Route 66 built communities. The interstate system destroyed them again

An aerial view of Seligman, Arizona, looking west, dated March 12, 1971. Route 66 bisects the town. Image: James R. Powell Route 66 Collection/Newberry Library.

In his 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck dubbed Route 66 “The Mother Road.” But the 2,448 mile-long highway that once wound from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, may soon have a new title: National Historic Trail.

On 5 June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to amend the National Trails System Act in order to officially designate Route 66 a National Historic Trail. Assuming the Senate takes up the legislation, Route 66 will join other federal historic trails – such as the California and Oregon Trails – recognised as migration routes historically significant to the development of the nation.

But the legislation does more than simply denote official commemoration. It provides federal oversight and management through the National Park Service, which includes the establishment of distinctive marking and signage along the trail. It also awards federal funds for preservation, development and promotion.

I’ve researched how Route 66 has facilitated human migration and how this movement influenced local communities and the natural environment.

Migration and tourism shaped towns along Route 66 even before the road was officially established in 1926. But the Interstate Highway System decimated many of these communities when it circumvented Route 66 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Today, many sections of Route 66 are completely gone. Some sections are accessible only by foot and have crumbled into oblivion.

With this new legislation, the historic towns that once thrived along these now-little used sections of Route 66 could experience a revival.


A grassroots movement spurs national highways

It is difficult to imagine today, but a little over a century ago the United States lacked a national road network. Cross-country travel happened via train. Cities and towns on the rail lines had streets, of course. But most simply ended at the edge of town.

In the 1880s, farmers and bicycle enthusiasts started the Good Roads Movement in order to grade and pave dirt roads and trails with gravel and water. This made carting produce to town easier and encouraged bicycle tourism from the city to the countryside.

By the 1910s, touring the countryside in automobiles had become popular, and auto-tourism replaced bicycle tourism. The local roads were too shoddily made to withstand nonstop auto and truck traffic, so the Good Roads Movement – now dominated by grassroots automobile activists – lobbied legislators around the country for federal funding for concrete or bituminous paved roads. In response, Congress passed the 1921 Federal Highway Act, which dramatically expanded federal funding for highway construction and maintenance and created the first federally numbered highway system.

These new federal highways, marked by numbers, were built on top of the existing local roads and touring routes. One such route ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and included parts of the former Lone Star Trail, King of Trails, Ozark Trail and National Old Trails auto-touring routes.

In 1926, highway officials gave this highway a number: 66.

Towns profit off travel

For towns situated along Route 66, the ensuing increase in automobile and truck traffic created a transportation service economy. Local entrepreneurs built gas stations, repair shops, restaurants and motels to serve road-trippers, tourists and truckers.

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A postcard from the 1930s depicts the last stop on Route 66, Santa Monica, California. Image: James R. Powell Route 66 Collection/Newberry Library.

Meanwhile, waves of mass migration also took place along Route 66. In the 1930s, Plains states farmers fled the Dust Bowl for California. During World War II, millions of Americans moved west to either serve in the military or work in wartime industries along the coast. Then, after the war, Americans flocked to the Sunbelt’s blossoming suburbs.

Through it all, these communities located along Route 66 prospered, including two railroad towns in northern Arizona that I’ve focused on in my research: Seligman and Peach Springs.

Both communities were born as railroad towns in the 1880s, and tourism was important to these communities from the start.

Seligman, named after railroad financier Jesse Seligman, was built by a switchyard.

Peach Springs, which gets its name from a water spring nearby, was built as a watering station for steam locomotives. The railroad also constructed train facilities, housing for railroad workers, a depot and a hotel at each stop.

Within a few years, both towns had multiple businesses catering to travelers and railroad workers. Peach Springs attracted tourism dollars by promoting itself as the first gateway to the Grand Canyon.

But in 1901, Peach Springs weathered its first economic decline when a new spur line at Williams, Arizona, diverted tourists directly to the canyon and newly constructed Grand Canyon Village.

Salvation was delivered via Route 66. Like many other towns along Route 66, Seligman and Peach Springs built motels, diners and gas stations, many of which used elaborate props and neon signs to attract passersby.

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A postcard from the Copper Cart Restaurant in Seligman, Arizona, around 1960. Many businesses along Route 66 featured unique signage to attract travelers. The Copper Cart employed signs shaped like mine carts on the roadside, parking lot and on the chimney, which also used lots of neon and flashing light bulbs. Image: James R. Powell Route 66 Collection/Newberry Library.

Interstate highways bring decline

Then business suddenly came to a stop.

By the mid-1950s, the original federal highways were overwhelmed. Accidents and gridlock soared. In July 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a massive upgrade to the nation’s highways. Two years later, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, launching the interstate highway era.

The new interstate highways didn’t bypass every town along Route 66, but it did change all of them. The interstate system’s limited access design prescribed controlled entry and exit points for cars. Businesses clustered near freeway exits, and downtowns foundered.

However, changes for Seligman and Peach Springs were particularly drastic. Both are located on a section of Route 66 that was completely bypassed by the interstate system. Although it’s common to think of economic decline as a gradual process, it is difficult to overstate how quickly the new interstate affected businesses along the bypassed section of Route 66.

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A 1930s postcard view of Route 66 traveling east through the center of Peach Springs, Arizona. Image: James R. Powell Route 66 Collection/Newberry Library.

The Seligman-Peach Springs bypass section of I-40 opened to traffic after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on 22 September 1978. Businesses that had been busy the day prior went hours without a customer. That night, for the first time in decades, motels in Peach Springs and Seligman sat empty.

Even though both towns suffered steep economic decline after being bypassed by the interstate, one eventually ended up faring better than the other.


A tale of two towns

Due to the efforts of local business owners, Seligman rebranded itself around Route 66 tourism. Local residents convinced the state of Arizona to designate the portion of Route 66 through their town a historic highway, and they rebuilt their economy around Route 66 nostalgia tourism.

Many other communities along the route did the same. Santa Monica, California, revitalised the historic Santa Monica Pier – the old terminus of Route 66 – into a vibrant shopping, restaurant and amusement park. Winslow, Arizona, capitalised on both Route 66 and rock music fame to revitalise their downtown around the intersection of North Kinsley Avenue and Route 66. It was on that downtown corner where folk-rock star Jackson Browne had car trouble and found himself “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.”

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Some towns, like Winslow, Arizona – pictured here in a postcard from the 1950s – were able to capitalise on Route 66 nostalgia. Image: James R. Powell Route 66 Collection/Newberry Library.

But other towns, either due to fewer resources or the lack of an organised local business effort, continued to struggle. Peach Springs falls into this camp.

Thirty-two active businesses operated in Peach Springs before the bypass in 1978. Only two businesses are present in the town today. Although you can still take Route 66 through Peach Springs, travelers and residents have to buy gas in Seligman. The only remaining businesses are a grocery store and a motel.

This disparity in local resources is what makes the amendment to the National Trails Act so important. By permanently designating Route 66 a historic trail, local communities and regional and national organisations can now draw from federal coffers to fund historic preservation, development and promotion.

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This former Standard Oil station went out of business after the construction of the I-40 bypass. Designation of Route 66 as a National Historic Trail would provide resources to restore it as a historic place. Image: Daniel Milowski/author provided.

An immediate benefit will be prominent uniform trail signage along the length of Route 66 alerting tourists to the trail’s presence and providing highway directional signage on how to get to it. The trail would also be listed on the National Park Service website and other Park Service promotional materials.

Finally, it would provide a stable source of funding for preservation and promotion efforts along the trail.

Through this federal legislation, local communities along Route 66 – once negatively affected by earlier federal interstate legislation – will have an opportunity to rebuild, rebrand and reclaim their heritage along this historic road.

Daniel Milowski, Ph.D. Student in History, Arizona State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.