The Enduring Lure of Route 66 - 405 Magazine

The Enduring Lure of Route 66

Historic Route 66 is one of the most iconic and celebrated roads in the country.

Signs in Oklahoma City and throughout the state designate historic Route 66, including this one west of the state Capitol on NE 23rd St.

Signs in Oklahoma City and throughout the state designate historic Route 66, including this one west of the state Capitol on NE 23rd St.

It has been called the Mother Road and Main Street of America. It stretched from Illinois to California, running through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona for 2,448 miles.

It has been popularized in The Grapes of Wrath; the 1946 song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” the “Route 66” television show in the ’60s and, decades later, the animated movie Cars.

It’s the highway that thousands of Oklahomans and others took from 1929 to 1939 as they traveled westward in search of work and a better life during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. 

Early on, it was a lifeline, a journey of new beginnings and a testament to travelers’ determination. Later, after World War II and for the next couple of decades, the road represented a spirit of travel, freedom and discovery as towns, mom-and-pop diners and roadside motels welcomed tourists along the way.

Automobile travel had started gaining popularity in the 1910s, but rough and treacherous roads became a concern. The Ozark Trail, a network of locally maintained roads and highways, was created in 1913 to promote a better drive and ride across Oklahoma and surrounding states.

It paved the way for U.S. Highway 66, established on Nov. 11, 1926, and one of the original highways in the United States Numbered Highway System. It closely followed and sometimes overlapped the Ozark Trail. 

Cyrus Avery, a Tulsa businessman and oilman who served on several local and federal highway committees, had advocated for better roads for years, knowing it would also bring economic opportunity for towns and businesses. He was instrumental in laying out the new numbered highway system and chose 66 for the route that would go through Oklahoma. U.S. Highway 66 became the designation from Chicago to Los Angeles, and Avery became known as the father and creator of the highway.

To help increase interest and traffic, the newly formed Highway 66 Association sponsored a foot race in 1928 from Los Angeles to New York City, a total of 3,423 miles with 2,400 of it along the new 66 highway. Oklahoman Andy Payne, a 20-year-old high school graduate from Foyil, was the first to cross the finish line after 84 days, 573 hours, 4 minutes and 34 seconds, averaging 6 miles an hour. When he ran through Claremore, Will Rogers was there cheering. Payne collected the $25,000 prize and paid off the family farm mortgage.

U.S. Highway 66 was built in segments, and wasn’t fully paved until 1938. Traffic increased for years until a new interstate highway system came through Oklahoma in the late 1960s. An Interstate 66 wasn’t in the plans, but some sections of today’s I-40 often parallel or occasionally replace parts of Route 66 west of Oklahoma City.

U.S. State Highway 66 was decommissioned in 1985, but Oklahoma still has more drivable miles of the Mother Road than any other state. In Oklahoma City and other towns and cities, many historic Route 66 signs designate the year it went through and whether it’s the original route or a later extension of the road.

Museums dedicated to the route and its cultural importance are found in Clinton and Elk City. Route 66 continues to attract drivers wanting to experience a slower pace and a little nostalgia, and a 100th birthday celebration is planned in 2026.

So, who’s ready to get their kicks on Route 66?

For inspiration what to eat on your Route 66 Road Trip, be sure to check out these dining spots along the Mother Road.