Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
U.S. Highway 66 in Oklahoma occupies a very special place along the great arc of the Mother Road. Here the densely populated and nuanced terrain of the Midwest meets the western road’s wide open plains country.
At the creation of Route 66 in 1926, Oklahoma was not yet 20 years into statehood and was still developing a modern infrastructure, which the condition of its transportation and communication network at the time illustrates. As late as 1926, Oklahoma had more railroad mileage, the transport choice of the 19th century, than road miles. On the eve of the Mother Road, less than 12% of the State’s roads had hard paved surfaces. As a result, the first generation of Route 66 roadbed in Oklahoma was a patchwork of disparate and often primitive roads.
This situation soon improved as the State, with Federal support, replaced Oklahoma’s various private highway associations as custodians of the roadway. This shift demonstrated a new level of State and Federal partnership in organizing human and material resources. From its very beginning, Route 66 in Oklahoma was a work in progress, constantly undergoing rerouting, widening, straightening, and resurfacing. The straightening and realigning of Oklahoma Route 66 shortened it by 47 miles between 1926 and 1951.
Route 66 in Oklahoma offers a good example of how a road and its environment can be mutually sustaining. With the improvement of the roadbeds and the increase in local and interstate traffic, new commercial activity sprouted up along the Oklahoma roadside. These interconnected developments exposed many of the State’s isolated rural communities to a broader range of social, cultural, and economic contacts. In a sense, both Oklahoma and Route 66 grew together. The story of U.S. Highway 66 in Oklahoma is not exclusively a tale of uplift and progress, however. While many roadside communities flourished, others suffered when they lost the highway in one of its periodic realignments. For some, moreover, the coming of an exciting, wider world via Route 66 proved an unwanted experience. In addition, the trek of Dust Bowl migrants along the Mother Road during the 1930s continues to evoke vivid images and memories of human suffering.
The postwar boom in tourism and transport catapulted Route 66 into its Golden Age but also nudged it closer to extinction, as Oklahoma opted to replace the eventually overburdened highway with a new generation of multi-lane, limited access thoroughfares. By 1957, the Turner Turnpike and Will Rogers Turnpike connected Oklahoma City to Joplin, Missouri, and after 1970, Interstate 40 spanned the entire western half of the State. These super highways relegated Route 66 to servicing local traffic.
The Road Segments
These five road segments total only about 26 miles, but they offer the traveler along historic Oklahoma Route 66 a vivid picture of the highway’s historical development. They are valuable artifacts that tell a story of evolving pavement design, traffic engineering, and changing patterns of social interaction. The Route 66 segments at Miami, West Sapulpa, Stroud (Ozark Trails), and Arcadia represent the earliest roadbeds, those that existed prior to their designation as part of the new national highway in 1926. These sections offer the traveler good examples of the road engineering and construction methods from the early 20th century. The fifth segment, the Bridgeport Hill-Hydro section, including the famous William H. Murray Bridge, is primarily a product of road improvement from the early to mid 1930s and represents conditions that characterized the second generation of Oklahoma Route 66. The road segments are in order geographically east to west.
Miami Nine-Foot Section (1921-1937)
At its inception, U.S. Highway 66 consisted simply of existing State routes across the continent pieced together. The result was a national highway composed of a disparate chain of road segments stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. Of all these first generation roadbeds, the Miami Nine-Foot Section must rank among the most unique. Constructed between 1919 and 1921, this three-mile segment south of Miami stands out because it is only nine feet wide. The reasons for this odd gauge remain obscure. Legend explains it as a lack of funding; highway engineers had the choice of either paving a short distance with two lanes or a longer distance with one lane, which was what they chose. Despite its peculiar width, the road was of sound construction according to the technology and materials of the time. The original roadbed consists of large stone, Topeka asphalt over a concrete base, flanked with five-foot gravel shoulders. At two sharp curves in this otherwise straight segment, the road widened and banked. Originally part of State Highway 7, this segment became Route 66 between Miami and Afton in 1926. It remained Route 66 until the realignment and widening of the highway in 1937. Today, the original roadbed and curbing are still visible in places, despite the covering of its Topeka asphalt with a more recent layer of asphalt and loose gravel. The road continues to serve local traffic.
West Sapulpa (1924-1952)
Bridgeport Hill to Hydro (1934–1962)
This 18-mile segment is largely a straight road of Portland Concrete that linked the western Oklahoma towns of El Reno and Hydro. Topographically, the road courses through a distinctive area where the open country of the West begins to emerge. A highlight of this segment is the famous El Reno cut off, a straightening, shortening and paving project begun by the State with Federal aid in 1930. When completed in 1934, this project created a more direct alignment of Route 66 between El Reno and Hydro, eliminating an original dirt route that jogged north through the towns of Calumet, Geary, and Bridgeport. The new alignment in response to the ever-growing traffic along Route 66 hurt these bypassed towns. Bridgeport became a ghost town. The new alignment’s construction standards demonstrate the progressive adjustment of road design to increased traffic volume: the roadbed’s width adhered to the 1930s standard of 20 feet over the previous decade’s 18-foot allowance. The new roadbed also boasted a system to facilitate drainage in rainy weather, which included a parabolic crown, lip curbs, and gutters. This same project also replaced a private toll bridge, the Key Bridge in Bridgeport, with the public William H. Murray Bridge, which spanned the south Canadian River along the new alignment. This nearly 4,000 feet long, 38 span bridge was a 1930s engineering marvel. As was often the result with such modernizing projects, the new road soon was lined with commercial start-ups ranging from service stations and cafés to motor courts. This segment of Route 66 flourished until the construction of a new alignment further north in 1962.