The Rise of Route 66

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By Paul Wimsett

A blog like the Kicker is about transportation and that’s a bigger topic than just vehicles. The greatest roads in the world predate the car by several centuries. And the road which would become Route 66 (at least in part) is (or was) certainly one of the world’s greatest roads. The famous shield logos were put up only a year after the Route 66 became operational.

The origins amazingly go back to hunting trails going back as far as 9,000 BC which in turn were used by later explorers in search of gold. Its next incarnation would be a wagon road as Lieutenant Edward Beale set down markers (the fact that he needed to do this would suggest that the “track” was more or less invisible in parts.Wimsett_route 66a.jpg

Instead of wagons, the preferred method of travel in the 1880s was the train. Even these would follow similar routes as the later Route 66. But it’s not until the Twentieth Century that it was rechristened an “ocean to ocean highway” and became a paved road. The group who had the privilege to build (or rebuild) this great route were the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

But who exactly were the Corps of Topographical Engineers? They were a strange body in many ways, firstly because they consisted entirely of officers. As well as mapping regions they also helped design lighthouses, harbors and navigational routes including lake and creek surveys and boundary and railroad surveys.

Unlike modern highways, which were developed as part of the war effort to act as impromptu runways, a route like route 66 was a deliberate effort to cobble together a path across country by linking up existing roadways. Often routes meandered overtime as needs and opportunities changed. Apart from staying roughly along the 35th Parallel route 66 would change too. During paving, someone decided the road would go through Peoria instead of Bloomington. The old trail was abandoned between Oklahoma City to Amarillo as the Postal Highway had already had already been developed.

Wimsett_Route 66_chain-of-rocks-bridge_1920That’s not to say that elements of original dirt track can’t be found, try looking to the north of Cajon today. It’s a genuine part of the pre-highway history of the USA.

But the road was still not suitable for two lanes of traffic so a number of changes would have to be made. After lobbying the American Association of State Highways the contract was won by Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff. But they decided that the old name; “National Old Trails Road” wasn’t the best name for a legendary road.

The name “Route 66” seems only for alliterative purposes, there being no Route 65 or 67. On November 11, 1926 the new name for the road was confirmed and the acclaimed Route 66 was born. In turn the road would be promoted by the US 66 Highway Association. Its promotions were adverts in magazines and distributed souvenirs.

The main feature as regarding promotions seems to be the International Transcontinental Footrace or, as the journalists named it, the Bunion Derby with a huge $25,000 grand prize. It seemed that, whether walking or in vehicle, everyone wanted to be part of the Route 66’s history.

The story of Route 66’s further rise to fame and eventual decline will be told in a later blog.

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