June 27, 1985, was historically a rather uneventful Thursday. But it did mark the end of an era for riding and driving Americans.
On that day, U.S. Route 66 stopped being Route 66. Without much fanfare, the Mother Road was removed from the U.S. Highway System.
The end of Route 66 had been a long time coming, though. The new-fangled Interstate Highway System had taken its place and the old, crumbling road no longer had much purpose.
But not everyone was on board with the removal. Route 66 was already legendary in 1985, and many people and businesses that relied on it feared losing their livelihoods.
Some did, while others weathered the change. In the 37 years since that June Thursday, Route 66’s fame has only increased and some of its remaining parts are now popular historical landmarks.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of the Main Street of America.
To Build a Road
The first stretch of what would eventually become Route 66 was laid down in 1857. Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers received an order to build a wagon road along the 35th Parallel. Some of this road is still visible north of the Cajon Pass in California.
Over the next 60 years, other stretches of road were built that also got incorporated into Route 66. The first legislation for public highways was put in place in 1916. Finally, in 1926, the road reaching from Chicago to Los Angeles received the designation U.S. Highway 66.
But the road was still partially unpaved. That didn’t sit right with entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Oklahoma and John Woodruff of Missouri, who started lobbying for the pavement of the entire highway.
They also started staging publicity efforts to promote the new highway. Route 66 served as part of the route of the Bunion Derby, a footrace from LA to New York City. In addition, Americans were encouraged to take the highway on their way to the 1932 Summer Olympics in LA.
Get Your Kicks
The publicity worked, and traffic on the road steadily increased. In 1938, Route 66 became the first completely paved U.S. highway.
Route 66 developed into one of America’s main traffic arteries, leading internal migrants west in search of work. For example, during WWII, thousands of people traveled to California on Route 66 to work in war-related industries.
But it wasn’t just migrants who traveled the road. By the ‘50s, Route 66 had become a favorite highway for vacationers on their way to California.
And it’s no wonder why. The road went past multiple natural attractions, including the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, and Arizona’s Meteor Crater. To complement the wonders of nature, a lucrative tourism industry sprouted up all along Route 66, catering to — among others — motorcycling enthusiasts.
Just one of those places was a small burger joint in San Bernardino, CA, that opened its doors in 1938. Running the restaurant were the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald.
The Beginning of the End
But popular as it was, Route 66 wasn’t exactly optimally constructed. It was a long, meandering road, and the ever-increasing needs of businesses and travelers called for faster and more direct routes.
To cope with the demand, Route 66 saw numerous changes to its route over the years. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough.
The beginning of the end came in 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had seen Germany’s Autobahn system during his trips to war-ravaged Europe — and he liked what he saw. Dreaming of similar roads in America, he signed the Interstate Highway Act.
Of course, the law didn’t kill Route 66 overnight, but it did launch the road’s decline. New interstates, particularly I-40, started siphoning traffic from the Mother Road.
Over the next two decades, the number of drivers and riders on Route 66 steadily dwindled. As parts of the road began to get decommissioned, local businesses kicked up a fuzz, threatening and occasionally bringing on lawsuits to prevent the route’s death.
But, ultimately, it was to no avail. In 1984, the last stretch of Route 66 in Arizona was decommissioned as the I-40 was completed north of the city of Williams, AZ.
And then came Thursday, June 27, 1985. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials took away the number 66 from the highway.
Route 66 was officially dead.
Gone but Not Forgotten
But no governmental decision could erase the road from public memory. Pretty much immediately after its decommission, Route 66 association started popping up across the country, first in Arizona.
In 1990, Missouri declared the remaining parts of Route 66 a State Historic Route. Many other states have taken similar measures, and today the Mother Road is commemorated in museums and preserved sections of the original pavement.
Riders haven’t forgotten the road either. Each year, intact sections of Route 66 attract hundreds of riders on a pilgrimage to see what remains of a road that defined American history.