🗺 A brief history of Route 66. 🚦

Which way to Main Street?

Many people associate Route 66 with the interstate highway system adopted in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration. Both represent the allure of the open road and America’s fixation with the freedom that the automobile brings. However, Route 66 predates the interstate highway system by 30 years. It was a precursor to the interstate highway system, but Route 66 was in many ways the antithesis of the interstate highway system.

Route 66 represents the first attempt to standardize road systems in the United States and to coordinate across several states and hundreds of municipalities. Before Route 66, roadways were patchwork in every sense of the word. Without centralized planning all roads were different and without centralized financing roads became a patchwork of potholes.

Route 66 changed all that. Standards were put in place governing signage and engineering and junctions across all eight states. Agreements and commitments were made to ensure financing for both construction and maintenance of the project. All of that was a precursor of what was to come with the interstate highway system.

When Route 66 was completed in 1926, you could drive the 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica without having to worry too much about dead ends or washed out roads — all things we take for granted today. But at the time it was revolutionary.

Suddenly the Great Lakes — the industrial center of the country — were directly connected with a paved road to the golden shore of California with its burgeoning population and massive agricultural output.

The first major wave of people to take advantage of Route 66 was made up of farmers from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas fleeing the Dust Bowl in the mid to late 1930s. This environmental catastrophe caused billions of dollars of crop failures that created a domino effect of bankruptcies, poverty, malnutrition, and death. Having lost everything, tens of thousands of farmers packed up their families and their few possessions and headed to California along Route 66 in search of agricultural work.

I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath this month, which is a fictional account of a family fleeing Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Route 66 is prominently featured in the book. I’ll be hosting a book club discussion of the book later this month if you’d be interested in joining.

The second wave of people to travel along Route 66 was made up of veterans and their families after World War 2. Many had been stationed in or passed through California during the war and were eager to get back once the war was over. For some this meant leaving the Midwest, driving Route 66, and moving into the newly created suburbia of Southern California. For others it meant driving Route 66 for family vacations to Disneyland each year.

One of the design features of Route 66 was to directly connect the downtowns of as many towns along the way as possible. The intent was to promote trade and travel in communities all along the way. When you drive Route 66 you pass through hundreds of little towns and a handful of cities. And you pass right through the heart of all of them. More often than not, that stretch of Route 66 is on Main Street. Hence one of Route 66’s nicknames: The Main Street of America.

That’s where Route 66’s campy charm comes from. With so many nondescript towns along the way, businesses and communities developed unique “attractions” to lure travelers to pull over. Neon signs flash to let you know that the motel has vacancy and that the diner has the world’s best burgers. Check the bottom of this email for some of the roadside attractions that got us to pull over along the way.

However, the seeds of Route 66’s demise were planted in that design intent; its days were numbered before it even entered the public consciousness. Going through the heart of town is great for business and for putting your town on the map, but it’s just too inefficient. You have to zig and zag and there are too many stop signs and stoplights. That’s where the interstate highway system comes in — that’s how Route 66 is the antithesis of the interstate highway system.

In moderation, Matthew