Even 30 years after it officially ceased to exist, it’s still the one everybody talks about when they talk about the open road. Whether you call it the Mother Road, America’s Main Street, old U.S. 66 or Historic Rt. 66, it still has that sense of freedom. Its longevity in American culture is nothing short of amazing. It’s as if it is hardwired into our psyche.
Route 66 wasn’t the longest or the first highway in the nation but it was, and still is, the road every one associates with American travel. Maybe it’s because of where the road went… from the Windy City to the City of Angeles; from the cold, blustery shores of Lake Michigan to the warm and balmy beaches of ‘the coast’. Or maybe it’s because it was the first highway marked well enough that it could be followed all the way by the average driver. But it could also be because this road, like no other, linked all of the small towns and villages it passed through or close to in a way never before possible.
Route 66 had a few things going for it from the outset.
It offered a route with better weather than the other east-west highways and it was far easier to navigate. It was reasonably flat and easy to drive. There were only a few mountainous stretches, and the only truly scary section of road was approximately 20 miles around the gold mining town of Oatman, Az. With its heady changes in elevation, its tight, blind hairpin turns and narrow switchbacks, this section of the highway presented the less-skilled driver with a daunting task. Many travelers chose to hire local drivers to get them safely through the area. (This alignment of Route 66 is still used daily by locals.)
In 1938, 10 years after it opened, Route 66 became the first national highway to be paved from beginning to end, making it the first all-weather national road. The traffic floodgates fully opened. Car traffic increased some but truck traffic grew by leaps and bounds. Manufacturers could move their products across the West with relative safety and dispatch. During World War II, Route 66 allowed the efficient movement of soldiers and materials to the West Coast. It also allowed for the movement of thousands of defense workers to the plants in the West.
After the war ended, thousands of former GI’s returned to civilian life and were ready to hit the road.
Along Route 66, travel services grew at what seemed lightning speed. The drive-in restaurant developed. Fast food got the traveler back on the road quickly. The auto camp became the motor court. The motor court became the tourist home which in turn became the motor hotel with individual cabins.