Route 66 in Arizona
From about 1920 to 1944, the story of Route 66 unfolded across the mountains, plains, and deserts of Arizona. Some sections of Route 66 had their origins in aboriginal trails that became east-west transportation routes during Territorial times. Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale followed some of these ancient trail routes as he constructed the Beale Wagon Road, which ran between Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Colorado River along the 35th Parallel. Railroads also followed the Beale Wagon Road, and towns and settlements grew up along the rail lines. The Beale Wagon Road and the railroad settlements became the basis for the later Route 66.
During the Territorial years, from 1863 to 1912, when Arizona became a state, Arizona’s road system was inadequate. The necessary revolution in this state of affairs was brought about by the advent of the automobile in the early years of the twentieth century. Because the counties had neither the money nor the equipment to build and maintain roads, first Territorial and then State highway departments took over this responsibility. At the time of Route 66’s designation in 1926, 400 miles of its total 2,282 miles passed through Arizona, and virtually none of it was paved. Paving first began on the main streets within towns, and later the road was paved between towns. Because of this, Route 66 came to be known as “America’s Main Street,” and this was no less true of its passage through Arizona.
Arizona’s portion of the fabled “Mother Road,” as John Steinbeck famously termed it, had many attractions along its length that made it a destination in itself. It had Petrified Forest National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, mountain ranges, desert landscapes, and the Navajo Reservation, which attracted a nation nurtured on Hollywood images of Native Americans.