Route 66 began as a set of trails that the Indians and early pioneers used to travel on throughout the Midwest and West, meandering between springs and watering holes. The gold rush of 1849 led to an increased interest in developing more direct transportation routes to and from California. In 1853, Congress authorized a survey for a proposed transcontinental railroad running along the 35th parallel. Lt. Amiel W. Whipple led the first expedition across this route through Indian territory that would someday become Route 66.
In 1857, Congress commissioned Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance in New Mexico to the Colorado River. Beale and his party of men set out on a route which roughly followed Lt. Amiel Whipple’s trail west across Arizona. Beale’s expedition used camels instead of horses. His survey route was known as the Beale Camel Road.
Beale's Wagon Road became the major “interstate highway” across the northern Arizona Territory during the 1860’s-1870’s. Parts of this historic trail are still visible in places. Travelers along that trail sometimes decided to stop and settle in certain spots, creating towns such as Holbrook, Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams, Ash Fork, Seligman, and Kingman.
The Atlantic & Pacific railroad line was constructed alongside Beale’s Wagon Road in the 1880’s. It became part of the Santa Fe Railway’s main transcontinental line connecting Chicago and California. These are the same tracks that run parallel to Interstate 40 today. The railroad was a lifeline to civilization for the isolated settlements along the way.
Beale’s trail remained a primitive road across the largely uninhabited desert Southwest for over 70 years. It wasn't until the early 1900's that the existing wagon roads, which were often nothing more than dirt tracks, became unsuitable for the newly popular automobile. In the 1920's, the American public began to clamor for road improvements. A United States Highway System was created to connect all of the existing marked trails. U.S. Highway 66 was established in 1926, covering a distance of 2,300 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles.
During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, thousands of families drove west on Route 66 with their vehicles full of everything they owned, as they emigrated from the Dust Bowl to fertile lands of California. Their plight was documented in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck who coined the term "Mother Road." Most of Route 66 was still unpaved at that time with surfaces consisting of dirt, gravel, bricks, and even wooden planks. It wasn't until 1937 that Route 66 was completely paved.
After World War II, Route 66 became "Main Street USA," a scene for glamour and adventure, enticing many to travel and experience the life of the open road. As more and more automobiles were produced and they became affordable to many more people than ever before, Route 66 became literally bumper-to-bumper with traffic in the 1950’s.
Route 66 also became popular with families taking cross-country trips and vacations to the scenic Southwest. The popularity of automobile travel coincided with the rapid expansion of independently owned roadside motels, trailer courts, gas stations, souvenir/curio shops, drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants.
Nevertheless, Route 66 fell by the wayside when it was replaced by the faster, straighter Interstate Highway system in the 1970’s. The last active piece of Route 66 near Williams, AZ was decommissioned in 1986. Modern high-speed travelers became more interested in making good time than in having a good time while on the road.
Although many parts of old Route 66 have been broken up or merged with the interstate, Historic Route 66 still attracts nostalgic visitors seeking to recapture the old spirit of adventure and fun while enjoying America’s classic scenic beauty. The longest remaining continuous stretch of the original Route 66 is located right here in Arizona, running from Topock to Ash Fork.
See also: Route 66 & "Cars"
See also: Route 66 & "The Grapes of Wrath"
Route 66 for Kids
These pages are a continuous work in progress.