Route 66

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Route 66

Though it no longer carries travelers across the nation the way it once did, Route 66 remains America's highway. "America's Main Street" spawned popular songs—"Get Your Kicks on Route 66"—and helped to define the culture of the American automobile in its heyday, the 1940s through the 1960s. The escape from reality embodied by the "open road" defined Route 66, and nostalgia continues to imbue the road and road culture with symbolic significance.

From the outset, planners endowed U.S. 66 with a nationalistic goal: to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course. Entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, originally conceived of a road to link Chicago to Los Angeles, but more than their efforts were needed to kick off such a massive roadbuilding project. Legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, but it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government initiated the construction of a national highway. The numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. America's "main streets" now accessed one common "Main Street," Route 66.

As opposed to existing regional highways, which cut straight to their destination, Route 66 followed a meandering course which linked hundreds of surrounding rural communities to the metropolis of Chicago. Farmers shipping produce and trucking companies soon became some of the greatest users of the road. The more direct route between Chicago and the Pacific coast quickly dropped south toward the flat prairie lands and temperate climates that made Route 66 a favorite of truckers. But the road soon became beloved by more than truckers seeking the fastest route between cities.

In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), novelist John Steinbeck proclaimed U.S. Highway 66 the "Mother Road," for it came to stand for personal survival for the thousands of "Okies" who used the road to migrate to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. Such cultural and social significance increased the road's legendary and mythic standing nationwide. With continuous paving completed in 1938, the road was ready to unlock a nation's dreams as well as its hopes.

The increased mobility made possible by the automobile and the expansion of leisure time for America's growing middle-class helped draw ever more drivers to Route 66 after World War II. In such a time of change, relocation was very frequent—particularly to California, where many segments of the defense industry had mobilized during the war. These sensibilities were represented in the song of one such transient professional, former Marine captain Bobby Troup, as he traveled West to begin playing with Tommy Dorsey's well-known band. "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," his song about his move, became a catch phrase for countless motorists. The popular recording was released in 1946 by Nat King Cole, only one week after Troup's arrival in Los Angeles. It became a "musical map" of the traveller's odyssey by listing the stops, the feel, and the aura of the road.

A unique "automobile culture" soon took shape along Route 66. Enterprising entrepreneurs met the needs of even the poorest travelers by building motels, gas stations, diners, and tourist attractions. Most Americans who drove the route preferred motels instead of hotels, because they provided ease of access to their car. Motels evolved from earlier features of the American roadside such as the auto camp and the tourist home. The auto camp had been an entirely informal development as townspeople along Route 66 roped off spaces in which travelers could camp for the night. An outgrowth of the auto camp and tourist home was the cabin camp (sometimes called cottages) that offered minimal comfort at affordable prices.

Gas stations were another new presence on the American landscape. Initially, "filling stations" consisted of a house with one or two gasoline pumps in front. With the addition of service bays the facilities began to grow. Finally, petroleum companies realized that entire structures could serve as advertisements if designed properly. Ordinarily, service stations were developed through regional prototypes and then dispersed across the country. The buildings were distinctive and clearly associated with a particular petroleum company.

Route 66 and the many points of interest along its length had become familiar landmarks by the time a new generation of postwar motorists hit the road in the 1960s. It was during this period that the television series Route 66 (1960-1964), starring Martin Milner and George Maharis, brought Americans back to the route looking for new adventure. American youth romanticized the image of the road portrayed in the program and in the writings of authors such as Jack Kerouac. The "open road" became a symbol of new opportunities and unfettered living. Driving the route to California became for many a rite of passage into adulthood; for some adults, it became an opportunity to revisit one's youth. The leisure culture of the 1950s and 1960s thus defined itself around sites such as Route 66.

Ironically, such popularity also eroded the future of Route 66. The public cry for easy and rapid automobile travel soon led to improved highways beginning in the 1950s. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, massive federal funding went into the construction of a national highway system. When Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, Route 66 lost its figurative and literal meaning. It became an impractical mode of travel in contrast to the rapidly moving highways. Slowly, Route 66 was taken out of service—the signs removed and the roads taken over by individual states. By the 1970s, the "Mother Road" no longer existed.

Nostalgia, though, can do funny things to practicality. In the 1980s and 1990s, preservationists have reclaimed stretches of the road as a living museum of the evolution of tourist-targeted, roadside architecture. "The Main Street of America" has proven a great attraction, and Historic Route 66 signs now bind the disparate state routes to their common heritage. Route 66 thus binds together the nation's attraction to the automobile and the open road, and the opportunity to control one's own destiny, whether it be for a momentary escape or a lifetime move across the country. Many generations will likely continue to learn about the "kicks" a society got on a seemingly insignificant highway.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Crump, Spencer. Route 66: America's First Main Street. 2nd edition.Corona del Mar, California, Zeta Publishers, 1996.

"Explore Route 66." 1999.

Kelly, Susan Croce; photographs by Quinta Scott. Route 66: The Highway and Its People. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Snyder, Tom. Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.