Ask a motorist to name an interstate that traverses the United States, and odds are they’ll say I-80 or I-95. But there was a time when they might have said The Lincoln Highway, or Route 66.
It’s the latter that has become a national icon. Designated a highway in 1926, it stretched 2,200 miles from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California before being officially decertified this week in 1985. But it remains popular, with approximately 85% of the road still navigable.
But its life as the essential cross-country highway, one that bound us together, is a fascinating one, particularly on a weekend where so many of us will hit the road to celebrate the holiday weekend with family and friends.
The first transcontinental road
Route 66 was not the first national road; that honor belongs to The Lincoln Highway.
The brainchild of Carl Fisher, creator of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a South Florida real estate developer, it was formally dedicated Oct. 31, 1913, traversing the continent from New York City to San Francisco.
But the Lincoln Highway’s creation spurred talk of constructing a federal highway system. Until then, America had no national plans for its roads, and the federal government had no official stake in them.
It finally happened thanks to Sen. Charles E. Townsend, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, who introduced a bill to fund one in 1919. It would pass into law as The Federal Highway Act of 1921.
With the passage of the law, the government had to devise a naming convention for its highway system. While some state roads existed, they had a variety of names, such as the Victory Highway, the Jefferson, the Roosevelt, and the Apache Trail. This confusing array was unsuitable for national highway system.
Instead, it was decided to substitute numbers for names. Primary highways would be identified by one- or two-digit numerals. An offshoot of a main route would be identified by a three-digit number. All transcontinental highways and the most significant east-west routes would end in zero, such as 10, 20, 30, while major north-south thoroughfares would end in 1.
The Lincoln Highway was renamed U.S. 30.
An upset governor
It’s 1925 and William J. Fields, the governor of Kentucky, is not pleased with the government’s planned roads.
Kentucky was missed by U.S. 50 to the north and U.S. 70 to the south. U.S. 60 ought to have directly crossed through his state, but it didn’t. Its route began in Chicago and arced through St. Louis, Tulsa, and Albuquerque before making another lengthy, turn towards Los Angeles. Kentucky was left without an east-west route. When one was finally proposed, running through Kentucky from Newport News, Virginia, to southwest Arizona, it was going to be named U.S. 62. Arguments ensued, and the committee in charge of the federal roads swapped the two names. Fields got his U.S. 60.
But some didn’t like the Chicago road’s name: 62. The committee then proposed the number 66, one that was not planned on being used. All sides agreed, and the new road was approved on Nov. 11, 1926.
The legendary “Main Street of America”
Starting in in Chicago at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard, and ending in Los Angeles at Broadway and 7th Street, U.S. 66 ran 2,448 miles, passing through Springfield, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Amarillo, Texas; Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, and Kingman, Arizona; and Needles, Barstow, and San Bernardino in California. (U.S. 66 would later be rerouted to end in Santa Monica.)
While the federal government created the route, it was left to the individual states to build the road, which wouldn’t be fully paved until 1938. Nevertheless, the route proved popular, leading to the creation of businesses to service passing motorists. Thus came drive-ins, fast food restaurants, gas stations, tire stores, roadside billboards and motor hotels — later shortened to motels.
Quickly nicknamed “The Main Street of America,” it became a lifeline for those who lost everything in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Taking U.S. 66 west led them to California in the hopes of finding work. Dubbed Okies, their plight was catalogued in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” where it was nicknamed “The Mother Road,” and inspired folk singer Woody Guthrie to write some of his most famous songs, including “Pastures of Plenty,” “This Land Is Your Land” and many others.
Following World War II, U.S. 66’s notoriety inspired Bobby Troup to write the song, “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” which would become a huge hit for Nat King Cole in 1946 and would continue to be performed for decades by many artists, including The Rolling Stones.
The first McDonald’s restaurant, established by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, was located on U.S. 66 in San Bernardino, California.
U.S. 66’s fame endured, becoming the name of CBS’s “Route 66” TV series about a pair of friends driving their Corvette convertible across Route 66. Lasting 116 episodes from 1960-1964, guest stars included Lon Chaney, Jr., Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman.
Faster travel dooms America’s Main Street
Ironically, it was the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, that would ultimately spell an end to U.S. 66 although no one knew it at the time. For buried deep in the bill, the law called for “a National System of Interstate Highways” in the continental United States.
Although President Dwight Eisenhower gets credit for the Interstate Highway System, it had already officially existed for more than eight years by the time he took the oath of office. But it wouldn’t be funded until the passage of the “Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956,” which he signed.
As the new Interstates were built, it became clear that there would be no Interstate 66. In some parts of U.S. 66, new interstates were built on or alongside the old right-of-way. By October 1984, its route had been usurped by highways.
Less than a year later, on June 27, 1985, U.S. 66 was formally decommissioned, becoming nothing more than a cultural motoring memory.