Like an elegant actress in her senior years, Route 66 is an institution, a collection of fond memories, and a valued piece of Americana. While the highway number has been decommissioned and alternate route choices are abundant, much of the earlier roadway remains in use. The road spanned eight sates, which may not sound like a lot if you are thinking about states along the East Coast. But it becomes a lot more impressive when that 8-state drive is a whopping 2,450 miles. Today’s I-95 traversing the entire length of the Eastern Seaboard stretches only a bit more than 1,900 miles, running through 15 states and Washington, D.C.
Route 66 is an almost archetypal institution in American history due to its function as the original paved road from the Great Lakes region to the West Coast. Timing was also a major factor in the fame and function of Route 66, as it came into existence in time to meet the challenge of the Great Depression, with many travelers seeking better opportunity “out west.” But this road has an even earlier history, before it became known as Route 66, the “Mother Road,” or “Main Street of America.” Earlier, much of it had been known as the Old Trails Road, and some of it even followed pre-existing Indian trails. But none of its earliest history foreshadowed the greatness that was to become known as Route 66.
U.S. Route 66 was officially established in 1926, but the entire length stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles was not fully paved until the late 1930s. That was just before American novelist John Steinbeck popularized it in The Grapes of Wrath, as “The Mother Road” in 1939. Even the paving of this iconic road was a story in itself. The Depression created a massive unemployed work force, which completed the construction in a major government initiative creating needed jobs.
After both the novel and the film titled The Grapes of Wrath created the public awareness of Route 66 as The Mother Road, the highway was further popularized by the highly successful pop song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” in 1946, and the iconic “Route 66” TV series debuting in 1960. The series highlighted seemingly continuous travel on the highway by two young men in a Chevrolet Corvette. The popularity of the TV series may also have been in part responsible for the many re-recordings of the original Nat King Cole song. In any case, the highway has become almost synonymous with leisurely episodic travel in the United States despite the growth of the Interstate Highway system, which was supposed to revolutionize road travel, replacing the need for such “outdated” routes.
The most recent popular surge in the mystique of Route 66 came from the Pixar Animation film, Cars, which details the adventure of several characters in the context of a fictional town, victimized by the construction of the Interstate highway system’s redirection of traffic away from small towns along what is conceived to be Route 66. The movie, Cars, debuted in 2006, and has been followed by two more feature length films, two TV series, and a short film, as well as nine video games, extending the Pixar franchise into 2016 (3rd film’s release). A major factor in the popularity of Cars is its use of references to actual places and structures along Route 66, and featuring the fictional town (Radiator Springs) that imitates both the name and location of a real town (Peach Springs) and implicates many actual settings along the highway.
The Interstate Effect
The film, Cars, accurately depicts the effect that I-40 had on towns along old Route 66, as almost overnight it transformed popular stopping places along a major highway into near ghost towns. Much of the growth that had blossomed along the highway faded into history. Businesses and whole communities died.
It was in 1956 that Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act authorizing the construction of the national interstate highway system. While the system as a whole took many years to develop, as each section of Interstate was completed the older routes it replaced suffered immediate consequences. And by 1970, almost all of old Route 66 was bypassed by modern four-lane divided highways. Falling into disuse and disrepair, Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985. But by that time the song, the TV series, and the reality of the nostalgia had already lighted an indestructible fire in the imaginations of Americans. Route 66 simply refuses to be destroyed.
However, not all communities have survived. Even some other industries have reshuffled because of the changes. The auto industry is no exception, with many previous manufacturing plants having relocated. Chicago retains only a shadow of its former contribution to the auto industry, with Ford manufacturing only the Explorer, Taurus, and Lincoln MKS in the Windy City. Today, only General Motors still manufactures vehicles in the St. Louis area. They make the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado trucks and Chevy Express and GMC Savana vans in the nearby Wentzville plant.
But today organizations and communities have re-energized many parts of the old girl with restoration projects and promotion of her sights, sounds, and memorabilia.
Points of Interest
Hundreds of interesting points remain along this nostalgic path captivating Americans yearning for a connection to the past. Some are thriving businesses, living off of the continuing attraction this highway brings to their door. Others are actual (or practical) ghost towns. One of the more notable communities that now exist primarily as reminders of what used to be, is Texola, Oklahoma. Perhaps one of the most ironically named establishments there, is the Last Stop bar. It is perhaps the only business that remains in operation in the community. Indeed, it is a last stop in several ways.
Never a large community, Texola’s largest census population figure was 581 in 1930. Even during the prime years for Route 66, the town suffered a declining population. Today, there are supposed to be 36 residents, but finding a live person or moving vehicle there is a challenge. Abandoned buildings can be entered at a tourist’s leisure. In 1995, the National Register of Historic Places included in its listings the town’s Magnolia Service Station.
In the movie, Cars, the Cozy Cone Motel is taken from the design of two remaining Wigwam Motels in Holbrook, AZ, and Rialto, CA. Even the name is a reference to another site along Route 66, the Cozy Dog Drive-in in Springfield, IL.
Many museums, gift shops, and memorabilia vendors have grown quite successful along Route 66. One such stop worth noting is the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac IL.
At the road’s eastern-most end, a sign post in Chicago beckons the traveler with this message: “Begin Historic Route: Illinois U.S. 66.” Many maps and books are available to prepare an itinerary for a thorough trip down this historic memory lane. It is well worth the trip, and preparation is a good idea.
A big part of the charm that continues to attract travelers to the quaint and slower-paced scenic route 66 is the fact that it is reminiscent of times gone by, where we lived at a slower pace, with less distraction and more wholesome enjoyment of life. Think of it as a highway connecting you to places a little like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
The continuing popular nostalgia of traveling Route 66 is proof that the Interstate has not and apparently cannot kill this proud old matron of travel. If the Interstate is more like actress Kim Kardashian, then Route 66 is our genuine and highly respected Betty White. It is no coincidence that another of the names for this old road is “Will Rogers Highway,” in recognition of another of America’s most cherished figures.