(Note from Ed) – A subject close to my heart having driven Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago (article here)
Route 66 isn’t really a road, per se. It was de-listed as a national highway nearly 40 years ago and today physically exists as a number of other roads, highways, and interstates since renamed, repaved, replaced, and repurposed. But it also exists metaphysically, as one might argue, not so much as a road but as a destination, as a muse for writers to wax poetic about the soul of the nation or for artists to capture broad expanses and quirky figures, and a reminder of how integral automobile travel has become to the American mindset. It has transcended its original function to become a symbol of a great many things, leading to the ongoing attempts to declare the Mother Road as the first National Historic Trail with automotive origins.
While the National Trails System Act of 1968 aimed to create a network of trails like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail “to provide for the ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population,” it also provided for similar historic trails that would identify and protect historic routes of travel as well as the remnants and artifacts along those trails. It took another decade for Congress to designate the first four National Historic Trails – among them the Oregon Trail and the Iditarod – and 15 more have followed in the years since. The National Park Service manages most of the National Historic Trails, but the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service administer or co-administer a handful of the trails.
Designation doesn’t necessarily lead to federal improvements or restoration of the trails, but it does come with some material benefits. Consistent signage along the length of the trail is one such benefit, along with documentation of the trail’s route in the Federal Register and other government publications. The Act establishing the National Historic Trails system does give Congress power to acquire land up to a quarter of a mile on either side of the trail to protect the integrity of the trail, though that power has rarely been used. More importantly, designation opens up trails to funding opportunities, either through a line item in the budget of the federal agency that administers the trail or by giving weight and standing to the volunteer organizations and non-profits that Congress recognizes for developing and maintaining the trails.
It’s that last aspect that has spurred the current push to designate Route 66 a National Historic Trail. Parts of Route 66 existed long before the 20th century, but it was Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and several others who pushed for a Chicago-to-Los Angeles route that received its official highway designation in April 1926. Though it connected those two major cities, Route 66 also brought the world to numerous small towns and rural communities and provided a thoroughfare for Dust Bowl migrants who made their way from drought-stricken rural communities to California during the Depression. After World War II and into the Sixties, Route 66 saw its heyday as cheap gas and prosperous times enabled widespread economic and physical mobility, leading to greater westward migration and cross-country vacations by automobile. The coming of the Interstate Highway System and various bypasses along Route 66, however, led to the decline of the mom-and-pop hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and curio shops that lined the highway, eventually pushing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to decommission Route 66 in June 1985.