2. Before 1926: The Origins of Route 66

Gas station in Galena, Kansas. By Gorup de Besanez, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Gas station in Galena, Kansas.

By Gorup de Besanez, CC BY-SA 4.0,

United States Highway 66 followed in the wake of the nation's first trans-Mississippi migration. In 1853, Congress commissioned Captain Amiel Weeks Whipple of the Army Topographical Corps to conduct a survey for a proposed transcontinental railroad. Congress ultimately opted against the railroad and instead subsidized a network of wagon roads to improve military and civilian communications throughout the western frontier. In 1857, Congress commissioned Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale to chart a wagon road following the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance close to the New Mexico/Arizona border to the Colorado River. Beale's Road established a vital military transportation and communication link between Fort Smith near the Arkansas River and the westernmost reaches of the Southwest. In underwriting the $200,000 expense to establish what Lt. Beale felt certain would become "the great emigrant road to California," the Federal Government provided the impetus for the creation of the transcontinental railroad and the establishment of Route 66.

Beale's Road was the frontier antecedent of Route 66. Interest in the route resurfaced under the National Old Trails Road Movement, when motorists began to discuss the need for an ocean-to-ocean thoroughfare in the first decades of the 20th century. Promoters hoped to capitalize on the national appeal of the Panama-Pacific Expositions scheduled to open in San Diego and San Francisco in 1915, as justification for Federal subsidies of a continuously paved transcontinental highway. As conceived in 1912, the National Old Trails Road was to originate on the east coast with branches to Baltimore and Washington, DC, and terminate on the west coast in San Diego. During its lifetime, the road's promotional arm, the National Old Trails Road Association, promoted improvement of the proposed ocean-to-ocean corridor as it retraced the nation's historic trails. The association also championed good roads in America by advocating direct Federal involvement in road construction in lieu of Federal aid to State agencies. This concept became a part of Federal highway policy in 1916 that continues today.

The first leg of the ocean-to-ocean highway that the National Old Trails Association proposed in 1912 originated in Washington, DC and traced the Cumberland Road, a well-established historic avenue, to St. Louis. From Missouri, the highway followed the Santa Fe Trail to Albuquerque and Santa Fe before taking a more southerly course through Arizona to Flagstaff, gateway to the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff's pioneer lumberman, Matthew J. Riordan, detailed the final leg of the route that most closely approximates the 1927 orientation of U.S. Highway 66. Christened the "Grand Canyon Route," the road was eventually constructed from Williams to Ashfork and Seligman in Yavapai County to Topock, Arizona on the Colorado River, where automobiles could be loaded on railway flatcars and transported across an expansion bridge that the Santa Fe Railroad built to Needles, California. From this desert community, the road proceeded 164 miles across the Mojave to Barstow and the desert communities of Bakersfield and San Bernardino terminating in San Diego.
The official origin of Route 66 was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921. A road assessment of a decade earlier estimated the total mileage of rural roads in America at approximately 2.5 million miles, 10.5% of them surfaced. Of those 257,291 miles, only 32,180 had pavement of bituminous material, brick, or concrete. The intent of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, successor to the earlier highway appropriations legislation of 1916, was to create a coherent highway network by requiring that Federal aid be concentrated on projects that would expedite completion of an adequate and connected system of interstate highways. A minimum of 60% of Federal funds were be spent on what was designated the primary or interstate network.

The automobile and construction of the vast network of highways that gave motorists a route to travel were both marvels of the 20th century. Established to facilitate travel across the 3,000-mile stretch of mountains and prairies between New York and San Francisco, the Lincoln Highway predated Route 66 by more than a decade. From 1912 until the end of the First World War, cross-country travel along the Lincoln Highway was largely limited to the wealthy few who could afford an automobile and dared to challenge the uneven, ill-defined course of the road. Route 66 opened the way for the masses to travel.

Route 66 road sign in Kansas. By Gorup de Besanez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Route 66 road sign in Kansas.

By Gorup de Besanez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Route 66 was the result of America's infatuation with rapid mobility, mass transportation, and technological change. Historian Richard Davies wrote, “the automobile constituted a personalized urban mass transit system, allowing the owner to travel whenever or wherever he desired." Moreover, it provided a personal means of escape from the congestion of metropolitan America. One significant effect of the increased use of the automobile, according to Davies, was to reduce cross-country travel from an adventure of the affluent and stouthearted to a relatively inexpensive and common occurrence.

The 1920s were the first boom years for the automobile. In 1910, two years before the authorization of the Lincoln Highway, the United States had 180,000 registered automobiles, a ratio of about one car for every 5,000 citizens. The subsequent decade saw the addition of more than 17 million cars, trucks, and buses to America's motor fleet. This figure increased 6.5 times to 112 million in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, Americans demanded improved highways to serve the growing number of vehicles on America's roadways. The Federal Government's early response to these demands first breathed life into Route 66.
Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not successful until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development. While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916 with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted a more comprehensive version of the law in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction. Officially, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route received the numerical designation of Route 66 in the summer of 1926. That designation acknowledged the route as one of the nation's principal east-west arteries. Mostly, U.S. 66 was just an assignment of a number to an already existing network of State-managed roads, most of which were in poor condition.

From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare. Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, but before 1926, Cyrus Avery's hometown of Tulsa had few improved roads. In those days, driving the 103 miles of uneven dirt roads from Tulsa to Oklahoma City took six hours. Both admitted to the Union in 1912, scarcely 14 years before the construction of Route 66, New Mexico and Arizona suffered from the same lack of good roads.

Road use in these remote desert States was sporadic. In 1925, New Mexico's Office of the State Engineer reported that only an average of 207 cars used the road daily between Albuquerque and Gallup. Arizona reported a slightly higher daily count of 338 cars, but road conditions were not desirable. As described in the summer of 1925, the section between Ashfork and Seligman, Arizona was "Unimproved except in the way of removing boulders from the road that might menace a low-clearance car . . . it is a twenty-mile (per hour) road." Extension of U.S. Highway 66 into these desolate western territories would help facilitate their transition to statehood by offering greater access to prospective residents and travelers.

More Route 66 Resources

Image of Route 66 sign next to restaurant.
Travel Places along Historic Route 66

Discover the hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and more than lined this iconic roadway.

Old car next to gas station. CC0
Route 66 Preservation Program

Visit the Route 66 Preservation Program website to learn more about this historic roadway.

Part of a series of articles titled Travel Route 66: Essay Series .

Last updated: June 27, 2022