Everyone's heard of Route 66, but how did it come to be?
When Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri created the idea of a road connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, they had no idea about the cultural icon they were about to create, according to the National Historic Route 66 Federation. Their dreams became a reality in 1925 when Congress began its plan for national highway construction. It wasn’t until summer 1926, however, that Route 66 was given its name. With the goal of connecting rural and urban community streets alike to give small towns access to a national highway, the historic road was born.
Besides becoming an American staple, Route 66 was vastly different from other routes at the time. Instead of being a straight path from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 twisted and curved through eight states to connect thousands of small, rural towns. This was good news for the farmers living in those communities, as they had an easier time sending and receiving grain and produce.
Route 66 also played a vital role in the trucking industry, which was slowly but surely rising to prominence in the shipping industry. Complete with an easy drive and a temperate climate, truckers were all too happy to journey along the beautiful landscapes Route 66 had to offer to deliver their goods.
As many know, Route 66 is known by more than one name. Perhaps the most iconic came from the 1939 classic book The Grapes of Wrath author, John Steinback. Along with the 1940 film telling the book’s story of migrants moving west to find work after the Dust Bowl, the “Mother Road” was cemented as one of the various labels for the route.
The migrants traveling the route to get to California gave it the nickname, the “Road to Opportunity.” With their horrific Dust Bowl experiences behind them, and wanting to be able to recount their epic journey to future generations, it was the perfect name to honor all those who traversed it for a better life for them and their families.
In addition to leading thousands of families towards bigger and better things, Route 66 also played a huge role in war efforts during World War II. When young army captain (and future U.S. president), Dwight D. Eisenhower, found himself in a pickle when his command was stuck near Ft. Riley, Kansas, the War Department knew they needed to do something. So, to promote national defense and improve mobilization, the department chose the west coast for their military training bases. This was largely in part due to the dry weather, which was prime for field and air maneuvers, and its geographic isolation.
The government invested $70 billion to make this project happen, and it’s all thanks to Route 66, the greatest wartime manpower mobilization in U.S. history was able to take place. To sweeten the pot, this movement helped create thousands of various civilian jobs.
Once the war was over, Route 66 once more played a pivotal role in the military. Thousands of people who had served during the war relocated to the south, traveling once more along Route 66 in order to do so. As more people traveled along this road, the demand for housing, car services, and food began to rise. It was as if overnight Route 66 blossomed, and looked to become a cash cow.
One of the thousands of travelers enjoyed his journey so much, he penned a song in its honor. Ex-Marine captain, Bobby Troup, wrote a song to pay tribute to Route 66. Released in 1946 by Nat King Cole, it’s because of this song the classic catchphrase, “Get your kicks on Route 66,” came to be.
A T.V. show was even written to honor the route, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. Appropriately named “Route 66,” this show followed the adventures of “Buz” (Milner) and “Tod” (Maharis) as they drove along the route in a classic Chevrolet Corvette. This show entertained audiences from October 1960, until the series finale aired in March 1964.
It’s a sad fact all good things must come to an end. The beginning of the end came when President Dwight D. Eisenhower returned from a trip to Germany. After seeing the layout of the German national highway system and being impressed with the safety and security of the roads, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The small two-lane roads were no longer to upload the heavy flow of traffic that drove through the routes daily, and changes had to be made to accommodate the route’s popularity.
As time went on, the original Route 66 was changed to modern four-lane highways. In 1985, the Mother Road was decommissioned and was officially put to rest. Today, most of the original route is driveable; nearly all of the original attractions and buildings still stand, serving as a momento of the road’s glory days.