Route 66 in the News

Arizona 66: Highway of History

2011-07-05 14:55:24

You can find almost anything along Route 66 in Arizona, from petrified logs to giant jackrabbits to bronzed hitchhikers to dinosaurs to tepees, but no camels. That's strange, because camels played a role in the history of the highway.

In 1857, Lt. Edward Beale was commissioned to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance, N.M., to the Colorado River. Beale traveled along the 35th Parallel and brought 25 camels as pack animals. While Beale felt the dromedaries performed well, they spooked less-worldly horses and mules. So the camels were turned loose to roam the Mohave Desert. Their descendants were seen into the 20th century.

Picture it: The newly commissioned Route 66 (which closely followed the Beale Wagon Road) debuted in 1926, drawing motorists from the heartland. Imagine weary drivers looking for a place to camp as twilight settled on the twisted shapes of Joshua trees. Coyote howls already have them on edge, when suddenly out of the shadows looms a great humped giant, a shaggy beast that spits on their windshield as they speed past. It's a wonder Arizona got tourists to return.

Route 66 in Arizona crosses stark badlands, cloud-swept plateaus and a desert painted in scandalous hues. The road traverses forests of tall pines and forests where trees have turned to stone. It brushes past volcanoes, craters and the ruins of ancient civilizations. Amid the scenic splendor, the highway John Steinbeck called the Mother Road passes through small towns and the skeletons of towns.

If the Grand Canyon is the heart of Arizona, then Route 66 is the main artery.

An economic driver

"Route 66 was meant to serve two purposes," said Sean Evans, archivist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "It was intended as an all-weather highway to bring goods and services between Chicago and L.A., and to be an economic engine for small-town America."

Route 66 changed the landscape of communities, which at the time were geared to satisfying the needs of railroad passengers. Towns spread away from the tracks as gas stations, cafes and tourist camps opened. Traveling across the wilds of Arizona in the late 1920s required an adventurous spirit, as evidenced by one of the first roadside attractions, 20 miles west of Seligman.

In 1927, a young woodcutter named Walter Peck was on his way to a poker game when he nearly fell into a hole. He returned the next day with his buddies to discover an immense cave. Peck bought the property, believing it to contain mineral wealth. When that proved false, he opened the cavern for tours. Visitors plunked down a quarter for the privilege of being lowered by rope 150 feet into a massive, pitch-black hole. A candle was included in the price.

Today visitors to Grand Canyon Caverns descend in comfort via a 21-story elevator.

"Prior to driving 66, the tourist saw the Southwest pretty much as the railroad presented it, in its very controlled fashion," Evans said. "With the opening of the highway, travelers were able to experience all sorts of things that the railroad would not have permitted or entertained. Food, languages, arts and crafts, all sort of different cultural ideas and beliefs intersected in the cafes, tourist traps, trading posts and motels along the way."

Tourism became a major economic resource right from the start, as visitors learned of the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert and Indian reservations. For many Easterners, Route 66 in Arizona afforded their first encounters with Native Americans.

Dust Bowl refugees

Travelers of a different sort took to the highway during the 1930s. The massive dust storms that ravaged Plains states in that era pushed thousands of displaced farmers onto Route 66, seeking work in the promised land of California. Angel Delgadillo of Seligman, the man credited with beginning the Route 66 preservation movement, remembers those days.

"Those poor Okies would drive through town in rattletrap vehicles that didn't look like they had many more miles in them," said Delgadillo, who was born in a house on Route 66 five months after the highway was commissioned. "They'd be loaded down with tools and spare tires and mattresses and washtubs and chickens. They looked so tired but the road kept going west and so did they."

During those lean times the stream of traffic provided an economic lifeline to Arizona businesses. Cool Springs Camp west of Kingman added cabins to accommodate the flood of travelers. From Cool Springs, Route 66 makes a treacherous climb over Sitgreaves Pass and down into Oatman. Booming gold mines gave Oatman the clout to demand such a road alignment. The mines were beginning to fade in the 1930s, but Route 66 motorists provided commerce to keep the town going.

Winslow also experienced an era of rapid growth thanks to Route 66. The city's airport, designed by Charles Lindbergh and financed by Howard Hughes, opened in 1929. It was the only all-weather airport between Albuquerque and Los Angeles, making it a landing site for transcontinental flights.

The next year, La Posada, the last of the great railroad hotels and the work that architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter considered her masterpiece, opened. Additional businesses sprang up around town catering to Dust Bowl refugees. Until the 1960s, Winslow was the largest town in northern Arizona.

WWII and beyond

During World War II, Route 66 became a thoroughfare to move troops and equipment to installations such as the Navajo Army Depot in Bellemont and the Kingman Army Airfield, where more than 20,000 bomber gunners trained. War-industry jobs in California brought a fresh wave of migrating workers. After the war, Route 66 hit the full gaudy flower of its heyday.

In the post-war boom, Americans went road tripping. Many followed the advice of Bobby Troup's hit song and got their kicks on Route 66.

Numerous Route 66 icons appeared during these years. Rod's Steakhouse in Williams, with its distinctive neon steer, opened in 1946. The Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City was built in '49 and was known for its ubiquitous yellow billboards with a black silhouette of a lop-eared bunny and the words "Here It Is." The billboards stretched as far east as Springfield, Mo., and after watching them drift past the windshield for hundreds of miles it was hard for travelers not to stop and see what the fuss was about.

In 1950, Chester Lewis built the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook. It was modeled after Frank Redford's Wigwam Village in Cave City, Ky. Pay radios were installed in each unit, with Redford receiving the proceeds in exchange for Lewis's use of the Wigwam model.

Juan Delgadillo, brother of Angel, built the Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman from scrap lumber he gathered while working for the railroad. The diner opened in 1953 and quickly earned a wacky reputation because of Juan's interaction with customers, such as "accidentally" squirting patrons with mustard that's actually colored string and offering comically undersize and oversize servings.

Down and up again

Yet even during the golden age of tourism, the seeds of Route 66's demise were being sown. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower instituted the National Interstate Highway System. It would forever change the way Americans traveled. On Oct.13, 1984, Interstate 40 officially opened and Williams had the distinction of being the last town bypassed by the freeway. Route 66 was quietly decertified.

Angel Delgadillo remembers what that was like for his town.

"One day there was so much traffic in Seligman, it might take 15 minutes to cross the street. The next day you could lie down in the middle of the road and not worry about getting run over. It's like the world just forgot we existed."

Seligman struggled. Plenty of other communities simply vanished, but Angel was determined not to let that happen. In 1987, he and other local business owners formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. They lobbied the state to designate Route 66 a historic highway. By the next year, the state had agreed and began posting appropriate signs.

Similar organizations sprang up in other states and a wave of Route 66 nostalgia was under way. For his efforts to preserve and promote the highway, Angel Delgadillo is known as the Mayor of Route 66. He has been written up in hundreds of articles and books, and was honored as an Arizona Culture Keeper in 2003.

"I am surprisingly optimistic about where Route 66 is and where it might go," said Sean Evans, the NAU archivist. "I am happy to see cities and towns re-embracing the road. They see that 66 brings tourists, and that means jobs and opportunities.

"Every town that re-embraces Route 66 is also re-examining their past at a much broader level. Anytime we think about our past, I believe good things happen."

~Roger Naylor,


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