Monday, June 27, 2011

Today in History: Route 66 Decertified

On June 27, 1985, the famous Route 66 was officially decertified as a U.S. highway.

Route 66

What the Oregon Trail was to the 19th century, Route 66 became for the 20th. Like its predecessor, Route 66 carried vast numbers of people westward. It also become a cultural icon memorialized in song, fiction, television, and pop culture.

During the early 1920s, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, provided an early impetus for creating a highway link between the Midwest and California. They understood that such a route would provide an economic boost to their home states along the route. Spurred by the burgeoning automotive industry, Congress initiated legislation for a comprehensive plan of public highways in 1916, with revisions in 1921, and a finalized plan in 1925.

Following extended wrangling, Avery's proposed road became Route 66 on November 26, 1925. The road would run from Jackson and Michigan Avenues in Chicago southwest through St. Louis, Missouri, on to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, then straight west though the Texas Panhandle, northern New Mexico, and Arizona, ending in Pacific Palisades Park, California, where Santa Monica Boulevard meets Ocean Boulevard. However, the trauma of the Great Depression held up completion. The entire road would not be paved until 1930.

During the early 1930s, an estimated 210,000 desperate people headed west on Route 66 to escape the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck re-created this epic migration in 1939 in The Grapes of Wrath. Like countless other families, the Joads joined the migrant stream on Route 66, "the Mother Road." The novel, together with the film the following year, made Route 66 a living legend as the path to opportunity.

Among the host of travelers during the 1930s and 1940s was Robert William "Bobby" Troup, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and his wife. He wrote a song about the route, "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." Crooner Nat King Cole recorded the song in 1946, and it became a huge, long-lasting hit. 

During the 1960s, however, CBS television would immortalize the road in the popular series Route 66. The program first aired on October 7, 1960, and ran for 116 episodes, until September 18, 1964. The real star of the show was a flashy Chevrolet Corvette convertible. [...] The thin, contrived plot led the [characters] on various implausible adventures along the fabled route. [...] However, producers shot much of the show on other highways that they believed better represented the true spirit (if not the reality) of Route 66.

Television could not save the road. By 1970 modern four-lane interstate highways had replaced most of the route. In October 1984 the last, poorly maintained stretch of U.S. Highway 66 gave way to Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona. It took five interstates to replace the Mother Road: I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-10.

The death of the real road, however, spawned a legion of legendary supporters. Writer Michael Wallis, born near the road, published Route 66: The Mother Road in 1990 and issued a video documentary, Route 66 Revisited, four years later. In 1993 NBC launched another TV series in which two new heroes inherited a Corvette and drove off in further search of adventure. Since the mid-1990s, the Annual Mother Road Ride/Rally has drawn hordes of motorcyclists to tour down the historic route. The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Mexico Route 66 Association developed a number of events to celebrate the route's 75th anniversary during July 20–21, 2001. PBS television produced an hour-long documentary.

Museums and associations keep the road's memory alive. The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, uses a road motif to carry visitors through all eight states along the original road. Murals and vignettes depict various eras and places of the road. Another museum, the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, also honors the route. The road has been designated a Historic Monument administered by the National Park Service. As author Michael Wallis observes, many who search out the route today still "find the time holy."

--Excerpt from "Route 66." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 27 June 2011.

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