It's Veterans Day in the U.S. (Remembrance Day in Canada) but today is also the day that commemorates another American tradition - it's the day Route 66 was established in 1926.
Picture from Wikipedia user Howcheng
Road of Many Names
It's known best as Route 66, of course, but the famous Highway has about as many names as its Route number. A couple of its other aliases: • Will Rogers Highway. The U.S. Highway 66 Association unofficially deemed the route Will Rogers Highway in 1952. There's a plaque in Santa Monica that says as much, and some more that tell the WIll Rogers story elsewhere along the route. • The Mother Road. John Steinbeck was the first to call it the Mother Road in The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. • The Great Diagonal Way. There's a very practical reason for this - from Chicago to Oklahoma City, the Route runs diagonal across the country. • The Main Street of America. This moniker was given to Route 66 by the U.S. Highway 66 Association. When the new Interstate Highways were starting to be built in 1955, the Association started to become worried that people were going to forget the history behind Route 66, so they started marketing it as The Main Street of America to try to keep interest alive. Unfortunately, they were right - Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985.
When I say humble beginnings, I'm not kidding. In 1857, General Ned Beale (a Renaissance Man if there ever was one) was commissioned to figure out if camels were suitable for use as pack animals in the U.S. - in fact, Congress designated $30,000 for this project - a considerable amount of money then. The project was referred to as the U.S. Camel Corps. He led a pack from Fort Defiance to the Colorado River and was pleased that they needed so little water, plus they were strong and able to move quickly across all types of landscapes. So why aren't camels more widely used today? Well, it turned out that they were stubborn and temperamental, and were prone to scaring horses. However, the path that Ned Beale led them on proved to be an efficient route, and it eventually became part of Route 66.
The Father of Route 66
Certainly, we have Ned Beale to thank for the discovery of the trail itself, but Tulsa native Cyrus Avery was the true champion of the cause. He was the member of the federal board that created the Federal Highway System. The board was responsible for finding proper routes and marking them as Federal routes. At that time, Route 66 wasn't even totally paved. Thanks to his efforts, the U.S. Highway 66 Association was created, the whole route was paved (eventually - it took until 1938), and marketing efforts were undertaken to promote travel.
OK, I consider myself an amateur runner (really, really amateur), but this just sounds awful to me: The Bunion Derby. It was a promotional race in 1928 that took runners from L.A. to New York. That's 3,455 miles. At about 40 miles a day, it took runners 84 days to cover all of Route 66. First place won $25,000; second took $10,000; third was $5,000; fourth was $2,500 and fifth through 10th places were each awarded $1,000. If you finished the race, the odds were nearly one in five that you would find one of the cash prizes: even though 199 runners started the race in L.A. on March 4, only 55 finished in New York City on May 26th.
I love quirky road trip stops, so I wish Route 66 was still fully intact so I could see some of this stuff. A few of them are still around, but not nearly in the numbers they used to be. • Meramec Caverns. I know these caverns best as the spot where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was filmed. But it also was supposedly one of Jesse James' hideouts. The story is that he and his brother holed up in the caves and the sheriff planted himself out front and waited for days. The caverns were so huge (4.6 miles) that Jesse and his brother easily found another way out, making the sheriff look like a fool.
• Red's Giant Hamburg (not hamburgers) in Springfield, Mo., claimed to be the first drive-through restaurant ever. Sheldon "Red" Chaney said that he decided customers probably didn't want to get out of a car, so he just had them pull up to a window and yell their order through. Red retired in 1984 and his legendary "Hamburg" (he didn't measure the sign right and ran out of room for letters) is no longer in service. The picture is from Birthplace of Route 66. • Meteor Crater is a stop near Winslow, Arizona. It's about 570 feet deep and 4,000 feet in diameter - in short, it's huge. It was created, oh, about 50,000 years ago. When people were doing research at the crater in 1906, a post office was even established there, since the nearest post office was an inconvenient 30 miles away in Winslow. • The Painted Desert. I'm sure you guys are familiar - it's an area of desert in Northern Arizona known for its gorgeous, brightly-colored landscape. Sadly, Route 66 is all but dead today. There are definitely some big chunks of it that are still in service, but as a major tourist attraction, it's dwindling fast. Several associations and societies have formed within the last 15 years or so to try to get some of the attractions along the route declared as historical sites, so maybe we'll see a revival. Got any good Route 66 stories to share? Leave them in the comments! We'd love to hear how it factored into your road trips.