Today’s highways and interstates allow us to get from one place to another quickly and efficiently. Long ago, though, highways themselves were a destination. Back when automobiles were just starting to become popular, the open road called to adventure seekers who drove miles and miles just for the sheer pleasure of taking a drive and seeing the sights.
One of the most famous highways of all time was Route 66. Inspired by the old trails used by the first explorers, Route 66 was born on November 11, 1926, in Springfield, Missouri, as one of the original U.S. highways.
Although it would not become completely paved until 1938, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway quickly became one of the most famous roads in America. Its original route ran 2,448 miles from Chicago, Illinois, through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, before ending in Los Angeles, California.
The popularity of Route 66 stemmed from the unique circumstances of the time. As automobiles began to become more popular, more people were able to drive to see places they’d never been able to visit before. Historical factors played a role, too.
In the 1930s, severe drought forced many farming families to move west to look for farming jobs in California. Many of these people simply followed Route 66 west to what they hoped would be better times.
The small communities along Route 66 also began to grow and prosper. Many people settled in these areas and opened small businesses, such as gas stations, restaurants and motels (called motor courts back then), to serve the increasing number of travelers along the highway.
During World War II, Route 66 was a popular route used by the military to move supplies west. After World War II, many young Americans, optimistic about their futures after the war, sought adventure and new experiences in the west. Route 66 became the main highway for those heading to sunny California and the excitement that awaited them in places like Los Angeles.
As tourist traffic increased on Route 66, entrepreneurs began to develop a wide variety of roadside attractions to lure travelers to stop and spend their money. From motels shaped like teepees to souvenir shops to reptile farms, you never knew what you might see along Route 66.
Some people also credit Route 66 with the rise of the fast-food industry. Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, was the first drive-through restaurant. The first McDonald’s restaurant also opened near Route 66 in San Bernardino, California.
Over the years, it became known by several nicknames, including the Great Diagonal Way, the Main Street of America, the Will Rogers Highway and the Most Famous Road in the World. Its most famous and iconic nickname, though, came from author John Steinbeck, who called Route 66 the “Mother Road” in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Unfortunately, Route 66 eventually fell into decline. Motorists increasingly wanted faster, more efficient routes. Military considerations and the growing trucking industry led to the development of the Interstate Highway System.
As interstate highways were built, they bypassed older highways like Route 66. Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System on June 27, 1985, when it was decided that the highway had been fully replaced by interstate highways and was no longer relevant.
After it was decommissioned, many sections of Route 66 lived on as state and local roads or as business loops that are alternatives to interstates. Other sections became private drives and some were abandoned altogether.
Today, it’s no longer possible to drive Route 66 all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles without interruption. However, with careful planning, much of the original route is still drivable.
Various groups exist today for the purpose of preserving sections of the original Route 66. Some parts of the original road have been designated a National Scenic Byway with the name “Historic Route 66.”