Route 66 in the News

Route 66 Shaped High Desert Landscape

2009-12-11 09:52:07

The following is an excerpt from a Daily Press story published Dec. 31, 1999.

VICTORVILLE, Calif. - More than any other American roadway, Route 66 has been celebrated in songs and books, on television and at the movies.

As the nation's first all-weather highway, U.S. 66 opened up the Southwest and Southern California to cross-country motor traffic, which started as a trickle and grew into a steady stream flowing from Chicago all the way to Santa Monica.

The highway not only made transportation between towns more practical and convenient, it gave rise to the trucking industry and made it easier for farmers to get their crops to market.

After Route 66 opened to traffic, it spurred new business, and economic growth.

"The important thing about Route 66 all across the country is that it connected people," Dan Harlow, a writer and co-founder of the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville said. "It connected the High Desert to Los Angeles and other communities of the desert in a real way.

Route 66 follows trails first used by American Indians, pioneers and railroads, which followed waterways like the Mojave River. By the mid-teens, automobiles were motoring through the Cajon Pass, albeit along old wagon trails.

In the sand dunes around Needles, the road in many places was made of wooden planks. Although U.S. 66 was commissioned in 1926 as the centerpiece of a national highway system, it took a decade for the entire road to be paved.

"It was considered all but impassable from Needles across (the Mojave Desert), except by rail," Harlow, who has studied and written about the road for years, said. "Automobiles were traveling into the Mojave in the early '20s. But they were using old wagon roads, farm and ranching roads. And it was a very, very difficult task.

During the Great Depression, an estimated 210,000 "okies" flooded onto Route 66 to seek work in California. As these impoverished migrants crossed into California near Needles, they were often harassed by authorities who sought to deter a tide of destitute newcomers.

Although many migrants made it to Barstow before heading west on what is now Highway 58 toward the Central Valley, others traveled on through the Victor Valley, setting up camp at Blue Cut in the Cajon Pass. In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck immortalized the plight of these "okies" and gave Route 66 its most enduring moniker: "the Mother Road."

Local news coverage from the early 1930s reflected little sympathy for the migrants. One account reported San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies were under orders to drive out "the vagrants who were reportedly overrunning the region, including arresting more than a dozen at Needles, on the unlikely charge of possession and sale of liquor," according to local History Professor Dr. Leo Lyman's "History of the Victor Valley."

By the mid-1950s, a series of new interstate freeways began to bypass "America's Main Street." Merchants along Route 66 (D and Seventh streets in Victorville and Main Street in Barstow) were justifiably worried.

Like a row of dominoes, downtown districts all along Route 66 fell on hard times as they were cut off by the new, high-speed interstates. In Victorville, the opening of Interstate 15 coincided with new housing and commercial construction in what is now midtown Victorville that further diverted traffic from downtown.

"After it was bypassed, what was the major stream of commerce became the dejected, forlorn, dilapidated parts of the towns," said David Knudson, executive director of the National Historic Route 66 Federation in Tujunga.

But in the mid-1980s, nostalgia for a simpler time sparked a resurgence of interest in Route 66. Small-town business people, most notably in Arizona, began promoting the historic highway to tourists. Soon, each of the eight states that the highway traverses boasted Route 66 associations. Publishers jumped on the bandwagon with countless books, magazines, videos and maps catering to "Mother Road" enthusiasts in the United States and abroad.

~VVDailyPress.com

 

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