Winding from Chicago to Los Angeles for more than two thousand miles, Route 66 marks 95 years since it became one of the first original highways in the nation.
The Mother Road has seen its ups and downs, but the history is as unique as the cities it runs through.
The birthplace and start of Route 66
Discussions and laws of the highway system in the United States began as early as the 1850s. However, it wouldn't be until 1925 before plans were finalized to make a major highway from Chicago to LA.
The idea of linking the two major cities came from John Woodruff from Springfield, Missouri, and Cyrus Avery, who was living in Tulsa at the time. The two lobbied for US 66 to happen as a way to connect rural and urban communities with one accessible roadway.
US 66 was established on November 11, 1926. It would later be signed into law in 1927 as one of the original highways in America, but paving wouldn't begin until 1938.
After the highway system was officially created, Avery created the U.S. Highway 66 Association to help oversee the paving of the highway from end to end, as well as promote travel and tourism.
The publicity worked and traffic grew. The highway's popularity grew even more when the Dust Bowl saw many families traveling from Oklahoma, Texas, and other states heading west to California.
During the Great Depression, US 66 gave some relief to communities and smaller towns along the route. With high number of people traveling daily, it created the rise of motor courts, service stations, and mom-and-pop businesses.
During its six-decade run, US 66 was facing constant change even before it was complete.
An increase in traffic would cause US 66 to be realigned and redirected. By the mid-1950s, most of the major highway had expanded to four lanes in certain areas.
The first major bypassing of US 66 came with the opening of Turner Turnpike, connecting Tulsa to Oklahoma City, in 1953. Later the new Will Rogers Turnpike would connect Tulsa to Joplin in 1957. Both routes bypassed many of the towns along US 66 and create quicker travel. Both would later be designated as part of Interstate 44.
Creating routes that bypassed US 66 became increasingly popular across the route. By then, engineering for highways evolved and became advanced. The popularity of the major highway drove inspiration to create more direct routes between smaller towns to bigger cities. This caused a major decline in US 66 for travel.
By 1985, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials decertified the highway. US 66 legally ceased to exist from that moment on.
When the highway was decommissioned, sections of the road were majorly impacted in various ways. For many cities, the route became a "business loop" for the interstate. Other sections became a state and local roads or were abandoned completely.
Several years after decertification, associations to help preserve US 66 would pop up. In many communities along the original route, local groups have painted "66" or the Route shield onto the roads.
Various sections have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many groups have tried to save and restore some of the old motels and iconic neon signs.
The U.S. Route 66 Recommissioning Initiative is seeking to recertify US 66 as a US Highway, which includes the original route and its modern re-alignments.
Today in Oklahoma
US 66 is honored throughout the state of Oklahoma in many cities, such as:
- Elk City currently has the National Route 66 & Transportation Museum.
- Clinton has the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum that features iconic images of the major highway.
- Claremore has a memorial museum to one of the Route's namesakes, Will Rogers.
- Sapulpa has the Heart of Route 66 Auto Museum, which has the world's tallest replica gas pump as a tourist feature.
Tulsa also honors the roadway in various ways. The Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza is located at the historic 11 Street Bridge which features a sculpture dedicated to Avery and a neon sign park.
The city has also installed "Route 66 Rising", a sculpture on the road's former entrance to town at East Admiral Place and Mingo Road.
In total, Tulsa has constructed 29 historical markers scattered across the route going through the city.
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