When most people travel nowadays, their main concern is hopping on the interstate and going from point A to point B as quickly as possible. If we would learn to slow down and get off the interstate once in a while, we would re-discover a whole world of interesting sights and sounds on America’s back roads. Route 66, or “The mother road” as John Steinbeck called it, is one such road and is the most well-known American road all over the world.
Early Roads in America
Around the turn of the century, roads in America were designed for horse and buggy and were very rough and inconsistently built. Most cities and towns had their own road networks and each state maintained some roads between their larger population centers, but there were few organized interstate roadway systems throughout the country. The invention, mass production, and popularity of the automobile in the early part of the 20th century pressured federal, state and local governments to act.
Birth of the Highway System
This popularity of the automobile prompted The Federal Highway Act of 1921 which called for the construction of a highway system that would connect each state. It also made each state designate a percentage of their roads as national highways. An Oklahoma businessman named Cy Avery, considered by many the “Father of Route 66,” was instrumental in seeing that better highways were built in Oklahoma and all across the nation. President of the Associated Highways Associations of America and member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was instrumental in developing and outlining the U.S. Highway system. Included in this system was a road that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and not coincidently through his hometown of Tulsa, OK.
To avoid confusion, numbers instead of names were designated to existing roads with even numbers for roads going east to west and odd numbers for roads running north and south. Cy Avery and other officials initially wanted to name the Chicago to LA road Route 60, but a dispute with officials on the east coast who wanted the same number caused Avery to drop the idea of Route 60. In 1926, highway officials gathered and looked at a list of possible replacements and found the number 66 available. Cy Avery and most people felt that 66 was catchy and easy to remember so, U.S. Route 66 from Chicago to LA was born. Since Route 66 ran through the main streets of so many small towns, Cy Avery recommended that Route 66 be called “The Main Street of America” in promoting the highway.
Even though it is a road far less traveled than it was in its hey-day, no other road has captured the essence and uniqueness of the American people and landscape better than U.S. Route 66.
Michael Wallis, Route 66 The Mother Road, (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001).
U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, National Old Trails Road, 2013.