Very little inspires nostalgia for the golden age of road trips the way Route 66 does. When it first opened in 1926, the trail from Chicago to Los Angeles was engineered with convenience and efficiency in mind, connecting small towns with major thoroughfares. By the 1950s, the 2,400-mile Mother Road was an attraction in and of itself, littered with roadside tourist traps, charming drive-ins, and kitschy hotels.
Route 66 inspired Steinbeck, was the basis for a television show, and supported countless small business owners who served vacationers as they passed through. So how did the beloved Main Street of America fall into a state of disrepair and disuse less than 30 years after the height of its popularity?
Three words: the Eisenhower Interstate. During WWII, General Eisenhower saw how efficient the German autobahn was. In 1956, President Eisenhower enacted the Federal Interstate Act, which called for the construction of four-lane highways to make crossing the U.S. more efficient, eliminate traffic congestion, and make it easier to evacuate big cities in case of a nuclear attack.
Unfortunately for Route 66 and the people who depended on it, the Federal Interstate Act meant that parts of the Mother Road had to be upgraded, replaced, or bypassed entirely. The original route had been almost entirely chopped up by the 1970s, and the whole thing was decommissioned on June 27, 1985.
Much of the actual Route still remains—85 percent, in fact. The famous Wigwam Motel and other attractions still stand, helped in part by the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program launched in 1999. But you may see more of the route being revitalized in the coming years—several preservation organizations recently combined to form the U.S. 66 Highway Association, dedicated to preserving the roadway and all of its architecture, historic sites, and attractions.
Perhaps by its 2026 centennial, the Mother Road will once again serve millions of Americans headed west for adventure.