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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.