The "Mother Road" of Route 66 will always be a definitive artifact of 20th century American history, and the ultimate road trip destination. But it is just one part of the story of transportation in America. From the millennia-old river routes of Native Americans to the paved superhighways of today, American has always been a land filled with people on the move.
Pre-Columbian and colonial transportation
The first people arrived in America at least 15,000 years ago, but possibly as far back as 40,000 years ago. Right from the beginning transportation was a major part of the American story. While the long-standing theory was that people first crossed from Asia to America by foot using the Bering Land Bridge (now the Bering Strait) from present-day Russia to Alaska, experts are now looking at the possibility of a crossing accomplished with boats, according to National Geographic.
After Native Americans first found their way into North America, they proceeded to spread out across the continent, with tribes in different regions adopting various forms of transportation depending on the geography of the areas. For example, tribes based along rivers across America used canoes to set up extensive trading networks. Others living in more landlocked locations were dependent on travel by foot.
Life in many parts of the continent was altered by the arrival of Europeans, starting with expeditions by the Spanish, but soon growing to include settlements from a variety of European countries. Both native people and settlers adopted products and innovations from the other. For example, Native Americans on the great plains were quick to begin using horses, which first came to the Americas by the Spanish, for both transportation and hunting. Ultimately, whether you were a Native American or a settler, travel in America was a slow experience in colonial times. In the decades following America's independence from England in 1776, and the advent of the industrial revolution in Europe and America, new technology began to revolutionise the way Americans got around.
The advent of the canal and railroads
One of the first new developments in American transportation following the birth of the new nation was the construction of long canal systems to move people and goods. While canals have been around since ancient times, the first one in America wasn't completed until 1783. By the mid-19th century, canals like the Erie Canal, C&O Canal and Casson Canal, in Canada, crisscrossed the East Coast provided trade and transportation routes that bypassed winding rivers entirely.
Meanwhile, as canals were making parts of the east more accessible than ever, new technology was about to open the country's westward interior like never before. In 1825, John Stevens built the first steam railroad on American soil, on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey. Only two years later, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company opened up the first railroad line that was open to the American public, and the railroad building race in America began in earnest. Stevens himself continued to be a key player, as the founder of the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company.
In addition to cutting down travel times across America's land, steam-powered technology was opening up its waters. Steamboats were first demonstrated in America in 1807, and by the middle of that century they were bringing goods and people up down the mighty Mississippi River, which runs from the southern port city of New Orleans and connects to a variety of major riverways going in multiple directions.
Between railroads and steamboats, the early 19th century showed that America was growing, gaining population and spreading further and further west with the aid of new technology. In 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorised the construction of a railroad line going all the way to the West Coast. Two teams began working on construction, one starting from the east, the other from the west, eventually meeting in the middle in 1869. The transcontinental railroad facilitated new movement and development on the Great Plains and West Coast of America like never before. New towns sprung up farther and farther from afield from the route of the railroad. Some of them would, several decades later, become stops on Route 66.
Road building and the automobile
At the turn of the 20th century, Americans were still mostly dependent on modes of transportation that had been invented in the early 1800s. That, however, was about to change. While the automobile was invented in the late 1800s in Germany it was mass produced for the first time in America. In 1908, Henry Ford began selling his Model T automobile out of a factory in Michigan. The Model T was the first ever car to be created at a scale and price point that made it accessible to average people, not just the wealthy.
Soon, automobiles were everywhere, and the push to build roads that could accommodate them had begun. In 1910, the Department of Agriculture established the Division of Highway Bridges and Culverts, which was tasked with building safe roads over bodies of water, a sign of things to come. Soon after, the brunt of road-building went from local and state governments to the federal government with the creation of the first national highway system. Construction of Route 66 began as a part of this project. Unlike many other new roads, Route 66 was explicitly designed to run through several smaller towns, giving farmers access to a major road to move crops on.
Today, American transportation has moved past Route 66, which still stands as a monument to a time when automobiles opened up new possibilities to Americans everywhere. Multi-lane interstate highways replaced many route highways after World War II. The last piece of Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, cementing its place in history.
For the historic road trip of a lifetime, you simply cannot top a drive down Route 66. We can't wait to take you back out on The Mother Road once it is safe to do so. Our next planned tour is scheduled for July, 2021. While you wait, you can stay connected and check out more views of the adventure ahead at www.route66tours.com.au.