To find the hay day of Route 66, we need to find out when the song Get Your Kicks On Route 66 was composed. Most people attribute it to Chuck Berry, though covers have also been done by Perry Como, Them and The Rolling Stones. There has been a myriad of versions. However n, t many people know the first version was recorded in 1946 by the King Cole Trio (which featured Nat King Cole and was created about a year before by Bobby Troupe.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of the song came from a road trip across America using the infamous route. Troup wanted to write about the Route 40, to begin with but was persuaded to write about the Route 66 instead. (It seems strange if he was on the Route 40 to write about the Route 66 as they go to different places. Such is the story of songwriting I suppose.)
This post isn’t about how the road inspired the song but how the road has sadly declined since the song was written. It’s understandable. Nothing lasts forever, and roads are more fragile than they seem.
Since a route is really a collection of shorter roads chained up, some of those shorter roads rose and fell in need or popularity. So they swapped them in and out which had an impact. For example, in 1930 parts of Route 66 was shifted east to fit in with what would become the Interstate-55. In Downton St. Luis MO, Route 66 went down Market Street and up Manchester Road but this was changed. In the 1960’s Route 66 abandoned Oatman in the Black Mountains, in effect killing its main thoroughfare. There were too many alternations to list them all.
It seems the decline of the Route comes down to the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by Dwight D Eisenhower in 1956. The whole purpose of the act was to create improved highways, based on Eisenhower’s experiences with the autobahns of Germany. The route that Route 66 just wasn’t direct enough, and it made more sense to bypass slow city streets and chain up the bypasses.
It would be a long process; however, taking until the late 60s before most of Interstate-40 was completed as far as New Mexico. Although there were plans to turn the section between St Louis and Oklahoma into “Interstate-66” it never came to fruition. The final nail in Route 66’s coffin didn’t come until 1985 with the decertification of the road by the American Association of State Highway and Transport Officials.
The American Autobahn dream didn’t happen either. Business execs and travelling salesmen began to fly instead and the fascination with seeing this great land for yourself, one diner/motel/ local attraction at a time declined. For those who did want ground travel as a past time made due with “little” Interstate highways.
The loss of tourism for the little towns was nothing short of disastrous. Once glorious Route 66 became littered with empty gas stations and abandoned small towns. Sadly, much of Route 66 stopped being road completely, becoming wild. Others were turned into what are known as “sidewalk roads” in other words roads only suitable for hikers.
Nowadays people travel sections of Route 66 for nostalgia even if they never travelled the route when it was open. Route 66 embodied a spirit of pride in America that’s been niche partitioned out of the way by business. When you travel slower you see more, and some would argue, that you live more. It would be sad to think that airplanes and highways helped disconnect Americans from the heartbeat of their national identity. Hopefully, the decline of Route 66 is not a harbinger of a larger sense of American culture.
There is hope of course. Workampers and Newmads are showing a greater interest in exploring life on the road. Perhaps soon we’ll see fall in love again, with small towns, fields of grain, unique bridges, and giant balls of string. We can hope.