Early Route 66 History
In the early 20th century Route 66 or US Highway 66 was one of main arteries for settlers seeking new opportunities, tourists discovering America, and home to new and influential businesses across the country. In one way or another, we have all likely experienced the iconic nature of historic Route 66 in some way. However, what many of us don’t know is that the route that was one Route 66 began it’s development about 70 years earlier as a wagon road. In this post, we will explore a timeline of the development and eventual demise of US Highway 66 and Route 66 history as a whole,
The early expeditions
1851 – Antoine Leroux, also known as the Grandfather of Flagstaff, was hired by the Topographical Corps of Engineers to lead an expedition across the Southwest to discover a shortcut from the east to California. Leroux was a fur trapper and mountain man out of Taos, NM and had scouted much of the area we now know as Northern Arizona. He brought the expedition across the 35th parallel and just to the north of what would eventually become Flagstaff. The result of this expedition was the sentiment that this route would be optimal for future roads and railroads. They also discovered a spring on the flank of the San Francisco Peaks that would be integral in the feasibility of travel along this route.
1853 to 1854 – Leroux was once again hired to lead the next expedition across the 35th parallel, but this time to scout a route for a railroad specifically. Despite their findings that this route would work well, politics and eventually the Civil War would put off the railroad project until the 1880’s.
1857 to 1858 and 1859 – The next expedition, and the one that started it all for Route 66, was called the Beale Expedition and was part of the Pacific Wagon Road Program. Beale and his many men, horses, and (yes!) camels, were the first come through the area of what would eventually become Flagstaff. On their way out and back from California, they determined a wagon road on this route was feasible with few improvements. Then in 1859 they came through once again, building bridges and making minor improvements and the Beale Wagon Road, the grandmother of Route 66, was born.
1860’s – Hundreds of pioneers traveled the Beale Wagon Road to seek prosperous pastures in California.
1870’s – The first settlers of what would eventually become Flagstaff put down their roots as sheep ranchers along the eventual route of US Highway 66.
1882 – The first train, adjacent to the existing wagon road, rolled through Flagstaff, Arizona Territory in August 1882.
A new era
1912 to 1919 – Over the last three decades travel by wagon and train were the predominant forms of transportation and little advancement was made towards the development of Route 66. However, in 1912 the Federal Highways Act was passed that mandated a road was built to California that would be passable by car, the new and upcoming form of transportation. This would give birth to the predecessor of Route 66 that would be called the National Old Trails Highway which ran from Baltimore Maryland to Santa Monica via Flagstaff, AZ. However, for a time, the route was slated to go instead through Phoenix, AZ up to San Francisco. Fortunately for Flagstaff, this didn’t happen and the rugged, dirt ‘highway’ was built through town.
Route 66 is born
1921 – In a historic act, portions of the National Old Trails Highway were officially determined to become part of a new road called US Highway 66 or Route 66. The section of designation would run from Chicago, IL to it’s terminus in Santa Monica, CA.
1926 – The portion that runs through Flagstaff, AZ would be completed in 1926 and would begin to change the face of the town along with many others across the country. In the early days, saloons and rustic hotels would have dominated the route, but over time the landscape would transform into the Americana we now associated with the iconic mother road. Diners, Motor Lodges (or Motels), and soda fountains would become all the rage and the era of tourism on historic Route 66 was born.
1939 – Route 66 gets a new name from John Steinbeck in his classic The Grapes of Wrath when he refers the road as the “Mother Road”. During the dust bowl, the mother road was a beacon of hope that promised a better future for many refugees in the fertile lands to the west.
1920’s to 1960’s – For nearly four decades, old Route 66 was the primary source of transportation across the once mystic southwest and by the 50’s and 60’s the many towns along it’s streets were booming. However, as quickly as it arose in the landscape of the southwest would progress begin it’s demise.
The beginning of the end
1956 to 1970 – The Federal Aid Highway Act was passed to provide financing for infrastructure improvements across the United States. Unfortunately, it also financed the National Interstate System which would be the beginning of the end of Historic Route 66. Over the course of these fourteen years, the entirety of Route 66 was replaced by four lane interstates with the very last section completed through Williams, AZ in 1970.
1970 to 1985 – Thought Route 66 was still technically a federal road through the 70’s and first half of the 80’s it’s use drastically declined and towns along the route began to die. Many towns disappeared entirely, while others simply limped along as railroad towns. Some, such as Flagstaff, would continue to grow and prosper due to other factors, but their downtown areas or sections that used to be along old Route 66 certainly suffered major blows. The final nail in the coffin for the original glory that was US Highway 66 was driven on June 27, 1985 when the road was officially decommissioned as a federal highway.
The resurrection and birth of Historic Route 66
1985 to 1990’s – As many other great things, they die hard and such was the case with Route 66. Almost as final as the death of the road seemed, it’s rebirth became imminent. The National Park Services, private citizens, and the states along the road almost immediately recognized the need to preserve much of the history of the iconic road. Many states reinstated portions of old Route 66 as State or National By-ways or city roads.
1990’s – Flagstaff, after changing many of the roads earlier on from Route 66 to other names, reinstates the road as Historic Route 66. With small reroutes, the road now runs once again straight through downtown Flagstaff.
1994 – Sections of old Route 66 through Arizona were designated an Arizona Scenic Byway and in 2009 it would also become an All American Road.
2000’s and beyond – Today the new downtown of Flagstaff, AZ along Route 66 is remodeled and more lively than ever. Though it looks much different that it did 75 years ago, much of the same spirit and heart of the original wagon roads, early highways, railroads, and, of course, Route 66 brought to the town, is still alive and thriving. On the east side of town, just before an offshoot of Old Route 66, there is an interpretive rest area project that is a must for those interested in Route 66 history.
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Thank you for joining us on this journey through the history of Route 66. Until next time, keep exploring my friends!