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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

America's Main Street: Route 66

This year we celebrate the 85th Birthday of a road that has been called “The Mother Road”, “Will Rogers Highway”, and “America’s Main Street.” It was born on November 11, 1926, in Springfield, Missouri, and was designated as U.S. Route 66. It ran for 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, and included the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The longest single highway in the United States. More than just a road, Route 66 is a part of 20th Century American culture.
When the depression struck in the 1930’s and the Great Plains areas turned into the “Dust Bowl,” Route 66 was the major path the migrants took to a new life on the west coast. In his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck referred to it as The Mother Road. Later, Route 66 was called the “Will Rogers Highway.” The road ended its western stretch in Santa Monica, California, near Rogers’ ranch.
In 1928, two years after Route 66 was designated, publicity was generated for a cross country footrace called the “Bunion Derby” which followed the highway from Los Angeles to Chicago, then continued on other roads to New York City. Out of 199 runners, only 55 finished. It was won by Andy Payne, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, who covered the distance in 84 days. The race has continued off and on through 2004.
After World War II, Route 66 became the way vacationers saw the American west. It passed through the Painted Desert, Meteor Crater in Arizona, and near to the Grand Canyon. But just as popular with vacationers were the roadside attractions, many built in southwestern or art deco motifs. There were Indian curio shops, reptile farms, motels shaped as Tee-Pee’s, service stations, frozen custard stands, and some of the first fast food restaurants (the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, CA).
“Route 66” was a very popular American TV series running from 1960 to 1964 starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. It was an anthology about two wanderers who would move from one town to another each week, interacting with new characters. The show was complemented by a very popular theme song that became a best seller. Many viewers vividly remember the red Corvette that the two used to travel the country. The only problem with that is that the program was broadcast in black and white. Red does not photograph well, so they used only blue, tan, and beige Corvettes. They never used a red one.
The beginning of the end for Route 66 came in the late 1950’s. With the Interstate Highway Act, President Eisenhower signed the document that would make the famous highway obsolete. The “66” went through many small towns in a meandering way. It was two lanes in places and had stop lights in others. The new U.S. Interstates would be more direct, wider, and safer. By the 1960’s most of Route 66 had been replaced. These new highways meant decline and death to the small towns along its path. Remember Disney’s “Cars” movie? Interstates 55, 44, 40, 15, 210, and 10 replaced the once seemingly endless Route 66.
The US Highway 66 Association has tried to continue the legend of the famous road but with limited success. Every year the Chicago Jazz Festival builds a stage on the actual pavement of old Route 66 (which is closed to traffic). Portions of the old highway in Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona have been designated as National Scenic Byways under the name “Historic Route 66.”

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