Route 66 in the News

Park Service Study to Get to the Roots of Route 66

2010-06-28 11:53:18

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - Getting your kicks on Route 66 in San Bernardino County these days means passing a lot of dilapidated restaurants, gas stations and motels.

But where some might see structures in need of a wrecking ball, enthusiasts of the mother of all American roads and historic preservationists see sites in need of saving.

The National Parks Service and others are working on a historic context study that would catalog the impact the road had on California history, migration and the advent of the automobile as part of 20th century American culture.

Researchers hope to catalog critical links to the route's past glory -- before they crumble and develop a plan for preserving places inexorably linked to the road. Work on the study began in May. It should be complete by early next year, according to the California Preservation Foundation, one of the sponsors.

California is the last of the eight states where Route 66 passes to complete the study, but might be the gem of the group. At least to Californians.

"Some of the richest, most important parts of Route 66 are in San Bernardino County," said Roger Hatheway, cultural resource specialist for the county's public works department.

At an abandoned agricultural station east of Barstow, John Murphey, a cultural resource specialist with the National Park Service's Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, squinted into the sun, trying to take photos of the triangle-shaped stand.

"People on their way to Southern California would have stopped here," he said. "Thousands of them, from all over, one after another ... This is a part of history, the history of the road."

Officials with the Park Service, state preservation foundation and Mead & Hunt -- a consulting firm hired to oversee the study -- will compile the information.

The report can then be used to help property owners apply for state and federal historic grants or listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Rather than each site applying and summarizing the historic importance of Route 66, the study can be used as a boilerplate synopsis of the road, and landowners can then focus solely on their site's relevance.

Anyone can participate in the program, or not cooperate, officials said. And contrary to what some believe, listing on the national historic register doesn't force the owner to do anything. To receive federal grants or loans, however, the owner has to agree to preserve the property, Murphey said.


Numerous Inland-area landmarks are closely tied to the history of Route 66, which carried those looking for work during the Great Depression between Chicago and Southern California. The road later ferried troops to military bases in the region, and served as the spine of vacation travel until Southern California's interstates were built in the latter 20th century.

Though a shell of its former self since being decommissioned in 1985, the cracked, crooked road from Santa Monica to Needles shifts from a bustling main street to a desolate strip of asphalt through the desert. From San Dimas to San Bernardino, the route is a major road, dotted with service stations, restaurants and motels, some dating back to the route's heyday.

Across the street from the Wigwam Motel -- which incidentally is not the only place along Route 66 where travelers could grab a room in a giant teepee -- Leonard Francis steadied his point-and-shoot camera and snapped a couple frames of the Wigwam. Francis, 67, from Henderson, Nev., was driving to Azusa to visit his brother. He decided at the last minute to drive Route 66 from San Bernardino into the Los Angeles basin. When he saw the Wigwam, he had to stop and take a photo.

"I remember driving to Big Bear as a kid and passing here," Francis said. "Lots of good memories."

In Southern California, the road is ingrained in local history. Cities such as Barstow tout the route with signs, and businesses often choose names that reflect the route's heyday. One of San Bernardino's biggest annual celebrations is the Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous and its Cruisin' Hall of Fame, held each September.

The Real Route 66

The bustle of the city or the suburbs isn't the only scene set by Route 66.

East of Amboy, a gas station and hotel oasis in the blazing sun northeast of the 29 Palms Marine base, the roadway is the only evidence the desert has been disturbed. There's only the steady hum of cars rolling from Amboy to Needles along the sun-cracked road, and the faint rustle of wind hitting the few scrub-bushes tall enough to catch the breeze.

Out in the desert, finding the real Route 66 can be a challenge. Because the road was formed by linking local roads from county to county and state to state, the alignments in the desert changed over time, said Hatheway, the county cultural resource specialist. Where the motel and gas station in Amboy sit is the second incarnation. To find the original, travelers must mosey about 200 yards south, to a gravel road behind a church that passes an old graveyard.

"Can you imagine driving more than 2,000 miles on that?" Hatheway asked. "Bouncing up and down in an old car in 1937. That's how so many people got here."

The alignments, even the ones a vehicle cannot travel anymore, remain an important part of the road's history, Murphey said. As part of the historical context study, officials said the different roads that carried travelers will be discussed and evaluated.

"We all know about the restaurants and motels along the route," Murphey said during a presentation earlier this month in San Bernardino. "But what is unique about Route 66 in California? Is it the communities that popped up or the businesses that relied on the road? We want to know the whole story."

~Dug Begley, Press-Enterprise


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