20 Facts About Route 66
Since its creation in 1926, Route 66 has been a symbol of American freedom that offered adventurous types much more than a way to get from point A to point B. During its heyday, Route 66 breathed life into countless small towns and inspired everything from hit songs to great American novels. But if you take a closer look at Route 66’s past (and present), you’ll discover that there’s even more to the famous highway than meets the eye.
1. Route 66 was built as an efficient way to get from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Over the course of the 1920s, car ownership nearly tripled in the United States, surging from 8 to 23 million vehicles. Many of these car owners wanted to use their new wheels to travel. While it had been possible to cross the country by car before Route 66, the new highway made the journey much more appealing by offering roadtrippers a single, easy-to-follow road that slashed the driving distance between Chicago and Los Angeles by more than 200 miles. The U.S. Route 66 Highway Association talked up the new roadway, describing it as the “the shortest, best, and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles.”
2. The “Father of Route 66” was an Oklahoma businessman.
Cyrus Avery, a teacher turned oil and gas company president, was a driving (pun intended) force behind much of Route 66’s early development. Avery had been a champion of bigger, better roads since becoming a member of the grassroots Good Roads Movement in the early 1900s. In 1924, he was appointed Oklahoma State Highway Commissioner.
As commissioner, Avery joined forces with businessman John Woodruff to advocate for a single roadway that would link the Midwest with the West. But while his vision spanned half the country, one of Avery’s biggest motivations for involvement in the interstate project was a local one. By constructing a highway through his home state, he reasoned he could siphon traffic—and travelers’ cash—away from other cities like Denver, Colorado, and Kansas City, Missouri.
3. In 1928, promoters held a foot race across Route 66.
In 1928, a member of the Route 66 Association named Charles C. Pyle spearheaded an ambitious promotional plan for the new highway: a race from Los Angeles to New York City. The only catch? The race would happen entirely on foot. Pyle dubbed it the Transcontinental Footrace, though skeptical newspaper reporters soon began referring to it as the “Bunion Derby.”
With a prize of $25,000 on the line, nearly 300 runners set out to sprint across the country. The first 2400 miles of the 3400-mile race followed Route 66, with checkpoints in towns that had agreed to help finance the spectacle. Ultimately, Cherokee citizen Andy Payne took home the title. If you drive through Oklahoma on Route 66 today, you can still find his statue—and take a moment to consider how lucky you are to be reaching your destination on wheels (and in fewer than 573 hours).
4. The New Deal helped finish Route 66.
Though it had opened officially in 1926, Route 66 wasn’t even close to finished by the time the Great Depression threw the country into disarray. The vision for the highway had been one of modernity, complete with wide roads, minimal curves, and drivable conditions no matter the weather. But in 1929, only the Illinois and Kansas portions of Route 66 were completely paved.
In a good break for proponents of the highway (and more or less no one else), the Great Depression put thousands of young men out of work. Under the leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, many of these men were hired to do, among other things, road improvement and maintenance. Thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Project Administration, Route 66 was fully paved by 1938.
5. The Great Depression spurred thousands to head west along Route 66.
In response to the perfect storm of a collapsed economy and poor farming conditions, thousands of desperate Oklahomans, Kansans, Texans, and New Mexicans took to Route 66 in the 1930s and set their sights on California in hopes of starting over. During the Great Depression, more than 200,000 people are believed to have sought their fortunes in the Golden State. Not all that glittered was gold, however: Some scholars estimate that less than 8 percent of those escaping the Dust Bowl remained in California.
6. Route 66 inspired TV, music, and books.
Route 66 has been a leading character across nearly every entertainment medium. It features heavily in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, pops up in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and is the subject of the famous 1946 song, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” The highway even had its own self-titled TV show, which ran from 1960–1964 and starred Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock as characters traveling across America behind the wheel of a convertible Corvette. Icons like Robert Redford and William Shatner also made appearances.
7. John Steinbeck nicknamed Route 66 the “Mother Road.”
Route 66 has gone by many names since its 1926 inception, including “America’s Mainstreet,” but one has stuck above the rest, courtesy of Steinbeck: “The Mother Road.” In his acclaimed Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tells the story of a poor family who flees Oklahoma for California during the Dust Bowl. To get there, the group travels west on Route 66 alongside thousands of fellow migrants. Steinbeck wrote, “66 is the path of people in flight. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
8. “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” was written on the road.
Aspiring songwriter Bobby Troup was on a cross-country drive of his own when he hit upon the idea for what would become one of the most famous road-tripping songs of the 20th century. Troup was moving from his home state of Pennsylvania to Hollywood and drove the second half of his journey to Hollywood on Route 66. He wrote a significant portion of the lyrics along the way. The Nat King Cole Trio recorded the original version of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in 1946, and it quickly became a smash hit. The song would go on to be covered by Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and more.
9. Route 66 has a long military history.
Beale's Road, constructed in 1857, was one of the country's early multi-state roads. In addition to allowing for the transportation of military goods and communication, it later formed a basis for the future Route 66. During World War II, Route 66 hosted a constant stream of military traffic as troops and supplies were shuttled between bases. It had an indirect impact on the war effort, too, as thousands of civilians lured by the promise of good-paying work headed west on Route 66 for jobs in defense plants.
10. Route 66 crosses eight states.
With blacktop paved across 2400 miles, Route 66 ran from the Great Lakes to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Drivers who covered the highway in its entirety could set off from the northeastern tip of Illinois and continue through Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico before finally arriving at the coast of Southern California. The state that boasts the longest stretch of drivable road is Oklahoma, which is unsurprising when you consider that some of Route 66’s biggest boosters hailed from the Sooner state.
11. Route 66 was difficult and dangerous to travel for Black Americans.
For many, Route 66 was the physical manifestation of freedom. But for Black travelers hitting the road, trips were significantly more complicated. Most white-owned businesses along Route 66 refused to serve Black people, and about half of counties along the route were entirely white. Some “sundown towns” even erected signs warning that Black Americans had to remove themselves from city limits before dark. The minority of businesses that served Black customers were listed in publications like The Negro Motorist Green Book, which helped travelers safely plan their trip.
12. Route 66 is sometimes called the “Will Rogers Highway.”
One of Route 66’s best-known nicknames, the “Will Rogers Highway,” honors the legendary comedian, actor, and political commentator born in Cherokee Territory (now part of Oklahoma) in 1879. Lovingly referred to as “Oklahoma’s favorite son,” Rogers set out on Route 66 as a young man to pursue his career in Hollywood. Later, he became a booster of the road and wrote about it in a number of his many syndicated columns.
Shortly after Roger died in a plane crash in 1935, a congressional resolution was introduced to name the highway in his honor, but wasn’t finalized. Years later, in 1952, the U.S. Highway 66 Association rededicated the highway unofficially in his name. Today, you can still spot markers along the highway in his honor from Oklahoma to California.
13. The Interstate Act doomed Route 66.
By the 1950s, some policy makers began to envision a future in which highways played a prominent role in domestic defense. An extensive network of multilane roads would, they argued, serve as essential escape routes in the event of a nuclear attack on one of America’s major cities. (With the Cold War intensifying and America’s own use of atomic bombs just a few years old, the paranoia seemed more than reasonable.)
Beyond these concerns, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was eager to upgrade America’s highways to four-laned, trans-country affairs that would make travel more efficient and that would more closely resemble the sleek and modern Autobahn he’d seen in Germany as a World War II general. In 1956, Eisenhower signed the Federal Interstate Act, which provided for the construction of a new, more robust interstate system. As the project rolled forward, much of two-laned Route 66 was chopped up, upgraded, or left to languish.
14. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985 ...
Though the 1956 Federal Interstate Act spelled the beginning of the end for Route 66, it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that the highway was officially laid to rest. In 1964—less than a decade after the Interstate Act—part of California's section of Route 66 was decommissioned. The road's endpoint was moved, for the time being, from Santa Monica to Pasadena.) In 1975, the rest of California’s Route 66 was decommissioned, meaning the highway now officially came to an end at the Arizona border. Finally, on June 27, 1985, the iconic Route 66 signs were taken down and the name began to fade from road maps.
15. ... But you can still drive most of Route 66.
The original Route 66 may officially be no more, but much of it is still drivable for those who know where to look. About 85 percent of the original road is still available to drive, though these days the route is made up of a hodgepodge of state and county highways, frontage roads, and streets that cut through small towns.
16. Route 66 still has plenty of roadside attractions.
There’s plenty to see along America’s Mainstreet, from kitschy roadside attractions to major landmarks and museums. If you’re feeling peckish, you might stop by a diner in Oklahoma that offers more than 700 varieties of sodas and drinks or soak up the grease at San Bernardino, California’s Original McDonald’s Museum. For natural wonders, you can explore a miles-long system of caves in the Ozarks or peer into a 50,000-year-old meteor crater in Arizona. There are also a fair share of more mainstream destinations along the route, including the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Santa Monica Pier.
17. Missouri has a state park named After Route 66.
These days, Route 66 is more than a road: It’s also a state park! Though it’s named for the iconic highway, the park has plenty to do outside your car. Its nearly 420 acres are full of trails and picnic areas, and host more than 40 species of birds. The park also features a visitor center that occupies the old Bridgehead Inn, a hotel that once catered to weary Route 66 travelers.
18. Part of Route 66 sings.
The speed limit on the stretch of Route 66 near Tijeras, New Mexico, is 45 miles per hour. And if signs aren’t enough to convince drivers to stick to a safe speed, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (together with the National Geographic Channel) came up with an incentive in 2014 to get drivers to slow down: Going the speed limit is the only way to hear the road’s song!
Yes, you read that right. A clever spacing of rumble strips along the pavement causes the road to emit a rendition of “America the Beautiful” when driven over by a car going precisely 45 mph. Since its initial installation, the road has been repaved, but the song is still discernible for those who listen closely.
19. Construction is underway for a bike route along the original Route 66
A new group is striking out on Route 66, and this time, they’re on two wheels instead of four. The United States Bicycle Route System recently completed the first section of the United States Bicycle Route 66. Their goal is to trace the original Route 66 with a new bicycle path that would allow people to peddle their way across the iconic route. As of May 2021, the new path is complete across Missouri and Kansas, with additional miles in the works.
20. Route 66 associations are dedicated to keeping its history alive.
The U.S. government may have abandoned Route 66, but small groups of dedicated citizens have cropped up in each of the eight Route 66 states, united by their love for the road and its history. The various historically minded associations each work to promote tourism and revitalize the route’s once-vibrant towns, as well as to preserve and restore the physical pieces of a American history that dot the roadside. As the Route 66 Association of Illinois proclaims, “Fine, friendly folks await, more than happy to avail you of their own adventures living or traveling along Route 66!”