Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Route 66 is one of the most famous highways in the world. It runs some 2,200 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles through eight states, cutting across the Great Plains through fourteen miles of southeastern Kansas, then on to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and points west. It was originally part of the U.S. highway system established in 1926. It was fully paved by 1938 but was later replaced by the present interstate system. Recently, some remaining segments have been designated as Historic Route 66, and in 1999 Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the National Route 66 Preservation Bill that will preserve and restore historic properties along the route. Throughout most of its existence as a highway, Route 66 was not very important at either terminus, but it was crucial for communication and transportation in the Southern Plains and the Southwest. The route linked hundreds of rural communities, locally carried farmers' products, and, as one of the few diagonal long-distance highways, was a major trucking artery.

The route earned real fame with John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the Joad family and other Okies fled the Great Depression from Oklahoma to California on Route 66. Steinbeck called 66 the "mother road," and some 400,000 people traveled west on it during the 1930s. The 1940 film by John Ford based on Steinbeck’s novel further embedded the shield-shaped road sign of Route 66 into the American imagination. Later Route 66 movies include Easy Rider (1969) and Bagdad Cafe (1987). The highway was also featured in the 1960s television series Route 66, starring Martin Milner and George Maharis.

Folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote several songs in which Route 66 was mentioned as the "Main Street" of the Dust Bowl refugees. The most famous of the many Route 66 songs is "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," written by Bobby Troup and recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946. Perhaps more than anything else, this song has made Route 66 an American icon. Several museums and Web sites and a Route 66 magazine commemorate the highway's glory days, and the National Historic Route 66 Federation works to preserve both the route and its memory.

See also FILM: The Grapes of Wrath / MUSIC: Guthrie, Woody.

Markku Henriksson Unviersity of Helsinki

Snyder, Tom. Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.

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

Witzel, Michael Karl. Route 66 Remembered. Osceola WI: Motorbooks International, 1966.

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