“If you ever plan to motor west,/travel my way, take the highway that is best.”
Bobby Troup, “(Get your Kicks on) Route 66,” 1946
One of the greatest challenges of the nineteenth-century expansion of the West was the search for the best route to California. The California Gold Rush in 1849 prompted another rush to find the ideal land route to the Pacific. Exploration of the 35th Parallel Route (which would, in part, become Route 66) began with the surveys of the Pacific Railroad in 1853, but was stopped short by the onset of the Civil War in 1861. After the war ended, the primary method for western travel remained railroads, and these early railroads laid the groundwork along the 35th Parallel (Krim 2005, 35). In 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad opened a route between St. Louis and Oakland, but that was far from the last word on the subject. By the early 20th century, every surveyor seemed to have an idea as to the best way to move between major American cities and to open the west to the new kind of exploration born of automobile travel.
The appeal of the 35th Parallel Route did not diminish over time, and along this line much of Route 66 was laid. In the 1920s, cities lobbied to be included in the plans of a road that was to stretch from Chicago--a port city raised to prominence by the transcontinental railroad--to southern California. Cyrus Avery, the individual most responsible for the location of Route 66 was appointed as chairman of the Oklahoma State Highway Commission in 1924, and largely thanks to his efforts the road was moved south from its proposed route through Colorado, Utah and Nevada. This change of plans was successful for several reasons, most notably because the Texas-New Mexico-Arizona route would remain free of snow even in the depths of winter (Crump 1994, 9).
The number 66 was assigned to the route essentially by accident. The planned designation of U.S. 60 led to conflict when Governor William J. Fields of Kentucky objected to the lack of a zero numbered--and thus important--highway running through his state. He petitioned for U.S. 62 (the former “Midland Trail” which ran from Ashland to Louisville) to be changed to 60, despite the fact that this would throw off the numbering system. Eventually, after significant political maneuvers, including those by the Ku Klux Klan who had sponsored their own gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma opposing the highway commission and its plans, in 1924 U.S. 60 was renamed 66. In 1926 Avery was forced to step down after the KKK sponsored Henry S. Johnston was elected, but plans for the construction of 66 went forward (Krim 2005, 64-71).
Named in 1924, and formally commissioned in 1926, Route 66 took roughly a decade to complete. Maps printed in the late 20s and early 30s show how fragmented the road really was. It was only in the mid-thirties that paving was completed from one end to the other and Route 66 finally became the easy route promised by its developers. Road maps showed the incomplete nature of the road with designations for “unimproved roads” and construction, aiding travelers by giving them a sense of what conditions they could expect to encounter in the course of their trips.
This detail of Route 66 between Flagstaff, Arizona and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma indicates the different surfaces and conditions travelers could expect to encounter.
"United States," from Illinois
(Kansas City, MO: Gallup Map and Supply Company, ca. 1930).
OML French 5287.