Before the Interstate highway system, there was Route 66, a principal east-west artery across the United States from Chicago to the California coast of the Pacific Ocean.
Its path was practical, traversing mainly prairie lands and temperate climates, convenient and comfortable for most travelers, whether they were tourists or truckers. Its history mirrors the nation’s troubles in the 1930s and ’40s, the Great Depression and World War II, and its emerging mobility and optimism in the Post War 1950s.
Ironically, says the National Historic Route 66 Federation, the need for rapid mobility and improved highways that made Route 66 so popular also brought about its demise. After 1956, with the federal interstate and defense highways system, highways would be divided, and they wouldn’t take a traveler through the small, medium and large communities of the nation.
Route 66 was planned by Congress in 1926, intending to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities. Its diagonal path through rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas connected the farms in the prairies to Chicago. Truckers found the westward path easier to travel than routes farther north, due to milder weather.
Route 66 carried many of estimated 210,000 Americans who migrated to California in the 1930s, fleeing the despair of the Dust Bowl.
Who built Route 66? Thousands of unemployed male youths from nearly every state were put to work as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of the road during the financially lean years of 1933-38. It was a monumental job, and it helped prepare the nation for mobilizing troops for World War II. Route 66 was an efficient route to the West, the ideal place for military training bases.
Servicemen returning from WWII frequently chose to relocate from their past home states to the West and South, and Route 66 facilitated their moves. The Route 66 federation says one of those servicemen, Bobby Troup, wrote the song with the catch phrase, “get your kicks on Route 66.” Troup was a musician who had played piano with the Tommy Dorsey band. The recording artist was Nat King Cole.
In the 1960s, although the interstate and defense highway system was under construction, Route 66 was still a favorite corridor. A new generation of motorists was ready to hit the road and stay in the new motor courts with swimming pools, as customers of the Route 66 restaurants, gas stations, and souvenir shops. Even if Route 66 was not outside your door, it was inside your living room on American TV. Route 66 was a popular weekly television show, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis.
Today, Americans try to recapture the aura of freedom earlier generations felt when they traveled Route 66 by restoring the road itself, where possible, and preserving the 1950s and 1960s buildings that characterized the old Route 66. There are also commemorative post cards, tours, even festivals and associations formed in each state Route 66 traversed. Most have their own Web sites.
To try Route 66 Trivia, go to www.tulsa66festival.com, or for more information, visit www.historic66.com, or read a Route 66 history and current news at www.national66.com.