If you ever plan to motor west
Just take my way that’s the highway that’s best
Get your kicks on Route 66
It’s the road of many names, likely the most famous in the world. Its historic value is unquestionable and extensive. It has been immortalized through song, film, literature and television. And in its heyday, Route 66 literally transformed and paved the landscape of a nation.
The brainchild of Cyrus Avery and John T. Woodruff, Route 66 was their answer to the growing need for a federal highway that would link East and West. Or, more specifically, Chicago and Los Angeles. Construction began in 1927 and incorporated a number of preexisting roads and highways throughout the country. From Chicago, the road made its way through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and concluded near the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, California. Its course was far from linear, however, as it attempted to link a number of rural areas that had no other method of interstate travel. By doing so, it joined a number of agricultural communities and made the transportation of produce and grains far easier for local truckers who welcomed its diagonal course, which offered milder climates than the northern routes.
During the 1930s, thousands of unemployed men from across the country were employed to work on the highway, which was finished around 1938. Considering that this was during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Route 66 was a road of opportunity if there ever was one, helping people relocate en masse to California in the hopes of escaping their grim living conditions. It offered a potential oasis for those willing to pack up their belongings and make a new life for themselves.
As Route 66 gained popularity, so did the numerous neon-illuminated roadside establishments along its path. The motel (originally known as a motor court or motor lodge) originated as a place of rest for its steady stream of weary travelers. The gas stations – notably Phillips 66 (no coincidence,) mom-and-pop restaurants, and the ever-popular and quirky roadside attractions might never have materialized without this famed automobile artery. It was awfully hard to resist stopping at such colorful places as the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, The Blue Whale in Oklahoma, or the Cozy Drive-in, in Springfield, Illinois, reputed home of the corn dog. Route 66 launched the fledgling tourism industry that would eventually grow into the behemoth it is today. Thousands of jobs became available as people were needed to run each establishment.
The utility of Route 66, however, was never more evident, never more vital, than when the nation went to war in 1941. The road provided an efficient way of moving troops and supplies to various locations, and it made travel easier to a number of new military bases and training facilities along the West Coast. When you consider the migrations of the 30s and the war in the 40s, California owes much of its development to Route 66. And as the war ended, thousands of families looked towards the Southwestern states, with their inviting climate and employment opportunities, as the ideal place to raise a family.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower, who had been impressed with the road’s capabilities during the war, became even more impressed with the German Autobahn, and his vision for a new system of roads led to the Federal Highway Act in 1956. The eventual spiderweb of interstate highways began construction soon after, and the days of leisurely travel on Route 66 were numbered. Many portions of the historical highway were made obsolete in the process by the interconnected multi-lane system, much to the dismay of the business owners along the route.
In recent years, substantial efforts have been made to preserve as much of the historic route as possible, although there are many abandoned stretches of the former thoroughfare dotting the landscape across the country. It may have been erased from many a map over the years, but in the past couple of decades, sections along the road have received historical designations. Its reappearance on road maps and atlases has certainly pleased fans and historians.
And thanks to popular culture, it likely never will be forgotten. Its first publicity came from American humorist, Will Rogers, who, in the early days was instrumental in popularizing the route. As a result, it was officially named the Will Rogers Highway in 1952, and numerous plaques exist along its route to commemorate its namesake.
It has since been immortalized in just about every form of media, from literature to movies, music to television. Of course, there is the enormously popular tune, “(Get your Kicks on) Route 66,” written by Bobby Troupe (who later starred in the TV series, Emergency) and performed by Nat King Cole (as well as Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and countless others.) As far back as 1939, American author John Steinbeck made notable mention of the route in The Grapes of Wrath, referring to it as the “Mother Road.”
In the 1960s, Martin Milner and George Maharis brought the famed road to the television screen in the series, Route 66. The show followed the duo’s meandering travels in their snazzy corvette, as they stopped at various locales along the way and tried to make nice with the locals. The entire series was filmed on location – a huge undertaking in the day. More recently, the Walt Disney film, Cars, paid homage to the famed interstate and many of the roadside attractions along its route. It has even been reported that the original name of this animated feature was to have been Route 66.
The Mother Road’s following and its cultural impact– not to mention the trove of resources available about the highway and its history– affirms its significance, its iconic stature. Lewis and Clarke may have discovered the West Coast, but Route 66 is what brought the people there in droves through the first half of the 20th century. It allowed anyone with an automobile the chance to explore this great nation, and anyone along its route to create businesses and support their families. In terms of historical significance, Route 66 has few peers. Disneyland may have a land called “Main Street USA,” but this beloved stretch of road is, in all honesty, far more deserving of the title.
Do you happen to live near a stretch of this iconic road, or have memories of traveling along it as a child? We’d love for you to share them in our comments section as we tip our hats to an American treasure.