Examining the storied rise and fall of Route 66

route 66

Bobby Troup wrote a song about it, Nat King Cole sang it, and thousands of people danced to the song — Get You Kicks on Route 66.

A rapid changing America after World War I sparked demand for a better highway system. The automobile, which was at first condemned because it destroyed roads, soon led to a demand for better roads. The cost of road construction soon overtaxed state budgets, and the national government had to provide assistance.

The Highway Act of 1916 was the answer. With matching dollars, the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway and other main roads combined to form the National Highway system that was built during the Depression and after World War II.


Of all the roads built, it was Route 66 that was different. Contrasted with other highways of its day, Route 66 did not follow a traditional linear course. Instead, its diagonal course leading southwest from Chicago linked hundreds of remote rural communities in Illinois, Kansas and Missouri to markets in the East. From Oklahoma, the states to the west were directed to the Pacific Coast.

The new highway’s unconventional route cut across eight states, making it particularly significant to the truck industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroads for shipping. In addition, this shortened route of 2,445 miles crossed over flat prairie land, mountains and deserts with a milder climate than northern highways.

Father of Route 66

Cyrus W. Avery (1871-1963) of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as the “Father of Route 66.” His interests varied from oil to farming, real estate development and government. He believed that a well-planned and maintained road system of interstate highways would bring prosperity to Oklahoma and its towns and cities.

Avery was the founder of the National U.S. 66 Highway Association in 1927 and was one of the national highway systems biggest supporters during the Depression. Avery, a passionate speechmaker with a confident face, was also responsible for the ribbon of concrete, asphalt, crushed rock and dirt being designated Route 66.

A natural salesman, Avery thought the double sixes were catchy, and that the name would promote business. A bitter and long running fight developed over the highway’s number, in the 1920s, between federal and state politicians. Avery prevailed and “66” was assigned to the highway that “winds from Chicago to L.A.,” in the summer of 1926.

On March 11, 1926, Route 66 was commissioned a federal highway. With the acceptance of “66,” Avery kept the highway and the states it crossed from being marginalized by other highways. He initiated the U.S. 66 Association, to include all eight states, for the purpose of getting the entire road paved and promoting the virtues of the new highway.

From the beginning, the planners intended U.S. 66 to expand the nation’s economy by connecting the main streets of rural and urban communities. Avery worried about highway 30 and 40 as competition and embarked on several aggressive promotional activities to establish Route 66 as “the Main Street of America.”

Bunion Derby

The most notable promotion took place from March 4 to May 26, 1928. It was a footrace called “Bunion Derby.” Participants started in Los Angeles, traveled Route 66 to Chicago, and then continued on to New York City. It was a coast-to-coast race documented by photos, postcards, programs and other memorabilia items that were sold along the race course.

Runners (199) paid the fee of $125 and ran through blistering heat, rain showers, snow and sleet storms, hoping to receive a hero’s welcome at the end. Only 55 runners finished the punishing 3,423 mile race in 573 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds.

Andy Payne, a Cherokee Indian farm boy from Foyil, Oklahoma, claimed the prize money of $25,000, paid off his father’s farm mortgage and married his high school sweetheart. Like Forrest Gump, he never ran again.

The completion of Route 66 couldn’t have come at a better time for the thousands who traversed it fleeing the dust bowl for greener pastures. From the 1930s through the 1940s, an estimated 210,000 people escaped the airborne brown dust swept prairie land for California on the “road to opportunity.”

Pop culture

John Steinbeck memorialized the plight of the Dust Bowl farmers in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and their fleeing on the “Mother Road.” But Steinbeck wasn’t the only one to feature the highway during the Depression. Countless books, magazines and films were produced that featured familiar landmarks to new generations that hit the road after World War II.

In addition to literature and films, this highway icon also made its way into song. Robert William Troup, an ex-Marine emigrating to California from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in need of money, wrote a hit song. Troup, 26, and a fledging song writer, scribbled a lyrical roadmap of his 10-day travel to Los Angeles with his wife, Cynthia. The lyrics from the 1946 song Get Your Kicks on Route 66 became a catch phrase for countless motorists who traveled from Chicago to the Pacific Coast with stops in “St. Louis, Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, and don’t forget Winona.” The only town that is sung out of geographical sequence.

Albuquerque, a major city on Route 66, was omitted from the song because it was too cumbersome to fit in.

Within days of arriving in Hollywood, Troup met Nat King Cole, and his trio recorded the song on Capitol Records, March 16, 1946. The bebop song, tinkled on the piano keys, became a most requested song in Cole’s songbook and an instant classic.


Route 66 has a legacy like no other highway in America. The first Dairy Queen served up soft ice cream in Joliet, Illinois; in Dillon, Missouri, the original A&W root beer stand appeared; Burm-Shave signs prompted shaving cream on fence posts every so many miles; and the McDonald’s opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino.

Phillips 66 gas stations were a welcome site nourishing the automobiles and providing restrooms expected daily by registered nurses. The Harvey House Restaurants, America’s first restaurant chain, which promised hearty meals and reliable service, sprung up along the railroads and eventually Route 66. The Harvey Girls were as famous for their dress and professionalism as were the establishments where they worked.

During the 1940 and 1950 years, Route 66 could boast of two decades of unprecedented prosperity and a torrent of promotional activity urging people to vacation on Route 66.


The 1950s were also the beginning of the end, as franchised motels and restaurants moved on the Route 66 grid, and the construction of Eisenhower interstate autobahn style of highways began to appear. By the 1960s, Route 66 was outdated.

Excessive truck use during the war and the resurgence of the automobile industry and RV building in South Bend, Indiana, put great pressure on Route 66. It was functionally obsolete and even dangerous because of narrow pavement and antiquated supports on many bridges.

Today, Route 66 has been bypassed by rival roads and was eliminated from the official highway system roster in 1985.

With a little help from a travel directory and an old map, you can still drive sections of Will Rogers Highway, Trail of Tears, Main Street of America, the Mother Road, Road to Opportunity, the Migrant’s Highway, the Carefree Highway — Route 66 was nicknamed all these names.

When you plan to motor west, take the Highway 66 — that’s the best — and get your kicks — just like Bobby Troup. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



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