Mother Road

Route 66, Photo by A. Hundt, Pixabay-300px
Photo by A. Hundt, Pixabay

Fasten your seatbelts because today on Museum Bites we’re taking a trip down Route 66. This iconic US highway spans over 2,000 miles, crosses 3 time zones and rolls through 8 states. Nicknamed Mother Road and the Main Street of America, Route 66 has been immortalized in books, movies, songs, and even a TV series. Join me for a ride down this historic road. We begin by rolling back the clock to the 1920s…

It winds from Chicago to LA,
More than two thousand miles all the way.
Get your kicks on Route 66.
~ Excerpt from Route 66 (1946) by Bobby Troup

Road Runner: In the 1920s, affordable cars were rattling off the assembly lines at Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Drivers were thrilled with these modern contraptions but feared the often muddy, pot-holed filled roads would wreak havoc on their newfound toys. Public outcry demanded more car-friendly roads. At this time, the federal government was also investigating ways to create a more efficient and coordinated system of highways in an effort to improve commerce. US Highway 66 (aka Route 66) was one of several roads created as a result of these efforts, and on November 11, 1926, its route was finalized and federally approved.

Chain of Rocks Bridge, Photo courtesy of Pixabay-300px
Chain of Rocks Bridge, Photo courtesy of Pixabay

By using existing roads and trails, the newly minted Route 66 trimmed 200 miles off the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles however, only 800 miles were paved. The remaining sections were comprised of dirt, gravel, bricks or wooden planks. Laborers, some with little to no construction experience, were put to work improving road conditions and 12 years later, the entire route was finally paved. This new and car-friendly gateway succeeded in linking rural farming communities in the West with industrial ports in the Midwest and along the Pacific Coast.

Fun Route Fact:  A rare 4-mile stretch of Route 66 referred to as the Sidewalk Highway or Ribbon Road, measures only 9 feet across. Legend claims there wasn’t enough money to link Miami, Oklahoma and neighboring town, Afton. Since states were initially responsible for construction costs, local officials decided to create a one-lane as opposed to the standard two-lane road. Their intent was to cover twice the distance with their limited supplies.

Route 66, Photo by Carrie Z, Pixabay-300px
Photo by Carrie Z, Pixabay

Where the Rubber Meets the Road:  From Okies to Easy Riders, Route 66 was a popular stretch of highway. In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl forced 2.5 million people to flee Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Caravans of cars packed with families and their belongings trudged down Route 66 West with the hope of steady work and a better life in California.

Okies on Route 66 (c1935), Photo by U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

In the 1940s, the US military was primed for war and crisscrossed Route 66 transporting military personnel and equipment to bases and ports of call. During the postwar economic boom, Americans set off on family vacations and soul-searching road trips. Cruising the 2,000-mile strip in their chrome-lined cars, they took in the sights and savored their first taste of the open road. Travel-friendly businesses began to pop up including themed motor inns, quirky filling stations, and drive-in restaurants and movie theaters. Many were tricked out in flashing neon to entice wide-eyed and weary travelers to pull over and sample their wares.

Flight Bound Route Fact:  John Steinbeck highlighted Route 66 and the plight of the Okies in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) stating, “66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Need for Speed:  This lust for travel however also ushered in a desire for faster, wider and more streamlined roads. After witnessing Hitler’s über efficient autobahn during World War II, President Eisenhower pushed for a national freeway system that bypassed little towns and transported troops as well as travelers quickly across the country.

The road [Route 66] didn’t cut through the land like that interstate.
It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved.
Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time.
They drove on it to have a great time.
Sally, Excerpt from Cars (2006) by Pixar

Route 66, Photo courtesy of Pixabay-300px
Route 66, Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Route 66’s 2-lane highway was soon passed over for modern, multi-laned superhighways. The quaint little towns and travel-related business gradually went bust. In 1985, Route 66 was decommissioned and all but forgotten. In the 1990s, a group of Route 66 enthusiasts banded together and pushed for preservation. Today, historical buildings and sections along Route 66 have been preserved. Click on this Route 66: America’s Original Road Trip link courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, for a virtual ride down this iconic highway.

Route 66, Photo by NextVoyage, Pixabay-300px
Photo by NextVoyage, Pixabay

Fun Route Fact:  US Highway 66 was initially named Route 60, however at least one state highway back East had already claimed this number. Sixty-two was bandied about, but 66 was eventually chosen for its catchiness.

That concludes our trip down Route 66. Next week, we’re cruising over to the Hoover Dam. In the meantime, have a fantastic week!

Route 66, Photo by Jeff Wigal, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Jeff Wigal, courtesy of Pixabay.


Britannica: Great Depression

Britannica: Route 66

History Channel: Automobiles

History Channel: Route 66


National 66

National Geographic

National Park Service


Steinbeck, J. (1939), The Grapes of Wrath

The Route 66: History

The Route 66: Ribbon Road

Wall Street Journal

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