Joplin, Missouri, is hosting the Route 66 International Festival, Thursday through Saturday, August 1-3. This event celebrates the two-lane highway that stretched 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles before the Interstate Highway System existed.
Organizers are expecting around 40,000 people to attend over the three-day period. A different location along the old highway route is selected each year to host the festival. This is the first time it will be in Missouri.
The very name, Route 66, stirs up a feeling of nostalgia for many Americans and people throughout the world. The malt shops, full service gas stations, cars that now are considered antiques, and drive-in theaters are a few of the symbols of that other time. The highway has been immortalized in literature, film, television, and song. It served as the road used to escape the Dust Bowl, to provide jobs under the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Project Administration (WPA) as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and as the route members of the Armed Forces traveled to reach military training camps during World War II.
John Steinbeck referred to this U.S. highway as the “Mother Road” in his 1938 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and heads for California. The only way they can reach their destination is to take Highway 66.
Perhaps no other road has become such a part of American life and lore as Route 66. After the Lewis and Clark expedition followed the Missouri River and continued to the Pacific Coast, it didn’t take long before settlers from east of the Mississippi starting migrating west. Thousands packed their belongings in cover wagons and traveled the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, or Mormon trails during the 19th century. Many saw the westward expansion as an opportunity for a better life. Some left the eastern cities to try farming, some were prospectors in the California or Colorado gold rush, and others used it to flee religious conflict.
In 1853, Congress commissioned Amiel Weeks Whipple, an officer in the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, to conduct a survey for a transcontinental railroad along the 35th parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Los Angeles. Whipple completed his expedition in 1856 and reported that it was possible to build the proposed railroad.
Congress decided, instead, to subsidize the wagon roads to improve communication for both military personnel and civilians in the western frontier. In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale was commissioned to chart a wagon road along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance (near what is now the New Mexico-Arizona border) to the Colorado River. While Beale and his crew worked on that section, other crews worked on the Fort Smith to Fort Defiance section. When the Beale Wagon Road was finished, it stretched over 1,200 miles from Fort Smith to the Colorado River. It was popular and well-traveled, but its use faded after the 1883 completion of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad.
Interest in the Beale Wagon Road bounced back under the National Old Trails Road Association in the early 20th century. Supporters promoted improvements of the proposed coast-to-coast highway that retraced the country’s historic trails, and advocated that road construction have direct federal involvement instead of federal funds going to state agencies. This idea became part of the federal highway policy of 1916.
The Federal Highway Act of 1921 required that federal aid be used for the completion of highway network that would connect across state lines. Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, encouraged an interstate, inter-regional highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. Congress didn’t move forward with a plan until 1925. The highway was officially named in Springfield, Missouri, on April 30, 1926.
U.S. Highway 66 became a reality with the signing of a bill on November 11, 1926, to create the American Highway System. The highway did not follow a straight line. Instead, it connected old trails and linked rural communities with large cities through eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It was paved in sections and over a period of years until finally finished in 1937.
The need for improved highways both created and ended U.S. 66. Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 to focus on building interstate and defense highways. Large sections of U.S. 66 were replaced by Interstate 40. The Chicago to St. Louis section was replaced by Interstate 55, and Interstate 44 replaced the section from St. Louis to Oklahoma City. Signs designating U.S. Highway 66 were taken down and the highway was decommissioned June 27, 1985.
What remains is a time, a place, and a memory of the first paved highway from end to end. Occasional signs, patches of the road, and buildings along the way become an outdoor museum, serving as proof of its existence. In addition to the celebration in Joplin, there are also events scheduled in Eastern Europe. According to the Kansas City Star, Route 66 represents freedom and a “carefree ride.” From Joplin to Slovakia, the highway is still doing what it was meant to do—link communities together.
Written by: Cynthia Collins, Senior Museum Correspondent