History and Significance of US Route 66
U.S. Highway 66, popularly known as “Route 66,” is significant as the nation’s first all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles. When contrasted with transcontinental corridors such as the Lincoln Highway and U.S. Highway 40, Route 66 does not stand out as America’s oldest or longest road. Nevertheless, what sets this segment of national highway apart from its contemporaries is that it was the shortest, year-round route between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast. U.S. Route 66 reduced the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles by more than 200 miles, which made Route 66 popular among thousands of motorists who drove west in subsequent decades.
Like other highways of its day, Route 66 reflects the origin and evolution of road transportation in the United States. The often romanticized highway represents an outstanding example of the transition from dirt track to superhighway. Not only does Route 66 underscore the importance of the automobile as a technological achievement, but, perhaps equally important to the American psyche, it symbolized unprecedented freedom and mobility for every citizen who could afford to own and operate a car. Escalating numbers of motor vehicles and the rise of the trucking industry increased the need for improved highways. In response the federal government pledged to link small town U.S.A. with all of the metropolitan capitals.
The period of outstanding historical significance for Route 66 is 1926 to 1970. The national system of public highways brought geographic cohesion and economic prosperity to the disparate regions of the country. As a component of the federal network Route 66 linked the isolated and predominantly rural West to the densely populated urban Midwest and Northeast. Chicago had long served as a transshipment point for goods that were transported to the West. The creation of Route 66 ensured the continuation of this vital socioeconomic link. The appearance of U.S. Highway 66 came at a time of unparalleled social, economic, and political disruption and global conflict. It also enabled one of the most comprehensive movement of people in the history of the United States. One result was the irreversible transformation of the American far west from a rural frontier to a pace-setting, metropolitan region.
Perhaps more than any other American highway, Route 66 symbolized the new optimism that pervaded the nations postwar economic recovery. For thousands of returning American servicemen and their families, Route 66 represented more than just another highway. “It became,” according to one contemporary admirer, “an icon of free-spirited independence linking the United States across the Rocky Mountain divide to the Pacific Ocean.” In recent years Route 66 imaginatively documented in prose, song, film, and television has come to represent the essence of the American highway culture to countless motorists who traversed its course during the more than fifty years of its lifetime.
After the road was decommissioned in 1985, federal and state agencies, private organizations, and numerous members of public realized that remnants of the road were quickly disappearing, and that the remaining significant structures, features, and artifacts associated with the road should be preserved. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 102-400, the Route 66 Study Act of 1990. The act recognized that Route 66 “has become a symbol of the American people’s heritage of travel and their legacy of seeking a better life.” The legislation resulted in the National Park Service conducting the Route 66 Special Resource Study (pdf) to evaluate the significance of Route 66 in American history, and to identify options for its preservation, interpretation, and use. The document provides an in-depth account of significance and history of Route 66. This study led to enactment of Public Law 106-45, and the creation of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.