By Luke Carothers
Popular culture has always had a fascination with roads. From Walt Whitman to ZZ Top to Langston Hughes, art has always reflected a fascination with roads–both in what they allow us to do and how they are made. In American culture, few roads are as ubiquitous as the U.S. Highway 66. First commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by 1938, Route 66 not only provided a road for trucking through the Southwest and linked small town to small town, it represented salvation for many Americans as they fled the ravages of the dust bowl and the destitution of the Great Depression. Now known simply as Route 66, this infrastructure project came to represent the first all-weather highway linking Chicago and Los Angeles.
As cars and trucks became more and more popular at the turn of the 20th century, the need to expand American infrastructure from dirt roads to paved highways was almost immediately evident, if not always unanimously agreed as the best course of action. Route 66 was given its name in 1926, although it was labeled as U.S. Highway 60 on one map and Highway 65 on the another. Route 66’s development into a fully paved highway was not always smooth, and it took a confluence of technological development, economic circumstance, international athletics, and good old fashioned showmanship to see the project fully realized.
With developments in automotive technology, owning a car was suddenly not out of the realm of possibility for many Americans and shipping goods via truck was soon a viable option for farms and businesses. These developments provided the perfect setting for an advertising campaign for both Route 66 and the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Just before the games began, the U.S. Highway 66 Association, which had been formed to advocate for the route’s paving, took out a newspaper ad urging people to use Route 66 to travel to the games. This wasn’t the U.S. Highway 66 Association’s first attempt at etching the road in people’s minds. A few years after Route 66 was established, the Association sponsored a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, with the western portion through Chicago taking place on the road.
Shortly after, thousands and thousands of Americans found themselves economically destitute as a result of the Great Depression. In small rural towns along Route 66, many people found themselves out of work, and had to be creative to earn the means of their survival. The new highway provided an economic opportunity for many of these people. Many families in these small communities set up restaurants, gas stations, roadside attractions, motels, and other businesses to service the flow of people and goods along the highway.
In the popular consciousness, it is these “mom and pop” businesses that form much of our cultural memory of this remarkable piece of infrastructure. To this day, countless small restaurants and businesses from Missouri to California still bear this legacy in their name if not also in their origin. Another legacy of Route 66, although remembered less fondly, forms another significant piece of our cultural memory. During the 1930s, America was hit with one of the worst man made natural disasters of all time–the Dust Bowl.
Without sufficient knowledge to back up advances in farming equipment technology, farmers throughout the Great Plains had overworked the region’s topsoil, killing the native grasses that held the soil in place during months of drought. The result was massive, billowing clouds of dust, sometimes referred to as “black tornadoes” or “black blizzards.” For the people living in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, these storms and the hardship that blew in with them were too much to bear. These people fled west to California, using Route 66 as their primary means of egress to what they hoped would be the promised land. This plight was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in which the Joad family is forced to move from their Oklahoma farm after they default on a bank loan. In the novel, Steinbeck refers to Route 66 as “the mother road, the road of flight.” Released in 1939, the book was subsequently adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda the following year–testifying to its cultural significance.
Following the end of World War II, Route 66 had become fully entrenched in the American psyche. The fluidity and comfort afforded by this infrastructure project formed almost a new frontier, where Route 66 was now the primary means of egress to a better life. Route 66 is not the oldest, nor the longest American road, but it existed at a time when it was needed most. Although Route 66 was removed from the American Highway System in 1985, it still exists in sections, plaques, and aging roadside attractions. The time and place for Route 66 has passed, and its physical marks on the American landscape will continue to fade, but it will never be erased from the cultural memory of Americans. It can now stand as both a place of nostalgia and a lesson moving forward–that infrastructure can be a place of salvation for Americans when the chips are down, and that the state of our infrastructure is indicative of our ability to serve the needs of our communities.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.