozy Dog Drive In, The Steak and Shake and the Pig Hip Restaurant. At first, auto camps and cabin camps were created on the roadsides for weary travelers. The freestanding cabins and cottages later evolved into motels, like the Will Rogers Motor Court, the Wagon Wheel Motel and the Wigwam Motel.
The first McDonald’s restaurant – a Bar-B-Q drive-in, was erected along Route 66 in San Bernardino, California in 1940. Today it houses the McDonald’s Route 66 Museum.
The original Route 66 passed through eight states – Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California - and three time zones.
Unfortunately, Americans decided they needed a more direct route for faster and more efficient transportation. As a result, most of Route 66 was bypassed by a modern four-lane highway in 1970. Interstate 40 bypassed the last remaining portion in 1984 and all references to Route 66 disappeared from official road maps. Today there are numerous websites, museums and books devoted to maintaining the memory of the road as it was.
There are many places along the former Route 66 that are still standing and some are still in business, including:
- Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma.
- The restored Metro Diner in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
- Phillips 66 Gas Station in McLean, Texas that was built in the 1920′s, and was restored in 1993.
- The midpoint sign in Adrian, Texas (Los Angeles and Chicago are both 1139 miles in opposite directions from the sign).
- The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas (10 Caddys, from 1957 to 1963 models) were buried nose first by an Amarillo tycoon by the name of Stanley Marsh III.
- Zia Motel in Grants, New Mexico (opened in the 1930′s and is still operating today).
- Texaco Station on the corner of Route 66 and First Street, Tucumcari, New Mexico that is the only gas station to have operated continuously from the opening of the highway to the present.
- Powerhouse Route 66 Museum & Visitor Center is a restored powerhouse, Kingman Arizona.
- Beautifully restored Shangri La Hotel in Santa Monica, California, at the end of Route 66.
Route 66 will always be remembered as a symbol of the growth and renewal following two of the most difficult times in the country’s history – the Great Depression and World War II. It brought about enormous economic growth and became a symbol of the free-spiritedness and optimism people were feeling as they moved from times of crisis to prosperity.