- Alternate meanings of 'Route 66': New Jersey State Highway 66, Interstate 66, and a company named after the route
US Highway 66 or Route 66 was and is the most famous road in the United States highway system and quite possibly the most famous and storied highway in the world. US 66 originally ran from Chicago, Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California before ending at the beach at Santa Monica for a total distance of 2448 miles/3940 km.
Championed by Oklahoman Cyrus Avery in 1923 when the first talks about a national highway system began, US 66 first opened in 1926 as one of the original national arteries, 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. Even though "US 60" was already assigned to another highway, Avery went so far as to have maps printed showing his road as US 60. Faced with defeat, he relented and reviewed the numbers available to him. He settled on "66" because he thought the double-digit number would be easy to remember as well as pleasant to say and hear.
The route was not straight, but intentionally linked many small towns in the Midwest, Plains and Southwest. With its essentially flat course and favorable weather, the highway became popular as a truck route, thus contributing to the growth of that industry.
After the end of the Second World War, US 66 became the road of choice for returning GIs, and later, their families during vacation season. This sharp rise in tourism in turn gave rise to a burgeoning trade in all manner of roadside attractions from teepee-shaped motels to frozen custard stands; Indian curio shops to reptile farms. It was changes like these to the landscape that further cemented 66's reputation as a near-perfect microcosm of the culture of America, now linked by automobile.
Early 20th Century American Pop Culture
In 1946, jazz composer and pianist Bobby Troup wrote his best-known song, "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" after driving the highway himself to get to California. He presented it to Nat King Cole who in turn made it one of the biggest hit singles of his career. The title was suggested by Troup's first wife, Cynthia, who accompanied him on the trip.
The lyrics read as a sort of mini-travelogue about the major stops along the route, listing several cities and towns that Route 66 passes through. Specifically mentioned, in order, are St. Louis, Missouri, Joplin, Missouri, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, Gallup, New Mexico. Flagstaff, Arizona, Winona, Arizona, Kingman, Arizona, Barstow, California, and San Bernadino, California.
Winona is the only town out of sequence in the list. It was a very small settlement east of Flagstaff, and might have been forgotten if not for the song's lyric, "Don't forget Winona" intended to rhyme with "Flagstaff, Arizona."
In 1940, California writer John Steinbeck referred to 66 as the "Mother Road" and "the road of flight" in The Grapes of Wrath, his seminal novel about the westward migration of Oklahoma's Dust Bowl farmers to California's San Joaquin Valley.
The highway also gave its name to a popular television show, Route 66, seen from October 4, 1960 through 1964 on CBS. The show featured Martin Milner and George Maharis as "Tod" and "Buzz," two young men in a Corvette looking for adventure along America's highways. Strangely, though much of the program was filmed on location, rarely was it shot along Route 66. The show's theme song, by Nelson Riddle, was also a hit. Riddle was commissioned to write the theme when CBS was informed that they could not obtain the rights to the Bobby Troup song. Even though the fully-orchestrated "Theme from Route 66" does not resemble the version by Nat King Cole and his jazz quartet, there is an unmistakable homage to the latter's piano solo throughout the number.
The Fall of the "Mother Road"
Abandoned, fire-damaged Whiting Brothers gas station, New Mexico. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve original buildings such as this all along the route.
The death knell for Route 66 came in 1956 with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by President Dwight Eisenhower. As a five-star general fighting in the European theater during the war, Eisenhower was impressed by Germany's high-speed roadways, or "autobahns." Eisenhower envisioned a similar system of roads for the U.S. in which one could conceivably drive at high speed from one end of the country to the other without stopping as well as making it easier to mobilize troops in the event of a national emergency.
During its nearly sixty-year existence, Route 66 was under constant change. As highway engineering became more sophisticated, engineers were constantly looking for more direct routes between cities and towns. In fact, Kansas, with its roughly thirteen-mile-long (21 km) stretch of US 66 slicing off the southeast corner of the state near the Missouri and Oklahoma state lines, was totally bypassed by the late 1940s as part of a quicker, shorter route to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The stretch remains intact as Kansas State Highway 66.
One of the most notable reroutes came in 1953 when a new stretch of 66 more directly connected Kingman, Arizona to Needles, California on the Colorado River. The bypassed stretch through the Black Mountains of Arizona was fraught with sharp hairpin turns and was the steepest along the entire route; so much so that some early travelers, too frightened at the prospect of driving such a potentially dangerous road, hired locals to negotiate the winding grade. In some cases drivers were forced to back up the route, not only because reverse on most cars was more powerful than first gear, but also because some cars had no fuel pump and relied on gravity to feed fuel to the engine. The angle of the grade was steep enough to starve those types of cars of fuel.
Bypassed too was the small mining town of Oatman, Arizona, famous as the honeymoon stop of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard after their whirlwind wedding in Kingman on March 18, 1939. Oatman still clings to its Route 66 heritage more than half a century after being bypassed. Later, in 1984, Arizona would also see the final stretch of highway decommissioned with the completion of Interstate 40 through Williams. Official decertification of the highway by the federal government came the following year.
Present-Day "Route 66"
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, or were abandoned completely. More than eighty percent of the original route and alternate alignments are still drivable with careful planning. Some stretches are quite well-preserved, including one between Baxter Springs, Kansas and Tulsa. The road through Oklahoma is relatively flat and straight, and it was on this part of 66 that two chemical engineers were testing a new gasoline from a Tulsa oil company in the late 1920s. The company car they were driving ran exceptionally well on the new blend, prompting the engineer in the passenger seat to exclaim that the car was "going like sixty." His companion looked at the speedometer and said that they were going more like sixty-six miles per hour (106 km/h). The combination of the highway number and the speed of the car led to the naming of Phillips 66 gasoline, a brand still marketed today.
A roughly 160-mile-long (257 km) segment in Arizona signed as Arizona State Highway 66 links Seligman to Kingman and is considered to be Route 66's best-preserved stretch.
In California, where it is known by its pre-66 designation of National Trails Highway, travelers can drive a continuous stretch of approximately 150 miles (241 km) through the blazing Mojave Desert between Mountain Springs Summit west of Needles (where the Joad family camped out in The Grapes of Wrath after facing an armed posse at the state line) all the way to Victorville. Another surface street stretch between San Bernardino and Pasadena retains its number as California State Highway 66. In Pasadena, Route 66 was known as Colorado Boulevard, the street on which the Tournament of Roses Parade takes place every New Year's Day.
To approximate Route 66 via Interstate highways, take the following:
Route 66 -- The Revival
In 1990, Route 66 associations were founded separately in both Arizona and Missouri. Other groups in the other Route 66 states soon followed. The same year, the state of Missouri declared Route 66 in that state a "State Historic Route". The first "Historic Route 66" marker was erected on Kearney Street at Glenstone Avenue in Springfield, Missouri (now replaced, the original sign will be placed at Route 66 State Park near Eureka). Other historic markers now line - at times sporadically - the entire 2400-mile length of road. A section of the road in Arizona was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and work is under way in Missouri to make the road a state scenic byway.
Interstate 66 Western Extension?
Currently a highway linking Washington, D.C. to Middletown, Virginia, Interstate 66 could someday become a cross-country route extending all the way to California. Already, Kentucky has declared the Daniel Boone and Louie B. Nunn Cumberland Parkways as future segments of I-66, and parts of U.S. Highway 60, U.S. Highway 50 and U.S. Highway 400 may become part of I-66 as well.
The potential I-66 extension was inspired by businesses in Wichita, Kansas, who wanted an east-west interstate traversing the southern tier of their state. In addition, the number evoked memories of the old U.S. Route 66, which somehow did manage to cut into the southeastern corner of Kansas as it passed from Missouri into Oklahoma.
Highway mavens see the freeway ending in Fresno, California (which is currently the largest city without an Interstate passing through it), San Diego or even Los Angeles!
Related U.S. routes