While it’s not the oldest automobile highway in the United States, Route 66…
a National Treasure of the National Trust—is likely the most enduring highway in America’s public consciousness. “The Mother Road,” as it’s often called, represents a significant moment in history that continues to define the nation’s identity: the rise of the automobile and its implications of freedom, mobility, and a uniquely American story.
The Historic Roots of the Route
Route 66 was officially commissioned in 1926 as part of America’s first federal highway system, but the hodge-podge of routes and roads it comprised had existed long before mass-produced automobiles. The U.S. Congress commissioned a transcontinental railroad in 1853, which became a network of wagon trails crossing the country from east to west. In 1857, Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale created another route between New Mexico and California that thousands of migrants later used to travel to the Golden Coast.
Some parts of the road follow even earlier migration routes such as the Trail of Tears, formed when 15,000-16,000 Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southern Appalachians in 1838. An estimated 3,000-4,000 people died as a result of the experience.
When the number of registered vehicles in the United States jumped from 450,000 in 1910 to 8 million in 1920, motorists demanded improved highways to travel across the country. Entrepreneur Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, promoted the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, where Route 66 runs today. The highway would be the shortest year-round route between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast, traveling through eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Avery had the chance to implement his plan for Route 66 after the Federal Aid Road Act, first passed in 1916, was broadened to include local, state, and national roads in the National Highway System. He sat on the board for the creation of the highway, and is now known as the “Father of Route 66.”
At first, the route replaced roads and highways already in existence, providing federal support to improve those that had previously belonged to states. Traffic began to increase along the route, and brick and dirt roads were paved over and widened to accommodate motorists. During the Great Depression, the road experienced even more traffic when migrants traveled from their homes in search of more opportunities in the West. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened up maintenance jobs along the route, and it became among the first highways in America to be completely paved by 1938.
As Route 66’s popularity grew, mom and pop shops, quirky roadside architecture, motels, theaters, and gas stations sprung up in main streets, urban centers, and rural areas. These unique places provided a respite for travelers on the road, and they became signifiers of a particular place—whether it be a giant fiberglass statue of an astronaut in Will County, Illinois, or a row of half-buried graffitied Cadillacs in Amarillo, Texas. Route 66 brought widely disparate regions across the country together, and many communities along the route prospered.
During the heyday of Route 66, however, not all travelers were treated equally. African Americans were banned from many motels, restaurants, and other businesses along the route, and the term “Sundown Towns” denoted places that were unsafe for African Americans after dark due to restrictive legal ordinances or threats of intimidation and violence. To address the need for safe travel, postal worker Victor H. Green began publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936. Used all throughout the U.S., this annual travel guide featured safe places for African Americans to visit while traveling.
American Indians faced a similarly complicated history along the route. When it was first created, Route 66 paved over Native American lands throughout the West, cutting through communities and disrupting day-to-day life.
While the route provided American Indian communities with new business opportunities, entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on tribal culture began to market an inaccurate, stereotypical version of American Indian dress, homes, and ways, ranging from concrete “wigwam” tipis at gas stations or motels to tours of “Indian land” given without tribes’ consent.
Advocates Speak Up for Route 66
Eventually, the growth of interstate traffic and development of larger, newer highways made Route 66 obsolete, and many of the towns and cities that lined the historic road fell into economic decline. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985 when I-40 bypassed the last section of the road. However, business owners and passionate Route 66 supporters, along with nonprofits and state and federal agencies who understood the value of Route 66’s impact on American identity, lobbied to commemorate and invigorate this piece of Americana.
In 1999, Congress created the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. Originally set to terminate in 2009, it was reauthorized through 2019 so it could continue providing financial and technical assistance to facilitate the preservation of Route 66.
In 2015, a number of Route 66 entities came together to create the Road Ahead Partnership to revitalize and sustain Route 66 as a national icon and international destination, for the benefit of all Route 66 communities, travelers, and businesses. Representatives from all eight states along the route work on a broad range of issues from preservation and economic sustainability to promotion, research, and education.
A New Opportunity for the Mother Road
With the impending sunset of the Corridor Preservation Program in 2019, the Road Ahead Partnership, as well as the National Trust and other state and local partners, are seeking a National Historic Trail designation for Route 66. National Historic Trails are nationally significant historical travel routes designated by Congress. There are currently 19 National Historic Trails, including the Santa Fe and Lewis and Clark Trails. This permanent designation, which would not increase regulations or restrictions for Route 66, will bring greater public interest and investment to the communities along this iconic highway and encourage their economic revitalization. Most importantly, it will help preserve Route 66 as a vital, iconic, and evolving piece of Americana for generations to come.
To raise awareness about this important historic resource, the National Trust is traveling Route 66 from July 2 to August 3, 2018. We will document our trip across the country from an Airstream trailer, and our crew of Roadies will help us uncover new stories and meet the diverse people living along the historic route. By the trip’s end, we hope to capture the spirit of Route 66 and share it with travelers old and new, real and virtual—anyone who dreams of the open road.