Dear Straight Dope:
I hear about it on rock songs, jeans and cigarette commercials. Its road sign can be found everywhere, but I can't for the life of me find it on any road map: Where is Route 66? Where does it start and where does it end? Does it pass through all the cities mentioned in the song? What makes it so important? Why isn't Route 66--if it ever existed — in any road map?
SDStaff Rico replies:
If you ever plan to motor west,
travel my way, take the highway that’s the best.
Get your kicks on Route 66.
For many automobile travelers in the early to middle 20th century, Route 66 was the most celebrated highway in America. The legendary status of the Chicago-to-Los Angeles road was forever cemented in the popular imagination by a hit song and a television series. The rise and fall of Route 66 is a study in the relationship between America and its automobiles.
The early part of the 20th century was a heady time for Americans. With Henry Ford bringing the automobile within reach of almost everyone, the average person no longer was limited to spending his life in his hometown. Trucks were also beginning to be introduced, and the operators were looking for a way to compete with the nation’s railroads. The only limitation was the roads available.
In 1916 there were few roads, and many of those that existed were unmarked dirt and/or gravel trails. But that year marked the first national legislation for public highways. Soon roads sprang up with names like the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others.
When Congress passed expanded legislation in 1925, including provisions for numbering and mapping highways, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri began lobbying for what they called the “Main Street of America.” The road would travel between Chicago and Los Angeles and connect cities and towns along the route. This would provide small towns across the country with something they had never had before — access to a major national thoroughfare.
Route 66 was designated in 1926 and soon became the main national east-west highway, used by millions. Running diagonally rather than straight east and west, Route 66 linked hundreds of predominantly rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Chicago, enabling farmers to transport grain and produce to market. The diagonal configuration of Route 66 was particularly significant for the trucking industry, which was starting to rival the railroads for dominance in shipping. The route between Chicago and the Pacific coast traversed flat prairie lands and enjoyed a more temperate climate than more northerly routes, which made it especially appealing to truckers.
Originally Route 66 was unpaved. But it was marked and, though a dirt road, was maintained. Then in 1933 thousands of unemployed youths were put to work as road-gang laborers to pave the road. As a result, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway was reported as “continuously paved” in 1938.
It wasn’t until 1939 that the road attained national prominence in the minds of Americans. In his novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck named U. S. Highway 66 the “Mother Road.” Steinbeck’s classic novel, combined with the 1940 film, served to immortalize Route 66. An estimated 210,000 people migrated to California to escape the Dust Bowl. In the minds of those who endured, and in the view of generations of children to whom they told their story, Route 66 symbolized the road to opportunity.
World War II increased the prominence of Route 66. Between 1941 and 1945 the government invested approximately $70 billion in capital projects throughout California, a large portion of which were in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. Most of the material and manpower traveled down Route 66.
After the war, wanderlust struck. Route 66 was the nation’s major cross-country highway and millions went on vacation on “America’s Main Street.” Businesses sprang up along the highway catering to the traveler, including a new innovation, the motor hotel, or motel. While the first motel was not located on Route 66 (that distinction goes to the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo, California), entrepreneurs quickly realized the concept was perfect for the hordes of travelers taking to the road on Route 66. Restaurants, gas stations, mechanic’s shops, and tourist attractions lined the Mother Road waiting for travelers to come through and help them realize their portion of the American Dream.
One of those who made that California trip in 1946 was a former pianist for Tommy Dorsey, one Robert William Troup, Jr. He penned a lyrical homage to the highway, using major stops on the way as the lyrics. His song was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 and the immortality of Route 66 was assured. If you’re a fan of classic TV, you may have seen the author of “Route 66” on the 1970s TV show “Emergency.” Bobby Troup played Dr. Joe Early, and his wife Julie London (a wonderful singer in her own right) was Nurse Dixie McCall.
No treatise on Route 66 would be complete without a nod to the early 1960s TV series “Route 66” starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. The show brought many people back to the Mother Road, looking for adventure or simply to relive earlier experiences.
The meandering route of Route 66 took it through many cities and towns along its 2,448 mile (approximately 4,000 km) route. In answer to your question, yes, all the cities and towns in the song were along the route. In order, they are:
- Chicago, IL
- St. Louis, MO
- Joplin, MO
- Oklahoma City, OK
- Amarillo, TX
- Gallup, NM
- Flagstaff, AZ
- Winona, AZ
- Kingman, AZ
- Barstow, CA
- San Bernardino, CA
- Los Angeles (actually Santa Monica), CA
There are many other major cities along the road, which you can find at http://www.historic66.com/description/ along with actual turn-by-turn maps.
As construction progressed on the Interstate Highway System, Route 66 gradually lost a lot of traffic to the newer “freeways,” which allowed you to bypass cities and towns completely and not have to worry about stoplights, getting lost in the middle of a town, or speed traps. Parts of the highway system were built on top of Route 66, parts were built adjoining the original road, and many parts have been paved over and renamed as main streets of cities and towns. The part I’ve traveled most is Foothill Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley of California. It winds through many towns and has replica Route 66 signs up along its length.
The last original stretch of Route 66 was bypassed by I-40 in Williams, Arizona in 1984. Other parts of the road still hung on to the official Route 66 moniker until the federal government officially decommissioned the highway in 1985, which is why you won’t find the highway on any official map today.
Many people, myself included, have dreams of traveling along the old route, finding original sections of the road, and staying in the old motor courts and motels, eating in the restaurants, and trying to imagine the road’s earlier, carefree days. Many already have retraced the route using four-wheel drives and motorcycles. A company will rent you and a passenger a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and lead you on a guided tour of Route 66.
However you travel the “Mother Road,” you’ll find many motels, restaurants, gas stations, shops, and roadside attractions that have been lovingly restored to their original glory. Many more have fallen into disrepair and are little more than ruins. In quite a few cases you’ll simply have to imagine what it was like when the “Main Street of America” came rolling triumphantly through town.
Won’t you get hip to this timely tip:
when you make that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66.
SDStaff Rico, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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