On the Road Back?

Route 66—past, present, and future

Blue Swallow Motel

Credit: Jim Ross

"In the beginning," writes Arthur Krim in Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway, "Route 66 was a line drawn by the imagination." In the wildest fantasies of ambitious businessmen, avid travelers, and the average American, the line always had the same final destination: the impossibly romantic West. And it has lingered as a symbol in the imagination of the nation, evoking everything from freedom and adventure to the fading American frontier and, now, distilled nostalgia.  Indeed, no other road has so outshone its humble origins of asphalt and concrete to be as frequently immortalized in the arts, be it John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the Dust Bowl photography of Dorothea Lange, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the 1960s television series Route 66, or the ditty, sung by Nat King Cole, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66."

It didn't take long for the road to become a real and lasting part of American history. In 1925, Congress passed a comprehensive national highway construction program that paved the way for what would become U.S. Highway 66, and by 1927, the 2,400-mile road, beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles, was largely complete. This direct, diagonal route linking east and west crossed through farm communities and small towns that previously had no access to a major roadway. The road ran through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, traversing mostly flat lands through temperate climates—truly, a traveler's dream road.

Route 66's significance soon became apparent. With the advent of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, suffering farmers and their families put their last best hope in Route 66. The road ultimately led an estimated 210,000 Dust Bowl refugees to California, all of them in search of the American Dream anew.

By the 1940s, rest stops and diners began to spring up along the way, offering respite to weary travelers. But it wasn't until after World War II, when Americans were more mobile than ever before, that Route 66's heyday truly began. With the new tourism industry fueling rapid growth, the kitschy landmarks that are now synonymous with Route 66—motels shaped like oversized teepees, enormous roadside sculptures of everything from astronauts to whales, and signs in every color of the neon rainbow—infused the "Mother Road" (as Steinbeck dubbed it) with a healthy dose of Americana and the average road trip with a good bit of flair.

Progress, mobility, and the spirit of exploration—all of which propelled Route 66 into the popular conscience—would also contribute to its downfall. In the mid-1950s, under President Eisenhower (who during World War II had been impressed by Germany's efficient highway system), Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, facilitating the construction of the Interstate Highway System. By the 1970s, nearly every segment of the original Route 66 had been bypassed—and in some cases paved over—by a faster, more convenient four-lane highway. Soon, once-popular pit stops—motels, attractions, even entire small towns—closed for business. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a federal highway.

Though communities like Albuquerque, N.M., continue to celebrate their connection to Route 66 and protect the historic sites along it, many landmarks elsewhere are in danger of being lost. Dozens of examples of roadside architecture are in limbo, suffering from lack of maintenance and threatened by pressure from developers.

"There are no other places that so precisely reflect the spirit of that time in the 20th century, when you could get in the car and go west and see something new," says Daniel Carey, director of the National Trust's Southwest office. "When people get on the road and see these places, there's a real feeling of being transported back to that time. The faster Route 66 goes, the faster that feeling disappears."

As the highway heads further toward obsolescence, the National Trust has advocated for the fabled road by naming its iconic motels to last year's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Trust's Midwest, Southwest, and Western regional offices, which monitor states through which the route passes, all offer grants to help rehabilitate historic landmarks (the Aztec Motel, in Albuquerque, for example, has received one).

Other sites, such as the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Mo., and the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M., have successfully been rehabilitated, with their original uses maintained. The National Trust has called these sites exemplars of "best practices" for other Route 66 motels. The route's future will also be a hot topic at the 2008 National Preservation Conference, to be held in Tulsa, one of the largest cities on Route 66.

The National Trust and the National Park Service, which administers the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, are also working together to complete an economic study of heritage tourism along the road, with the hope of demonstrating that historic preservation can encourage economic development. "If we can make a case that this is a viable route and there are investment opportunities here," says Carey, "then we can attract investors to sensitively use historic resources along Route 66."

Read our online extra about Route 66 motels


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