U.S. Route 66 (also known as the Will Rogers Highway after the humorist, and colloquially known as the "Main Street of America" or the "Mother Road") was a highway in the Federal Highway System. One of the original U.S. highways, Route 66, US Highway 66, was established on November 11, 1926. However, road signs did not go up until the following year. The famous highway originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, before ending at Los Angeles, encompassing a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km). It was recognized in popular culture by both a hit song (written by Bobby Troup in 1946 and performed by the Nat King Cole Trio and The Rolling Stones, among others) and the Route 66 television show in the 1960s. More recently, the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars featured U.S. 66.
Route 66 underwent many improvements and realignments over its lifetime, changing its path and overall length. Many of the realignments gave travelers faster or safer routes, or detoured around city congestion. One realignment moved the western endpoint farther west from downtown Barstow to Santa Monica.
Route 66 was a major path of the migrants who went west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and supported the economies of the communities through which the road passed. People doing business along the route became prosperous due to the growing popularity of the highway, and those same people later fought to keep the highway alive even with the growing threat of being bypassed by the new Interstate Highway System.
US 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System on June 27, 1985 after it was decided the route was no longer relevant and had been replaced by the Interstate Highway System. Portions of the road that passed through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona have been designated a National Scenic Byway of the name "Historic Route 66". It has begun to return to maps in this form. Some portions of the road in southern California have been redesignated "State Route 66", and others bear "Historic Route 66" signs and relevant historic information.
Over the years, U.S. Route 66 received many nicknames. Right after Route 66 was commissioned, it was known as "The Great Diagonal Way" because the Chicago-to-Oklahoma City stretch ran northeast to the southwest. Later, Route 66 was advertised by the U.S. Highway 66 Association as "The Main Street of America". The title had also been claimed by supporters of U.S. Route 40, but the Route 66 group was more successful. In the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath, the highway is called "The Mother Road", its prevailing title today. Lastly, Route 66 was unofficially named "The Will Rogers Highway" by the U.S. Highway 66 Association in 1952, although a sign along the road with that name appeared in the John Ford film, The Grapes of Wrath, which was released in 1940, twelve years before the association gave the road that name. A plaque dedicating the highway to Will Rogers is still located in Santa Monica, California. There are more plaques like this; one can be found in Galena, Kansas. It was originally located on the Kansas-Missouri state line, but moved to the Howard Litch Memorial Park in 2001.
Before the U.S. Highway system
In 1857, Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a Naval officer in the service of the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, was ordered by the War Department to build a government-funded wagon road across the 35th Parallel. His secondary orders were to test the feasibility of the use of camels as pack animals in the southwestern desert. This road became part of U.S. Route 66.
Before a nationwide network of numbered highways was adopted by the states, named auto trails were marked by private organizations. The route that would become Route 66 was covered by three highways. The Lone Star Route passed through St. Louis on its way from Chicago to Cameron, Louisiana, though US 66 would take a shorter route through Bloomington rather than Peoria. The transcontinental National Old Trails Road led via St. Louis to Los Angeles, but was not followed until New Mexico; instead US 66 used one of the main routes of the Ozark Trails system, which ended at the National Old Trails Road just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Again, a shorter route was taken, here following the Postal Highway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo. Finally, the National Old Trails Road became the rest of the route to Los Angeles.
Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not realized until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development.
While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction.
Officially, the numerical designation 66 was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came its acknowledgment as one of the nation's principal east-west arteries.
From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.
Birth and rise of Route 66
A remnant of an original "STATE" right-of-way marker serves as a "ghost" of the early days of the road's construction. This was part of the 1927 construction of Route 66. Championed by Tulsa, Oklahoma businessman Cyrus Avery when the first talks about a national highway system began, US 66 was first signed into law in 1927 as one of the original U.S. Highways, although it was not completely paved until 1938. Avery was adamant that the highway have a round number and had proposed number 60 to identify it. A controversy erupted over the number 60, largely from delegates from Kentucky which wanted a Virginia Beach–Los Angeles highway to be US 60 and US 62 between Chicago and Springfield, Missouri. Arguments and counter-arguments continued and the final conclusion was to have US 60 run between Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Springfield, Missouri, and the Chicago–L.A. route be US 62. Avery settled on "66" (which was unassigned) because he thought the double-digit number would be easy to remember as well as pleasant to say and hear. The state of Missouri released its 1926 state highway map with the highway labeled as U.S. Route 60.
After the new federal highway system was officially created, Avery called for the establishment of the U.S. Highway 66 Association to promote the complete paving of the highway from end to end and to promote travel down the highway. In 1927, in Tulsa, the association was officially established with John T. Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri elected the first president. In 1928, the association made its first attempt at publicity, the "Bunion Derby", a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, of which the path from Los Angeles to Chicago would be on Route 66. The publicity worked: several dignitaries, including Will Rogers, greeted the runners at certain points on the route. The association went on to serve as a voice for businesses along the highway until it disbanded in 1976.
When the highway was decommissioned, sections of the road were disposed of in various ways. Within many cities, the route became a "business loop" for the interstate. Some sections became state roads, local roads, private drives, or were abandoned completely. Although it is no longer possible to drive Route 66 uninterrupted all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles, much of the original route and alternate alignments are still drivable with careful planning. Some stretches are quite well preserved, including one between Springfield, Missouri, and Tulsa. Some sections of Route 66 still retain their historic eight-foot-wide "sidewalk highway" form, never having been resurfaced to make them into full-width highways.
Hwy. 66 Length: 2451 mi (3,945 km)
Existed: November 11, 1926 – June 27, 1985
West end: U.S. Route 101 in Los Angeles, CA (1926-1936)
ALT US 101 in Santa Monica, CA (1936-1964)
Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, CA (1964-1974)
Interstate 40 in Topock, AZ (1974-1980)
Interstate 40 in Kingman, AZ (1980-1985)
East end: U.S. Route 41 in Chicago, IL (1926-1976)
Interstate 55 in Gardner, IL (1976-1978)
Interstate 55 in Normal, IL (1978-1979)
Interstate 44 near Duenweg, MO (1979-1985)
Total in 1926: 2448 Miles