Route 66 - “America’s Main Street,” emblem of American pop culture—and migration (31 May)
Interesting Facts about Route 66
IN AN AGE OF interstates and autobahns and airplanes, it seems quaint that Americans once went streaming down a two-lane highway. But Route 66 was a really big deal when it was created between the two World Wars.
Running over 2,200 miles (3,541 km) between Chicago and Los Angeles, it was the first paved auto route linking the West Coast with the rest of the nation. And while it may not have gotten the drumroll that accompanied the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Route 66 had an equally significant impact on Western development and the national psyche.
Within years of the first Model T Ford rolling off a Michigan assembly line in 1908, motorists were calling for better paved roads. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the federal government turned in earnest to developing a national highway system. Cyrus Avery, an Oklahoma road advocate who advised the Bureau of Public Roads, was dubbed the “father of Route 66” for his tireless efforts to promote the highway.
What made Route 66 different from previous highways was the fact that it didn’t follow a direct path east to west; instead, it took a diagonal route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Coast. It linked not only cities but also thousands of small farming communities, expediting transportation between urban areas and helping farmers get their products to market.
The final stretches were paved in 1938. It had taken more than a decade to finish the entire route across eight states, a period in which the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had afflicted the nation. Thousands of unemployed citizens were put to work building the highway, and it became a pilgrimage route for people packing up and heading West to seek new opportunities in California. The road became ingrained in American popular culture, from works like John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath to the Bobby Troup tune “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”
By 1970, Route 66 had been entirely bypassed by modern interstates. But in recent years, nostalgia has fueled a campaign to save remnants of the old road and preserve its classic American architecture and roadside kitsch.
Oklahoma, where the idea of the cross-country road first took root, preserves some of the longest and best remnants, including a stretch through Arcadia (between Tulsa and Oklahoma City) flanked by the famous Round Barn and Pops restaurant. The excellent Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton details the history and cultural significance of the highway to the music of the era. In New Mexico, Central Avenue (aka Route 66) through downtown Albuquerque preserves dozens of classic neon signs and art deco architecture from the highway’s heyday.