U.S. 66: History

This page features articles and essays covering Route 66 from a historical perspective.

Route 66: A Road Most Awesome

by Lauren Knowles

"The Mother Road" — such was the name given to Route 66 by John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Immortalized in literature, song, and television, this highway in particular symbolizes the changing times of America in the 20th century. Not only did she carry the dust bowl farmers to greener pastures, but also our troops and military equipment during World War II. She brought our stars from the east to that new mecca of moviemaking, Hollywood; and the post-war generation of babyboomers to the greatest vacation destination of all . . . Disneyland. Coming from north, east, south, or west, if there was another highway it more than likely met up with Route 66 at some point. Routes 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 . . . the Ozark Trail, Lincoln Highway and the National Trail Highway. She is a fabled road, and this is a quick look at her story.

The National Highway system was a "twinkle in the eye" of Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery, father of our beloved road. Being a successful real estate agent and oil man, Cyrus travelled throughout the countryside and saw the necessity and wisdom of a government-funded system of highways throughout the United States. In the early 1900's the few paved thoroughfares were maintained by the towns and cities they went through and by private clubs established for that purpose. Cyrus began public life in 1913 as a Tulsa County Commissioner. His emphasis on improving road conditions in Oklahoma eventually led to his appointment to the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1914. Diligent work and petitioning by the association paid off, and by 1924 they had convinced the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to investigate designing a uniform federal highway system.

The majority of the job in designating which routes would become part of the national system was not too difficult as they were already established byways, except for our gal. Cyrus created his own road, one that started in the midwest and ran all the way though his home state of Oklahoma. Originally wanting to designate his road as Route 60, he met with oppostition from the other board members because it did not run the length of the country. Choosing the designation of 66 was approved and our road, Route 66, was born in November of 1926. The route was completely paved from Chicago to Santa Monica by 1938.

During the years of the great depression another calamity hit the great plains states. A severe drought began in 1931 which set the scene for the massive dust storms that blew hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil away. The "dust bowl" years ran from 1933-1936. The term "dust bowl" was penned by Robert Geiger, an AP reporter, in an article written about Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, a day the dust storm blew so hard it turned day into night. Between the depression years, drought, and dust, the small farmers literally packed it in and struck out for the promised land of California. Loading their trucks with family, livestock and household items, they headed out along Route 66. The business people along the route had compassion for these misplaced souls, often giving them gas, food or meals so they could get a little closer to their destination. Though the final stop was originally California, many families settled in towns in Arizona and New Mexico to start a new life.

World War II brought a whole new feel to travel on the route. With the boom economy of the war years, people had money but because of severe rationing and the war effort, tourism was a thing of the past. In 1942 automobiles were no longer being produced, gas rationing began, and tires were hard to come by. While many businesses closed during this time, many flourished catering to the government migration west. Besides the troops of military personnel being sent west to ship out for foreign soil there was also a major movement of airplane parts being manufactured at the Ford Motor plant in Detroit and then sent to California for assembly. The U.S. government also invested billions of dollars in projects out west, including Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and a German POW camp outside McLean, Texas. This all added up to people moving along the route for wartime jobs and seeing their loved ones off. The heavy military traffic and equipment took its toll on the conditon of the national highways, making it obvious to the government the need for an interstate highway system. Before that interstate system was built, though, was a golden time for Route 66.

When the war ended in 1945 there was an air of jubilation in this country. After years of depression and having no money, followed by the war years where folks had money but no supplies, everyone was ready to get into their cars and travel. There was also a major move west with over three million people going to settle in California alone. Individual tourist courts, motels, restaurants and attractions sprang up to take care of the new influx of travellers. There was a downside to the flurry of traffic through these boom years, though, and that was the car accidents; our road became known as "Bloody 66". The mostly two lane highway had never been built to handle the almost bumper to bumper traffic it was experiencing, and something had to change.

Congress enacted legislation and funding for a U.S. Interstate system in 1956. Through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s the interstate was built in bits and pieces around the exisitng road, diverting traffic away from the local businesses and onto the new highway. The last town bypassed was Williams, Arizona, in 1985 and Route 66 was officially decommissioned.

What would have been the demise of most routes just entered Route 66 into the next phase of her life. She had survived the depression, dust bowl, war and baby boomer years and would also survive being decommissioned. Due to the dedication of individuals, state associations and the National Historic Route 66 Federation, Route 66 remains an exciting and wonderful way to spend a few days or weeks of road trip adventure!

Route 66 has such a colorful history and this is just a thumbnail sketch. We will be delving into more details in future articles. Until then, remember: "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive the Interstate." Enjoy the Road!


Lauren Knowles has been traveling and photographing old Route 66 for more than ten years. She attends every Mother Road event she possibly can, and lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her husband Drew.