Route 66 is a reflection of America as the nation transitioned into symbol of freedom through wars and migration.
By 1900, a shift in travel was already underway, from horse to bicycle. Activists started the Good Roads Movement, and work began on roads geared for bicycle travel. As momentum for improved roads was building, so was a car population. In 1900, there were only 8,000 registered cars in America. But the automobile industry was building traction, and by 1910 the number had grown to nearly half a million.
When the United States entered the Great War, it transitioned the country into a world power. Dough boys returned home to a nation with a ratcheted industrial sector and a higher standard of living. The ensuing roaring 20’s steered American culture to a lane independent of Europe, fueled with jazz, diners and the automobile. By this point, the Good Roads Movement had been hijacked for the automobile. Bicycles were sufficient for individual travel, but the car was more suitable to families, businesses, armies.
A national highway system became an apparent necessity for a modern military, so Congress passed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Oklahoma entrepreneur Cyrus Avery, later named the Father of Route 66, was appointed to the board assigned with marking the new highways. Avery argued for a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles and, because major highway designations ended in “0”, tried unsuccessfully to designate it Highway 60. Only “62” and “66” were available. Because the double-digit “66” was easier to remember and sounded better, it was designated U.S. Highway 66 in 1926.
On Avery’s recommendation, a U.S. Highway 66 Association was formed to promote the paving and use of the new highway. Route 66 was a largely flat, easy road, following the lay of the land. By then, 80% of all cars worldwide were in the United Sates, which had a car population of over 20 million. Use of the road quickly increased.
Shortly after, the Dust Bowl blew in and the Great Depression settled on the country. As the economy stalled, many Americans downshifted and set out on Highway 66 to find new beginnings. They trucked, hitch hiked and hoboed the rails along the highway. John Steinbeck coined the term ‘Mother Road’ in his epic book the ‘Grapes of Wrath’.
In the 1940’s, the nation was again dragged into another World War. Rural Americans, who previously never traveled far from hometowns, had now trained on bases across the land and had been deployed across the world. Infected by the travel bug abroad, the disease spread like a firestorm as servicemen returned to the Homefront. Bobby Troup’s Get your Kicks on Route 66 was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946, capturing the mood of the nation. And once again, families were driving Route 66, taking road trips to see the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, Hollywood. It was a highway dotted with diners, motels, trading posts, oddities and scenic beauty – a road to America.
World War II was both the boom and the bust for Route 66. President Eisenhower formerly led the Allied Forces in Europe and witnessed Germany’s Autobahn infrastructure. Eisenhower knew the American Highway System needed a tune-up and pushed for the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Interstates came off the assembly line, and began consuming, bypassing and replacing America’s highways.
In 1985, Route 66 was also decommissioned. Shields were taken down and the highway was erased from maps. Only then, with the Interstate passing by and towns boarding up, did people begin to sense the loss and recognize the significance of this road. The nuts and bolts of associations began to form across the eight states to preserve Route 66, with the first steps treaded by Arizona small town barber Angel Delgadillo in 1987.
Internationally, the old highway was treasured as a piece of Americana. However, outside of the localized communities, Route 66 was largely unknown by younger generations in America. This persisted until the movie Cars crashed into the silver screen in 2006. Since then, there has been a cross-generation resurgence of Route 66 in American pop-culture.
Route 66 is a result of America’s growth in the 20th century. And now it is a symbol, a reflection in the rear-view of a simpler time, a time of growth, prosperity, opportunity, freedom. It’s a result of America’s need to be mobile in times of war and of peace, in times of expansion and retraction, in bad times and in good times.