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The History of Route 66  

Stephen Mandrgoc and David Dunaway

During its existence from 1926 to its formal decommissioning in 1985, US Highway 66, or Route 66, came to occupy a special place in the American imagination. For a half-century and more, it symbolized American individualism, travel, and the freedom of the open road with the transformative rise of America’s automobile culture. Route 66 was an essential connection between the Midwest and the West for American commercial, military, and civilian transportation. It chained together small towns and cities across the nation as America’s “Main Street.” Following the path of older trails and railroads, Route 66 hosted travelers in many different eras: the adventurous motorist in his Ford Model A in the 1920s, the Arkies and Okies desperate for a new start in California in the 1930s, trucks carrying wartime soldiers and supplies in the 1940s, and postwar tourists and travelers from the 1950s onward. By its nature, it brought together diverse cultures of different regions, introducing Americans to the “others” that were their regional neighbors, and exposing travelers to new arts, music, foods, and traditions. It became firmly embedded in pop culture through songs, books, television, and advertisements for its attractions as America’s most famous road. Travel on Highway 66 steadily declined with the development of controlled-access interstate highways in the 1960s and 1970s. The towns and cities it connected and the many businesses and attractions dependent on its traffic and tourism protested the removal of the highway designation by the US Transportation Department in 1985, but their efforts failed. Nonetheless, revivalists who treasured the old road worked to preserve the road sections and attractions that remained, as well as founding a wide variety of organizations and donating to museums and libraries to preserve Route 66 ephemera. In the early 21st century, Route 66 is an international icon of America, traveled by fans from all over the world.