Route 66, better known as "The Main Street of America," represents a lot of things to many people. To some, it holds memories of adventures taken across country. For others, the magical road is a romantic representation of times gone by. Then there are those who wallow in the historical story it holds within its broken concrete and tattered road side attractions. If one is to step out onto the old stretches of the road they would find an incredible story waiting to unfold. The Mother Road opened doors for those to explore the great west where otherwise they might not have had the chance.
Route 66 begins in windy Chicago, Illinois and winds its way through 7 more states only to end in sunny Santa Monica, California. In all, it reaches across 2,400 miles and crosses 3 time zones. It passes through town after town; therefore, nicknaming it the "Main Street of America." For many who lived near the historical road, it became their livelihood.
In the 1920's, the roads that existed were built for wagons and very crudely structured. At best they were gravel; more likely, they were nothing but worn tracks in the landscape. Thus, the crusade for passable roads began.
In 1926, the Ford Company forever changed the nation by lowering the price of motorcars. The pressure began to mount for highway development. Cyrus Avery, a leader of the American Association of Highway Development, was appointed to design what would become the United States Highway System. In short, he was in charge of preparing a map that showed where all of the primary highways of the United States should lay.
Avery began by examining all of the existing marked trails and connecting them in a fashion that would accommodate a highway system. The highway commissioners decided to assign the roads numbers instead of names to avoid confusion. The roads running east and west were to be assigned even numbers, and the roads running north and south were to be assigned odd numbers. Upon looking through the list of possible numbers, they came across the number 66. Cyrus Avery liked the way the number sounded and Route 66 was born.
In 1926, Route 66 became official. The route ran through 8 states; Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. At the time, approximately 800 miles were paved. The remaining road was dirt, gravel, brick, or wooden planks. It wasn't until 1937 that the road was completely paved.
The next step after creating the road was to get people to drive it. In 1928, an annual advertising scheme took place to promote the road. A foot race from Los Angeles to New York was to take place and Route 66 would be the main road used. Each contestant was to submit $100 to secure a spot in the race. The towns along the route grew with excitement and the race succeeded in getting publicity.
In the end, 55 of the 275 who started crossed the finish line with young Andrew Payne in the lead. He went on to become an American hero and will forever be associated with Route 66.
Approximately 3 years after Route 66 officially opened, the economy began to bottom out and the nation headed for the Great Depression. However, 66 did not lack in travelers, for around the same time a great drought began in the Midwest and would go on to last for several years sending thousands fleeing in search for better opportunities. These people came to be known as Okies and Route 66 was dubbed "The Road of Flight." For many, California was their destiny in hopes of finding fertile land and the promise of work. Their plight was documented and forever imprinted in the infamous Grapes of Wrath.
Eventually, our economy began to heal and rain covered the plains. However, World War II had begun filling Route 66 with soldiers and convoys of trucks heading to military bases across the country. After the war, Route 66 took on clutters of vacationing families.
More and more automobiles were being produced and the economy soared, making them affordable to many more people than ever before. Route 66 became jammed with traffic and everywhere "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" was being whistled on lips. America had, indeed, fallen in love with Route 66.
Tourist traps began to appear everywhere along the route. A tourist could buy Indian jewelry, visit a snake pit, or explore mysterious caverns. Neon cluttered the main street of America.
In the late 1950's, it became painfully clear that Route 66 has grown too popular for its own good. President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act to build a National Interstate Highway System. Towns along Route 66 began to be bypassed by new interstate highways.
Although many parts of old 66 are broken up and lost to overgrowth, it remains to be the main street of America. It has become an icon for the American way of life. Searching for old Route 66 has become an adventure in itself.
(Condensed) - Courtesy of USDA Forest Service