Occasionally places, sayings, or ideas can take on a life of their own, immortalised in memory and shrouded in myth and legends. Route 66 is definitely one of these places. But what gave birth to this road? Now one of the great American road trips, filled with tales of the haunted and everything else besides, here is a brief history of the Mother Road.
The Father of Route 66
From 1910 to 1920, America faced a staggering rise in registered motor vehicles. Registered vehicle numbers exploded from 500,000 to almost 10 million, and to cope with it the numbered road system was developed .
From 1910 to 1920, America faced a staggering rise in registered motor vehicles.
Cyrus Avery, who was one of the original people to recognise, and push for, the need of a national highway system, dreamed of something even greater. In his visions, a curved road swept through America, connecting cities long distanced from one another, like Chicago and Los Angeles. This road, he deemed, would be named Route 60.
Later, he would be better known as 'the Father of Route 66'.
With the help of John Woodruff, the dream of a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles became a reality. Route 60, a major number and one desired by both men, was designated to it.
Only, a Kentucky governor noticed that his zero-numbered highway, the one intended to go through his state, had been stolen and would not allow the insult to occur. Demanding it back so he would not be the only governor without one, Route 60 became Route 62. The demotion stung. Route 62, in Avery's eyes, was forgettable. With it, how would Route 66 ever become the legend it was always meant to be?
The number that stuck
With only 24 appropriate and unused highway numbers remaining, Route 60 North was considered before being discarded as unsuitable. Finally, on April 30, 1926, it was realised that only one number would do. One number, that would fit a road meant to stand out, one number that would be remembered. A telegram was sent off, and the other states agreed.
On November 11, 1926, Route 66 was born.
The Mother Road
Dust Bowl migrants
Route 66 is not a stranger to pop-culture references, appearing in a myriad of different outlets. From TV shows (including one named after the road), to songs and books, it's appeared in them all. However, it was John Steinbeck, in his novel 'The Grapes of Wrath', that gave Route 66 its lasting nickname 'the Mother Road'. His novel, and the subsequent film, which are based on the suffering endured by an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family migrating to California, cements the Mother Road in the American consciousness. The Dust Bowl migration involved around 210,000 people. For them, Route 66 became the road to opportunity.
However this golden age was not to last. Roughly around the time that Jack Kerouac's novel 'On the Road' was published, a book in which the main character briefly travels along the Mother Road, Route 66's decline began. With President Eisenhower, and the Federal Aid Highway Act, the route began to lose out to new four-lane highways, culminating in 1984 when US 66 officially ceased to exist.
Phoenix from the ashes
The Mother Road was not to die though. The public would not let it, the significance of the route too great. For social and historic reasons, it had to be preserved.
Now designated as 'Historic' in several states, with multiple landmarks and buildings nominated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Route 66 is still alive and vibrant.
So don't miss out on your chance to drive Route 66, and experience the legend yourself. Book yourself a motorcycle tour, and absorb the history of the mother road while it passes beneath your wheels.