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Mother Road to turn 90; new Route 66 preservation organization begins work

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Photo by Vincent Lammin.

Other highways came before it. Others stretched farther. Others probably conducted more traffic throughout the country. But no highway gets more recognition or praise than Route 66, America’s first numbered highway, which will turn 90 next year amid a brace of celebrations and the founding of a new organization dedicated to Route 66’s preservation.

That instant recognition of Route 66 as the Mother Road and as the Main Street of America comes in part from its role in popular culture, from Nat King Cole’s song of the same name to John Steinbeck’s description of it in The Grapes of Wrath to the allusion to it in the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars. But the true legacy of the road was essentially baked into its conception and early promotion, thanks in large part to Tulsa-based businessman Cyrus Avery.

As far back as 1916, Congress began passing laws that would establish a nationwide network of public roads, and one of its proposals called for a Route 60 that would connect Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Los Angeles, California, passing through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada along the way. Avery, who recognized the economic potential of such a road, argued that it should avoid the Rockies and instead take a more southerly route from St. Louis to Los Angeles — passing through Tulsa, of course — and that from St. Louis it should swing northward to Chicago rather than head due east to Virginia, following natural routes of commerce.

While he was at it, Avery also suggested the route be renumbered from 60 to 66, arguing that the latter would become more memorable and more likely to roll off the tongue. Indeed, while Route 60 did eventually connect Virginia Beach to points west, few if any people celebrate that road these days.

Oatman Highway - Route 66

Photo by Victor Solanoy.

Established on November 20, 1926, Route 66 ran from Chicago — specifically Lake Shore Drive — to St. Louis, through a slim corner of Kansas, then through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, ending in Santa Monica. A year later, Avery went on to establish the U.S. Highway 66 Association, which promoted the road to travelers and which led the effort to pave the entire length of the road, a project that wrapped up in 1938.

As many have pointed out, the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s essentially doomed Route 66. Though a number of interstates eventually followed the general direction of Route 66, most of them bypassed the road itself and the various businesses and small towns that prospered as a result of the road. The U.S. Highway 66 Association, despite its latter focus on preventing the demise of the Mother Road, disbanded in 1975; official decertification of Route 66 came in 1985.

Yet, despite 30 years of official nonexistence, Route 66 remains immensely popular today, with annual festivals and celebrations taking place in many towns that the road once ran through — and even one in Europe. As Route 66 author Jim Hinckley related recently, a number of those celebrations will focus on the anniversary in 2016, including Kingman, Arizona’s, 66 Celebrates 90, Santa Monica’s 90th anniversary festival, and Germany’s European Route 66 Festival.

Hinckley also reported that, for the first time since the U.S. Highway 66 Association disbanded, a national effort called Route 66: The Road Ahead Initiative, organized in part by the National Park Service, will soon begin Route 66 advocacy work, with a charter that calls for preservation, education, tourism promotion, and economic development along Route 66.

As for earlier reports on the re-boot of the “Route 66” television show, no news on that effort has circulated since December 14, when the re-boot was first announced.