One of the original long-distance paved U.S. Highways, Route 66 always had about it an aura of romance born of wide-open horizons and travel on it that spanned not just a country, but a continent.
Then, during the 1930s, it became the major and much fabled path to new lives in the West for untold thousands rendered destitute due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.
Now, through countless societies, museums and publications, the romance of Route 66 lives on even as the nation’s Interstate system has effectively rung its death knell.
And, with so rich a history, there are more than enough fascinating Route 66 facts to fill volumes. Here are just a few of them.
Long before the invention of the automobile, pioneers traveling to California followed the Beale Wagon Road, which was first surveyed by a U.S. Army expedition led by Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale from 1857-60, with orders to follow the 35th Parallel westward through New Mexico and Arizona from Fort Smith, Arkansas.
That expedition through semi-desert regions used camels rather than mules, and the grave of its camel driver, a Syrian named Hadji Ali (known as Hi Jolly), is marked by a stone pyramid topped by a copper camel in Quartzite, Arizona.
When America began setting up a national highway network after World War I, roads that ran east to west were designated with numbers ending in a 0, and those running north to south ended in either 1 or 5.
Route 66 defied classification because it described an arc through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma before finally straightening out. Kentucky held out for Route 60 and Oklahoma, as a compromise, accepted Route 66 — which became the designation for the road linking Chicago and Los Angeles, officially awarded in Springfield, Missouri, on April 30, 1926. After a 59-year history, the road was officially decertified on June 27, 1985.
The original eastern end of Route 66 was the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, but since Jackson Boulevard is now one-way, westbound drivers must take Adams Street. The road’s western terminus was originally the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic boulevards in the beachfront Los Angeles city of Santa Monica, California. However, from 2009 it was unofficially shifted westward six blocks to the Santa Monica Pier.
In 1952, Route 66 was unofficially dubbed the “Will Rogers Highway,” after Oklahoma’s renowned cowboy film star and entertainer. A commemorative plaque off Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica reads: “This Main Street of America, Highway 66, was the first road he traveled in a career that led him straight to the hearts of his countrymen.”
The only state where Route 66 remains in its entirety — all 21.2 km (13.2 miles) of it — is Kansas. At 603 km (375 miles), Oklahoma claims the longest drivable distance of any state, which is well marked with signs reading State Road 66.
The oldest restaurant on Route 66 is the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Formerly a stagecoach stop, it dates back to 1848.
The most deadly sector of the road, which is on record as having “struck terror” into the hearts of early Route 66 motorists, was La Bajada (meaning “the descent” in Spanish), a hill southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, with more than a dozen hairpin turns. Cars were forced to slow down to 10 mph (16 kph), and many going uphill had to drive in reverse because their gravity-feed gasoline tanks in the rear couldn’t supply fuel to the engine while the vehicle was being drived forward.
Because of a drastic re-alignment in 1937, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, can now boast the only point on Route 66 where the road intersects itself (at 4th Street and Central Avenue).
Movies in which Route 66 figures (although it’s not always identified as such) include “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “Harvey Girls” (1942), “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), “Psycho” (1960), “Easy Rider” (1969), “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), “Escape from New York” (1981), “Hitcher” (1986), “Baghdad Cafe” (1987), “Rain Man” (1988) and “Breakdown” (1997). In 2004, a scene from “Kill Bill, Volume 2” was filmed at Emma Jean’s Holland Burger Cafe in Victorville, California.
While no longer posted on roadsides, iconic “Burma Shave” signs — humorous red-and-white advertising ditties promoting brushless shaving cream that appeared from 1925 to 1963 — are on display in several of the Route 66 museums.
One of the more memorable of those ditties was: In this vale / Of toil and sin / Your head grows bald / But not your chin / Burma Shave …