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Route 66 Comes to New Mexico—1926

In the 1920s automobile travel and the tourist impulse engaged the American public's imagination in a way that would open up the country and hark back to the statement made by Charles F. Lummis to “see America first.” To accommodate this technological and cultural movement, the U.S. Congress modified the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which initiated the construction of an interstate highway system that would link the United States. One proposed route, Route 66, would connect Chicago with Los Angeles.

Route 66’s chief booster was Cyrus Stevens Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because of Avery’s experience as a highway commissioner and as a member of several highway organizations, the Bureau of Better Roads appointed him to act as a highway consultant for the nascent interstate highway project, “the United States Highway System.” In this capacity, Avery steered a committee to adopt a plan that would incorporate a patchwork of highways leading south and west, from Chicago, through St. Louis and his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Avery and others vigorously lobbied for a road spanning from Chicago to California, and for this route to be officially identified as highway 60. As a result of political pressure the highway was officially designated as Route 66 on 11 November 1926, marking the birth of a highway whose legacy neither Avery nor other supporters could have ever imagined.

The promotion of Route 66 continued to grow. Philips 66 gasoline adopted and advertised the road, even using the route number and logo, while the United States Highway Association touted Route 66 as “the Main Street of America.” Boosters described Route 66 as the shortest and most direct route between the Great Lakes in the northeastern United States to the Pacific Coast. The road traversed the prairies of Illinois, the scenic beauty of the Missouri Ozarks, the lead and zinc areas of Joplin and Miami, the oil fields of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico, the Grand Canyon area of Arizona, and the splendor of Southern California. Route 66 also came alive in song and legend, in which it was characterized as a magical ribbon leading from the cold climates of the north and east, to the land of sunshine in the Southwest.

Though at first hampered by long stretches of dirt, sand and gravel; Route 66 eventually became the first highway of its length to be paved from end-to-end, and where main street America was predicated through a car window. Tourist courts (later fantastic neon-outlined motels) invited Route 66 travelers to stay overnight. Travelers could eat at a variety of burger joints and cafes and be entertained at trading posts and snake farms, and all along the way they could find the ubiquitous gas station and its friendly attendants, all pure Americana.

Route 66 was a dream for entrepreneurs and promoters as businesses sprang up along the highway like desert flowers after a rain. Not only had Route 66 become a tourist attraction in and of itself but it served as a roadway for the mass migration of Americans to California in the 1920s and 1930s. The Mother Road, as Route 66 has been affectionately called, became the lifeblood of small towns and cities along the famous run from Chicago to Los Angeles. Cafes, filling stations, and tourist cottages would eventually give way to chain restaurants and motels, and larger and more concentrated corporate-run gas stations, each catering to the tourist and traveler. New Mexico was one of the eight states to benefit from the highway of commerce.

New Mexico like other states cobbled together a series of roads and right-of-ways that would most easily accommodate the east to west direction of the route. New Mexico’s topographical and geological obstacles made for a difficult yet aesthetically stimulating road trip. Route 66’s original run through the state consisted of 506 miles of shoddy and meandering roadway in the early years, and 399 miles of straighter and more improved passage after 1937.

The history of travel corridors in New Mexico includes animal migration trails, prehistoric human travel and hunting routes, historic hunting and wagon trails and roads, railroad tracks, and finally automobile roads and highways. Many of these routes generally followed the natural corridors, or “the paths of least resistance” through New Mexico on an east to west track along the 35th parallel.

Route 66  traveled like a carnival ride with many twists and turns, ups and downs and detours through the Land of Enchantment. Historian David Kammer has identified four distinct phases in the life of Route 66 through New Mexico including: the Pioneer Years, 1926-1932; the Depression Years, 1932-1941; the War Years, 1942-1945; and the Golden Years; 1946-1956. After 1956, the freeway system changed the relationship that travelers and tourists had with main street America: they would mostly bypass it. Sections of Route 66 were eliminated or reoriented, and once thriving whole commercial strips became blighted and forgotten.

But Route 66 has never been entirely forgotten and continues to live on in history books, song, and the memories of old timers; and has gained recent status among preservationists and others interested in the history of the road. Historians, preservationists, and loyal “save Route 66” volunteers in small towns and cities along the route continue to network and remain committed to preserving the magic of old Route 66.

Sources Used:

Kammer, David. The Historic and Architectural Resources of Route 66 Through New Mexico. Santa Fe: New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, Office of Cultural Affairs, 1992.

Schneider, Jill. Route 66 Across New Mexico: A Wanderer’s Guide. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Wallis, Michael. Route 66: The Mother Road. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Gonzales, Carmen, Project director, New Mexico State University. New Mexico Route 66. http://reta.nmsu.edu/route66/road_stories/, (January, 4, 2005).

HHJM, Inc. Route 66: The Mother Road. http://www.hhjm.com/66/history.htm., (January, 4, 2005).

Northeast New Mexico Association. Route 66 Scenic Byway. http://nenewmexico.com/tours/route66.html., (January, 4, 2005).

Route 66 Association. New Mexico Route 66. http://www.rt66nm.org/, (January, 4, 2005).