America's Highway...The Mother Road...Route 66...established in 1926 was the start of the modern age of western U.S. road trips. Now the tourist could jump in his car and head for California on one highway.
Route 66 was not a superhighway like the Interstates built during the 60's and 70's but in 1926 it was about as close as you could get to one. U.S. Highway Route 66 was the product of a grass roots movement to construct better roads. The Route 66 route was one of the main components of the 1926 National Highway System Act.
America's Historic National Highway
It was 1927 that the numbered system for highway naming was introduced. There are so many aspects of Route 66 to talk about, the Route 66 road maps are just one. The road is much more than can be seen on a road map.
This National Highway became part of the fabric of America itself. The road found itself in the middle of national events...the Dust Bowl era of the 1930's, and World War Two represent just a few. How many highways have had songs written for them. Not many. Singer and songwriter Bobby Troup had a big national hit with his "Route 66". How about the 1950's televsion series "Route 66"? Don't forget that Route 66 runs right through Gallup New Mexico and past the El Rancho Hotel which was the temporary residence of many old western movie stars during 1940's and 50's movie making. You arrive at the point where you have to ask the question..What is Route 66? Clearly this highway represents something more that miles of pavement.
Someone not totally familiar with our national highway system prior to 1960 might ask..Where is Route 66? The answer is that Route 66 is everywhere from Illinois to sunny southern California.
Reaching Santa Fe for example from the midwest prior to Route 66 one would travel a road that pretty much followed the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad tracks that traveled through extreme southern Colorado and Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico. Route highway 66 started at Grant Park in Chicago and ended in Santa Monica California right on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Route 66 highway traverses three time zones. In the very beginning the route was a patchwork of farm roads and ranch roads and existing local roads. In the early days it's roads were essentially graded gravel. As time went on more paving took place. Finally in 1938 Route 66 could boast of being the only U.S. Highway fully paved. In 1938 you could drive from Santa Monica California to the shores of Lake Michigan and not have to leave the hard surface.
Route 66 starts in a big city, travels west through farmland and praries, mountains, the arid southwest U.S. desert and ends in Santa Monica ( Los Angeles), another big city. Another unique feature of this U.S. highway is the fact that it travels in a southwesterly direction. Almost all national highways travel either in a north-south or east-west direction. Route 66 is different in that respect and also what part in played in 20th century American history. In many ways you could compare Route 66 with the Oregon Trail. Both represented much used travel routes to the west and both found a permanent place in American history.
Route 66 Pulls Out of Santa Fe
Route 66 maps changed several times since the highways inception in 1926. There were route changes in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and California. One of the more major of changes occurred in new Mexico when America's premiere highway abandoned the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico's state capital.
The story about how this came about is somewhat controversial. Was this major route change due to a practical engineering decision which essentially shortened the New Mexico portion by about 100 miles, or was the change the result of political intrigue and bickering because of a lost 1927 election?
The change to the trip route resulted in the highway now running directly west from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque instead of diverting to the northwest to Santa Fe as the original route did.
An Economic Boom to Every Town
Among the many positive things a popularly traveled highway like Route 66 did was add to the economy of any town it traversed. New businesses sprang up left and right throughout the highway's 2,000 mile length. In the case of New Mexico, the mom and pop businesses that grew along Route 66 were the backbone of the state's struggling rural economy. Now all of a sudden you had thousands of travelers passing by your storefront when before you had just a trickle.
|Today's Gallup NM Cultural Center|
The other alternative was to go to the reservation and trade there. Actually many of these traders were later generations of the same family of traders. These same families were trading with the Navajo's since the 1800's. As a result of Route 66, Gallup became a natural place to sell Indian jewelry and other native American items to the thousands of tourists driving through. The adventurous tourist wasn't required to drive off the highway or onto the reservation to purchase Navajo items. Quite a lot was riding on where this new highway, Route 66, would pass through.
The Santa Fe Controversy
One story of why there was an attempt in 1927 to move Route 66 out of Santa Fe had to do with the gubernatorial election held in 1927.
Then Governor Arthur T. Hannett lost his bid for reelection and he directly blamed the Republican politicians in Santa Fe for his defeat. In one of his last acts in office, before the new governor would be sworn in on January 1st, Hannett ordered construction to begin immediately on a bypass taking Route 66 to Albuquerque by bypassing Santa Fe altogether.
The new route would be built west of Santa Rosa on a straight westward line and join existing roads in Moriarty, just east of Albuquerque. This new realignment would not only bypass the Santa Fe politicians whom Hannett despised but it also would bypass the Santa Fe businesses that counted so much on the economic benefits the highway provided.
The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce as well as the local newspapers decried Hannett's action. Hannett ordered the road laborers to work day and night through the winter of 1927-28 including Christmas Day. He would be leaving office at the end of the month so to Hannett time was of the essence. Hannett's new cutoff was built through both private and public land with no consideration as to who happened to own it. Keep in mind that this one month December 1927 construction project consisted of trying to build a gravel road, not the kind of paved highway we're used to today.
The road was still incomplete when the new governor took office in January however because of weather he couldn't get word for the workers to stop and the road went on to be eventually completed. Supposedly the newly elected Governor Dillon eventually warmed to the idea of the cutoff based on engineering and safety concerns. On an engineering standpoint the new road really made more sense. It was more direct, cut the drive time between Santa Rosa and Albuquerque by some 4 hours and avoided the dangerous section (La Bajada Hill pictured below left, courtesy of Dept. of Transportation) between Santa Fe and Albuquerque caused by a 2,000 foot elevation difference.
The new 1938 official realignment would be along the later route of the future Interstate-40.
The answer as to what caused the eventual realignment in 1938 bypassing Santa Fe would officially be attributed to better engineering, less driving distance and safety regardless of what may have sparked Governor Hannett's 24/7 emergency road building of December 1927.
Another fact to consider was that Hannet, prior to being elected governor in 1925, was a member of the State Highway Commission and was an early proponent for the national highway. Supposedly his idea from the start, before being elected governor, was to have the road run straight west from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque as it eventually did.
Route 66 and the Interstate Highways
While there was certainly a great deal of political bickering as to where these interstate highways would run, over the next two decades the building of the interstate highway system spelled doom for not only Route 66 but many other heavily traveled two lane routes as well.
Today there remains only about 260 miles of drivable original Route 66. Even so, there still are many interesting points of interest along the way for the traveler planning a western U.S. road trip. In the case of New Mexico, the state has designated still open portions of the old Route 66 starting at the Texas state line as National Historic Byways.
Also, don't miss stopping by the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup New Mexico where there are many reminders still there of the time the hotel served as the headquarters for western film makers and stars.
(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain. Gallup Cultural Center photo from Western Trips collection)