Route 66: Then and Now

Route 66: Then and Now

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Route 66 had had a major impact on American history in the 20th century. Long before the interstate highways were a twinkle in Dwight Eisenhower's eye, it connected many previously isolated Western settlements from Chicago to Los Angeles for the first time. Take a virtual tour and learn about the notable locations that trace the development of Route 66, and find out what remains of that history. It will be handy to know in the future when the country gets back to normal and you're planning a cross-country adventure or just a weekend trip.

Related: 76 Attractions to See While Driving Across the Country

Then: Rolla To Springfield, Missouri

Then: Rolla to Springfield, Missouri

A large portion of Route 66 overlaps with the northern route of the Trail of Tears, along which some 12,000 Native Americans were forcibly, often fatally, made to march from their ancestral lands to present-day Oklahoma in 1838. Like many modern highways, segments of Route 66 made use of existing wagon roads, which explains why today it not only intersects with but often aligns with the Trail of Tears for long distances between Rolla and Springfield.

Related: The 40 Best Places in America to Travel Back in Time

Now: Cuba, Missouri

Now: Cuba, Missouri

Today the town of Cuba has been designated "Route 66 Mural City" for its public art and features the Route's oldest continuously operated motel, The Wagon Wheel. There are a number of nearby sites commemorating the loss of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, including the Snelson-Brinker House, near which Cherokee were encamped. There's also the now-decrepit memorial erected by a man named Larry Baggett on the border of Phelps and Pulaski counties, one of Route 66's many lingering roadside oddities.

Related: 27 Iconic and Unique Motels Across America

truxton memories
truxton memories by Rural Warrior Photography (CC BY-ND)

Then: Truxton, Arizona

In 1857, Congress tasked Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale with creating the Southwest's first federally funded interstate between Fort Defiance in New Mexico and the Colorado River, while also testing the usefulness of camels as pack animals in American deserts. The camels were a no-go, but Beale's wagon road would become the basis for another significant portion of Route 66 and kickstart growth of many settlements along its path. Among these is Truxton, the site of natural springs in northwestern Arizona that Beale named for his son.

Related: 30 Beautiful Road Trips That Celebrate American History

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Now: Truxton, AZ

Now: Truxton, Arizona

Truxton wasn't much of anything until the 1950s postwar car boom, and then became one among many Route 66 cities bypassed by the construction of Interstate 40 in 1979. It's very nearly a ghost town today, with fewer than 200 residents and a handful of decaying art deco motels and service stations lining the main drag, plus a faded "Cowgill's" signpost pointing the way to more famous stops along the route.

Related: 21 Great Car Museums and Car Shows Worth the Drive

Route 66 New Mexico
Route 66 New Mexico by velo_city (CC BY-NC-ND)

Then: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Another important antecedent to Route 66 was the National Old Trails Road, cobbled together in 1910 and spanning 3,096 miles from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. Almost all of the N.O.T.'s last portion from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, previously called the Grand Canyon Route, would become Route 66.

Related: 30 Stunning Photos of Iconic Landscapes in the American West

Now: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Now: Albuquerque, New Mexico

There are many Route 66 sites remaining in New Mexico's largest city. On the corner of 4th Street and Central Avenue, two alignments of the original road from 1926 and 1937 intersect, and following either street leads to an assortment of long-standing neon-signed motels, as well as the Madonna of the Trail monument honoring the pioneer women who traveled the N.O.T.

Related: 12 Spectacular Balloon Festivals From Coast to Coast

Then: Cajon Pass, California (1926)

Then: Cajon Pass, California (1926)

The last significant mountain range Route 66 has to negotiate before coasting to the Pacific Ocean is the Cajon Pass toward San Bernardino. It was used by settlers coming to the Los Angeles area since 1830, when California was still a Spanish colony. In 1914 the route was paved for automobiles as part of the N.O.T.

Related: Hollywood: Then and Now

Now: Cajon Pass, California

Now: Cajon Pass, California

Though Interstate 15 bypassed and built over much of the alignment in the late '60s, parts of the original automobile route before it was called 66 can still be seen from Cajon Pass. On Interstate 15's southbound lanes north of the pass, a more leisurely and indirect dirt road can be seen and reportedly accessed using a high-clearance 4WD vehicle from the intersection with State Route 138.

Related: The Best and Worst Cities in America for Driving

Springfield Missouri

Then: Springfield, Missouri (1926)

Along with Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Springfield's John Woodruff is credited as one of the major visionaries behind Route 66. After Congress passed legislation for the creation of national roadways, the pair lobbied successfully for a route between Chicago and Los Angeles. On April 30, 1926, the route was titled 66 and got a dedication placard in downtown Springfield.

Related: 17 Incredible Feats of American Ingenuity Across the Country

Now: Springfield, Missouri

Now: Springfield, Missouri

The "Birthplace of Route 66" takes its heritage seriously, even hosting an annual festival along the original route featuring a parade of musical performers and classic cars. Visitors anytime of the year can visit see the original dedication placard and sections of the original road at Birthplace of Route 66 Roadside Park or enjoy authentic midcentury fast food at the Steak 'n Shake opened in 1962.

Related: Top 15 Affordable Cities for Starting a Business

Living on Tulsa Time
Living on Tulsa Time by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC)

Then: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Nicknamed the father of Route 66, Cyrus Avery was a Tulsa businessman, civil leader, and advocate for the Good Roads Movement, whose own family had journeyed from Pennsylvania by covered wagon and settled in Indian Territory. Avery was crucial in seeing the "Main Street of America" pass through Oklahoma, then pushing to have its entirety paved. A major publicity boost was the "Bunion Derby" footrace from Los Angeles to New York City in 1928.

Related: Black Americans Who Broke Barriers in the Business World

Now: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Now: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Route 66 traffic became so saturated and unsafe in the postwar era that Oklahoma built a turnpike between Tulsa and Joplin, Missouri in 1957, the route's first major bypass. Today Tulsa pays tribute to its Route 66 history with the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza near the 11th Street Bridge, with multiple enormous commemorative sculptures, art deco buildings, and neon motel signs from the original route's heyday.

Related: The Oldest Building in Major Cities Across America

Then: Oatman, Arizona

Then: Oatman, Arizona

One of the most demanding stretches of the N.O.T. and later Route 66 was a steep section of hairpin turns through the Black Mountains outside Oatman (peak population of 10,000) in Western Arizona. Motoring was so dangerous even after Route 66 was paved in 1938, some early travelers would hire locals to navigate this stretch to avoid injury.

Related: 12 Dangerous Roads You Should Never Drive in an RV

Now: Oatman, Arizona

Now: Oatman, Arizona

The treacherous stretch of highway still exists as the Oatman Highway, while the unincorporated village of Oatman's glory days have long passed it by with the decline of its mining industry and a 1952 highway realignment. The resurgence of tourist interest in Route 66 combined with the town's picture-perfect Old West facades has helped it remain something more than a ghost town, featuring gunfight reenactments, grumpy burros (donkeys) wandering the streets, and a hotel dating back to 1902.

Related: 21 Heart-Stopping Roads to Drive Around the World 

Conoco-Shamrock, Texas
Conoco-Shamrock, Texas by Thomas Hawk (CC BY-NC)

Then: Shamrock, Texas

Shamrock in the Texas panhandle was one of many small towns whose commercial growth depended on the opening of Route 66, almost simultaneous to the discovery of oil there in 1926. The population peaked at 3,778 in 1930, but businesses continued thriving at the expense of Route 66 motorists as their numbers grew exponentially through the decades.

Related: Road Trippers Go Out of Their Way for These 30 Convenience Stores

Now: Shamrock, Texas

Now: Shamrock, Texas

Shamrock is still home to one of Route 66's most famous remaining examples of art deco architecture, the U-Drop Inn, a combination fuel station and restaurant dating back to 1936 whose likeness is featured in the Pixar film "Cars." Once the only café within 100 miles of town before falling into disrepair, it finished restoration with a $1.7 million federal grant in 2003 to become a museum and authentic recreation of a 1940 fueling station.

Related: How Gas Stations Have Totally Transformed Over the Past Century

Then: Jericho Gap, Texas

Then: Jericho Gap, Texas

One of the last parts of Route 66 to be paved was Jericho Gap, a dirt section that became treacherous when wet, trapping motorists in thick mud the locals called "Black Gumbo." Some of these same locals would help tourists, often at a price, by pulling the vehicles out with horse teams. This revenue stream dried up when the New Deal-originated Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration diverted the road to higher ground in the late '30s.

Related: 23 Scenic Roads You Can Drive Only Around the Summer

Route 66 | Cadillac Ranch
Andrey Bayda/shutterstock

Now: Jericho Gap/Amarillo, Texas

Jericho was hardly a town in the first place, its peak population barely cresting 100. Today little remains of it but a dirt trail Route 66 traditionalists can retrace on their way from Alanreed to Groom. Travelers can find more easily accessible and iconic landmarks, such as the Cadillac Ranch and Big Texan Steak Ranch, in nearby Amarillo.

Related: Beyond the Museum: Spectacular Outdoor Art You Can See for Free

Then: Santa Fe, New Mexico
M. Kaercher/istockphoto

Then: Santa Fe, New Mexico

The original Route 66 followed an Old Santa Fe Trail that dated to 1822, and while it went through many realignments over the years, none was quite so petty as the one that cut it off from the historic section of northern New Mexico in 1937. After losing reelection in 1927, outgoing-governor Arthur T. Hannett took revenge by pushing through a realignment proposal that avoided the capital of Santa Fe, whose politicians he held responsible for the loss. The more central modern route was completed with the paving of Route 66 in 1937.

Related: 15 Unforgettable Trips for People Over 50

Now: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Now: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe is doing fine despite Hannett's revenge, though is perhaps not as populous as it would've been otherwise. A road marker at the Old Santa Fe Trail and Water Street delineates the pre-1937 Route 66 alignment, which is worth taking today for its further-reaching historic significance. Santa Fe boasts the nation's oldest house and church, as well as numerous Route 66-era motor inns and gas stations on present day Cerrillos Avenue.

Related: Most Iconic Staircases Around the World

Then: Santa Rosa, New Mexico

Then: Santa Rosa, New Mexico

One of Route 66's most famous nicknames comes from author John Steinbeck: In his 1939 novel "The Grapes of Wrath," he dubbed it "the mother road." The book dramatizes the mass migration of poor Midwestern farmers to California while fleeing Dust Bowl conditions. It was adapted by John Ford into an Oscar-winning film just a year later, with scenes shot at the crossing of the Pecos River in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and elsewhere along the route.

Related: 50 Iconic Movie Locations You Have to Visit

Santa Rosa, New Mexico. 2018
Santa Rosa, New Mexico. 2018 by Rodrigo Paredes (CC BY)

Now: Santa Rosa, New Mexico

Santa Rosa was bypassed by the 1972 construction of Interstate 40, which drew traffic from Route 66. It retains shreds of this past with a collection of classic hot rods at the Route 66 Auto Museum, as well as some aging neon signs for motels and eateries long since demolished.


Then: Tucumcari, New Mexico
Ingo Dörenberg/istockphoto

Then: Tucumcari, New Mexico

Advertising gimmicks were a prime way to vie for passing tourists and migrants business in the early boom days of Route 66. The town of Tucumcari, for example, launched a roadside campaign encouraging motorists to reach "Tucumcari Tonite," boasting of 2,000 motel rooms for an overnight stay. One of the most famous and identifiable of these was the Blue Swallow Inn built in 1939, with an evocative neon sign and a drive-in garage for each room.

Related: 22 Weird, Abandoned Places Across America

Now: Tucumcari, New Mexico

Now: Tucumcari, New Mexico

The Blue Swallow Inn is still open in Tucumcari, as are many other midcentury motels and souvenir shops with eye-catching facades. The "Gateway to New Mexico" is undoubtedly one of the state's best surviving windows into midcentury roadside commerce, with must-stops including the kitschy Tee Pee Curios and the Odeon Theater, a prewar art deco movie house.

Related: 25 Historic Movie Theaters Across America Worth Visiting

Untitled by jon collier (CC BY-SA)

Then: Waynesville, Missouri

Once World War II came around, Route 66 was no longer just for Okies and tourists moving West, but became a major supply line for military traffic and supplies for the Pacific theater. Fort Leonard Wood was established in early 1941 to manage the increased transport, while commerce in nearby Waynesville benefited from the influx of soldiers.

Related: The Biggest Military Site in Every State

Frog Rock, Waynesville, MO (2)
Frog Rock, Waynesville, MO (2) by Bill Eichelberger (CC BY-NC)

Now: Waynesville, Missouri

Route 66 was widened to four lanes and bypassed Waynesville in the late 1950s. Many of its midcentury businesses have been demolished or merely changed ownership. One of the town's most enduring roadside oddities was discovered only after the highway was widened: a local-painted "Frog Rock" now maintained by military officers stationed at Fort Leonard Wood.


Now: Los Angeles
Tony Andrews Photography/istockphoto

Then: Los Angeles

In the decades after World War II, millions of returning servicemen and families followed Route 66 to California on the promise of better lives in developing suburbs, making it the Union's most populous state by 1962. Among them was Pennsylvania-born songwriter Bobby Troup, who while on the road in 1946 penned a song about the highway: "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66." It was made famous by Nat King Cole and has been covered by Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, and others.

Related: 13 Cemeteries With Celebrity Star Power

Now: Los Angeles

Now: Los Angeles

Route 66 originally ended smackdab in the center of downtown Los Angeles on the corner of Broadway and 7th, though today the widely accepted stopping point is Santa Monica Pier. The road has been redirected more than a half-dozen ways over the years, but the most iconic views will come from either the original 1926-1931 alignment, through historic neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Olvera Street, or the Hollywood Freeway version from 1953-1964, lined with many remaining kitschy midcentury motor inns.

Related: 30 Vintage Photos of Classic American Road Trips

The first McDonalds store
The first McDonalds store by Kim Davies (CC BY-NC-ND)
Wigwam Motel #7 (1)
Wigwam Motel #7 (1) by Wayne Hsieh (CC BY-NC)
Then: Luther, Oklahoma

Then: Luther, Oklahoma

Not all Americans were welcome on America's mother road. In 1930, 44 of the 89 counties through which it passed were "sundown towns," all-white communities where African-Americans were banned from city limits after dark. To avoid these towns throughout the West as well as elsewhere, black Americans well into the civil rights era relied on the Negro Motorist Green Book to point them to the rare safe havens such as Luther, Oklahoma's Threatt Filling Station, opened around 1915 by one of the University of Central Oklahoma's first black graduates.

Related: Amazing Places to Learn About Black History

Now: Luther, Oklahoma

Now: Luther, Oklahoma

The population of Luther was little more than 1,000 as of the last census. The Threatt Filling Station closed sometime after the 1950s, but the original sandstone building still stands, sans gas pumps. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Related: Black-Owned Stores to Support in (Almost) Every State

Then: Williams, Arizona

Then: Williams, Arizona

The Interstate Highway system built during the 1950s realigned many stretches of the original Route 66, borrowing the old designation for new, more direct thoroughfares and taking eyes away from the signs of older established roadside businesses. This trend continued for decades until 1984, when Williams became the last town to have its section of Route 66 bypassed by the construction of Interstate 40.

Related: 25 Epic Off-Road Adventures Across the U.S. and Canada

Now: Williams, Arizona
Raul Hernandez Balbuena/istockphoto

Now: Williams, Arizona

The old Route 66 of the '30s and '40s (or at least its buildings) are well-preserved on Williams' main street, and the town's economy benefits from its status as southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway. Besides the odd café, the town's main offerings are long-standing hotels and motels such as the El Rancho.

Related: 20 Spectacular Trails That Used to Be Railroads

Star Courts, Elk City, Oklahoma
Star Courts, Elk City, Oklahoma by Boston Public Library (CC BY)

Then: Elk City, Oklahoma

Elk City is a rather typical Western Oklahoma town, built by homesteaders, served by Route 66 traffic, and briefly enlivened by the discovery of natural gas in 1947. The agricultural and then oil boomtown's stretch of Route 66 served travelers with a similarly typical assortment of art deco motels and eateries before being bypassed by Interstate 40 running south of town in 1966.

Related: Scenic RV Trips You Can Enjoy Over a Weekend

Now: Elk City, Oklahoma

Now: Elk City, Oklahoma

Modestly sized Elk City has developed one of the country's most extensive museum complexes paying tribute to Route 66. The National Route 66 & Transportation Museum is unique in covering all eight states through which its namesake runs, and sits within a stone's throw of relics such as the Casa Grande hotel from 1928, once the largest Route 66 hotel between Oklahoma City and Amarillo. 

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