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Get your kicks at the massive Route 66 fest in Springfield, Ill.

Bill Shea has one of the most complete gas station memorabilia collections along Route 66. The collection can be seen at Shea’s Finest Truck Covers business in Springfield on Peoria Road./ Springfield CVB photo

Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo., is a nostalgic treasure along old Route 66./ Missouri Division of Tourism photo

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America’s Mother Road is 75

Published: Sep/Oct 2002

If America had a main drag, it was Route 66, a link between Chicago and Los Angeles that crosses eight states and three time zones. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the route, although you could quibble by pointing out that much of the original road now exists only in the popular imagination.

Route filled a need, then filled our hearts

America’s public highway legislation dates back to 1916. In the years that followed, AAA remained a tireless advocate of federal road building and standardized signs and signals. By the mid-1920s, businessmen from the West and Midwest began to lobby for a transportation link between east and west. Route 66 was commissioned in 1926. The corner of Lake Shore Drive and East Jackson Grant in Chicago was designated its official starting point in 1933.

Route 66 was among the first standardized highways using a federal numbering system. Creating Route 66 was not a major construction effort. Connecting roads were just given the same number–an even number, because it was an east-west artery. At first, only 800 miles were paved. The paving was finished in 1937 using New Deal labor.

The diagonal course of Route 66 gave rural areas access to a major national thoroughfare. It also set the stage for American road culture: from motor courts, tourist cabins and diners to strip malls, roadside attractions and fast food drive-ins.

Highlights along the way include Route 66 State Park in Eureka, Mo.; Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo.; Bill Shea’s gas station memorabilia collection in Springfield, Ill.; Route 66 Hall of Fame in McLean, Ill.; the Rainbow Bridge in Oklahoma; the Painted Desert Trading Post in Arizona, and the Hoover Dam in Nevada. There also are ghost towns, abandoned mines, Indian reservations, historic hotels and cafes, and even gas stations worthy of a stop and some snapshots.

The Route dead-ends at the Santa Monica Pier on the Pacific Coast.

Cultural colossus

Since its inception, Route 66 has maintained a high profile in popular culture. In 1939, John Steinbeck dubbed it “the Mother Road” in his novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” At the end of World War II, “get your kicks on Route 66” became a catchphrase when Nat King Cole released a Top 40 tribute. Route 66 had the distinction of going from location shot to star. An adventure series named after the road was a Thursday night hit for CBS from 1960 to 1964.

Phasing out the route

Through funding from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, a national interstate system began to replace the original Route 66 with modern, four-lane highways. The last segment was bypassed by Interstate 40 in the early 1980s. By 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. Tell that to bikers and back-road enthusiasts.

Route 66 nostalgia has created a booming market in replica road signs and even guided tours on Harleys. Although the glory days of the road are in the rearview mirror we hold up to our culture, the Route 66 shield remains a beloved symbol of the open road.

Also see: Get your kicks at the massive Route 66 fest in Springfield, Ill.


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