Route 66 in Missouri

To truly know the history of Route 66 in Missouri, one has to look back to a time when there were no officially sanctioned roads in the state, just Indian trails and pioneer tracks.  Some important predecessor routes were the “farm-to-market” roads which allowed farmers to bring their products to agricultural market towns.  Many of these were incorporated into the eventual Route 66.  Another of the earliest roads to play a part in the pre-history of Route 66 was the Kickapoo or Osage Trail, an old Native American trace that evolved by the Civil War into the Old Wire Road.  The road bore this name due to the fact that telegraph wires were strung along the route.  The Old Wire Road was eventually incorporated into Route 66, and this pattern was repeated throughout the state as old roads were brought into new service as part of the just-designated U.S. highway.

Another important factor in the development of Route 66 in Missouri was the Good Roads Movement, beginning in 1880.  This was a movement to promote better roads, spearheaded by bicyclists, automobile enthusiasts, farmers, and others who wanted to see roads kept in better condition, preferably using pavement.  At first, bicyclists powered this movement, but their influence was soon eclipsed by the growing popularity of the automobile.  To help spur this movement toward better roads in Missouri, a piece of legislation in 1913 allotted 50 percent matching funds to counties to maintain roads – the first time that the building and upkeep of roads in the state were not the sole financial responsibility of counties.

By 1926, a national numbering system for United States highways traveling across the country had been developed, and Route 66 was designated one of these routes.  Of all the national highways designated by this numbering system, Route 66 was quite unusual in that it was the only one that did not travel from coast to coast or border to border.  It was also the only one that traveled a great portion of its length in a diagonal direction – mainly through Illinois and Missouri.  The road traced a northeast to southwest route from Chicago to St. Louis and thence to Joplin, Missouri, making it unique among the numbered national highways.

Paving the entire road through Missouri proved to be more difficult than giving it a U.S. Highway designation.  As was the case in other states, Missouri’s Route 66 was paved in sections.  In 1922, the road was about half paved, with other portions covered by gravel, semi-gravel, and all-weather macadam.  By 1926, there were still 150 miles of unimproved surface on Route 66, and the entire route through Missouri was not paved until 1932.

The highway enjoyed a period of waxing and waning prosperity for about forty years, during which time it saw the great westward migration of the Depression, the lean years of rationing during World War II, and a renewed interest and popularity during the post-war years.  But by the mid-1950s, Route 66 and other U.S. highways were slated for obsolescence, as the United States began to build the interstate highway system.

Construction began in 1956 on I-44, the interstate that follows Route 66’s path from St. Louis to Joplin, and it opened in 1966.  The Missouri portion of Interstate 44 was the first officially designated segment of the Interstate system in the nation, and it was here that Route 66 began to succumb to the forces that made it obsolete.  But in Missouri, as in other states, segments of the old road still remain – no longer the main route from St. Louis to Joplin, but still a reminder of a glorious past, when automobile tourism flourished and the roadway became famous in story and in song.