Route 66 | Construction, Popular Culture, & Facts (2024)

highway, United States


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Also known as: U.S. Highway 66

Written by

Robert McHenry Editor in chief, Encyclopædia Britannica, 1992–97.

Robert McHenry

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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica Encyclopaedia Britannica's editors oversee subject areas in which they have extensive knowledge, whether from years of experience gained by working on that content or via study for an advanced degree. They write new content and verify and edit content received from contributors.

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Also called:
U.S. Route 66 or U.S. Highway 66

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Route 66, one of the first national highways for motor vehicles in the United States and one that became an icon in American popular culture.

Background and construction

The system of major interstate routes—12 odd-numbered ones, running generally north-south, and 10 even-numbered ones, running generally east-west—was laid out in a proposal created by the American Association of State Highway Officials and accepted by the U.S. secretary of agriculture in November 1925. The route from Chicago to Los Angeles was designated U.S. Highway 60. Various states raised objections to this designation. For example, Kentucky protested that the plan left that state out entirely and that, based on the placement of the other proposed east-west roads, a highway numbered 60 logically should run through Kentucky. Kentucky subsequently received the route number 60, and the original Route 60 was changed first to 62 and then to 66 in the final version of the plan, approved on November 11, 1926.

The original eastern terminus of the route in Chicago was at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard; a few years later it was moved some blocks east to U.S. Route 41, better known as Lake Shore Drive. The western terminus in Los Angeles was originally at Broadway and 7th Street; later it was moved westward to U.S. Route 101 ALT (now Lincoln Boulevard at Olympic Boulevard) in Santa Monica, California. Among the other cities served by the route were, from east to west, Springfield, Illinois; St. Louis, Springfield, and Joplin in Missouri; Tulsa and Oklahoma City in Oklahoma; Amarillo, Texas; Tucumcari, Santa Fe (later bypassed), Albuquerque, and Gallup in New Mexico; Holbrook, Flagstaff, and Kingman in Arizona; and Needles, Barstow, and San Bernardino in California.

While the system of numbered routes was a federal creation, the actual construction of roads to carry those routes was left to the individual states. Laid in part over preexisting auto trails, Route 66 was thus built in segments, often discontinuous ones, and was not entirely paved until 1938. The original route was officially commissioned to stretch a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km), but, once built, it fell short of that figure. Over the years a number of projects relocated sections of the route, usually with the effect of further shortening it. Only the segment passing through Kansas, all of 13 miles (21 km) in length, remained unaltered. The elimination of a diversion through Santa Fe in 1937 cut more than 100 miles (160 km) from the route. These projects reflected a deeper change in the perceived purpose of the national highways: originally a means of promoting commerce along their lengths, they came to serve as the essential elements in increasingly popular long-distance automobile travel. To the same end, Route 66 was rerouted around most larger towns and cities in order to avoid slower local traffic.

Rise and demise of the route

By the mid-1930s, Route 66 was already being called the “Main Street of America.” Early promoters, notably John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, and Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, had envisioned a great road linking towns across the continent, and the organizations they founded to advance the idea were in effect multistate chambers of commerce. True to the promoters’ foresight, traffic on the highway increased, a growing share of it long-distance, and the need for food, fuel, repairs, and shelter transformed the economies of the towns through which the route passed. The development of novel methods of merchandising to the transient customer that became commonplace in mid-20th-century America—drive-in and drive-up businesses, fast food, motor inns, and roadside advertising—can to a great degree be traced to the influence of Route 66 in those towns. The large-scale migration to California of the “Okies,” dispossessed rural people from the Dust Bowl states during the 1930s, accelerated that development and also produced yet another byname for the highway, the “Mother Road,” so called in John Steinbeck’s novel of that migration, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

The explosion of automobile traffic that followed the end of World War II provided the perfect milieu for a song memorializing the journey “from Chicago to LA, more than two thousand miles all the way.” Written by Bobby Troup and recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 and by many other artists in subsequent years, “Route 66” invited the listener to “get your kicks” on that very road. From 1960 to 1964 a television series of the same name featured two adventurers who cruised the highway in a Chevrolet Corvette sports car. At the same time, the rapid expansion in traffic meant that Route 66, even more than many other interstate routes, was carrying far more vehicles than it was designed to bear.

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More and heavier traffic, more stringent safety requirements, and improved construction methods created a demand for a new kind of federal highway system. By the time U.S. Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, a few segments of Route 66 had already been superseded by newer, wider, and safer roads. The act authorized federal funding for an Interstate Highway System of such roads, and, despite an appeal by the state of Missouri on behalf of all the Route 66 states, there was to be no Interstate 66. Route 66 gradually was replaced by portions of several of the new high-speed limited-access superhighways. In many places these highways paralleled the old route or were built over its right-of-way. By 1977 the route had ceased to exist in Illinois, and in October 1984 the last segment was bypassed in Arizona. Route 66 was formally decommissioned on June 27, 1985.

Many private individuals, organizations, and towns have preserved portions of the roadway, businesses that throve on it, or collections of memorabilia. Among several museums dedicated to the route are those in Clinton, Oklahoma, and Barstow, California.

Robert McHenry
Route 66 | Construction, Popular Culture, & Facts (2024)
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