Route 66: The Mother Road


The first Model T Ford came off the assembly line in 1908 changing the face of the United States forever. As automobiles became accessible, Americans began to travel further, and as travel increased, the public called for a standardized National Highway System. By 1926 a bill was signed in Washington creating this system and Route 66 became a reality. The 2,400-mile “Mother Road” connected small towns across the Midwest and West with the big cities of Los Angeles and Chicago.

History of Route 66

Although entrepreneurs Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri deserve most of the credit for promoting the idea of an interregional link between Chicago and Los Angeles, their lobbying efforts were not realized until their dreams merged with the national program of highway and road development.

While legislation for public highways first appeared in 1916, with revisions in 1921, it was not until Congress enacted an even more comprehensive version of the act in 1925 that the government executed its plan for national highway construction. Officially, the numerical designation “66” was assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route in the summer of 1926. With that designation came acknowledgment as one of the nation’s principal east-west arteries. From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.

Route 66 was a highway spawned by the demands of a rapidly changing United States. Its diagonal course linked hundreds of predominantly rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Chicago; thus enabling farmers to transport grain and produce for redistribution. The diagonal configuration of Route 66 was particularly significant to the trucking industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroad for preeminence in the American shipping industry. The abbreviated route between Chicago and the Pacific coast traversed essentially flat prairie lands and enjoyed a more temperate climate than northern highways, which made it especially appealing to truckers.

In his famous social commentary, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck proclaimed U.S. Highway 66 the “Mother Road.” Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel, combined with the 1940 film recreation of the epic odyssey, served to immortalize Route 66 in the American consciousness. An estimated 210,000 people migrated to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. In the minds of those who endured that particularly painful experience, and in the view of generations of children to whom they recounted their story, Route 66 symbolized the “road to opportunity.” From 1933 to 1938 thousands of unemployed male youths from virtually every state were put to work as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of the road. As a result of this monumental effort, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway was reported as “continuously paved” in 1938. Route 66 symbolized the renewed spirit of optimism that pervaded the country after economic catastrophe and global war. Often called, “The Main Street of America,” it linked a remote and under-populated region with two vital 20th century cities – Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided a comprehensive financial umbrella to underwrite the cost of the national interstate and defense highway system, began construction of a modern four-lane highway which by 1970 bypassed nearly all segments of the original Route 66. The outdated, poorly maintained vestiges of U.S. Highway 66 completely succumbed to the interstate system in October 1984 when the final section of the original road was bypassed by Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona.

The Rise of the Automobile

New Mexicans and interstate travelers of the 1930s held their automobiles, pickup trucks, motorcycles, and travel trailers in high regard—just as previous generations valued their horses and wagons. Travelers altered their automobiles so that seats could fold into beds and customized the saddlebags of their motorcycles to reflect a streamlined, chrome-plated view of the world, as evidenced in the chrome studs on the leather saddlebags of Frank Harlow’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Much of the popular culture of the 1930s reflected the hard times, automobile travel, inexpensive tourist courts, and mom-and-pop diners. In New Mexico, the transcontinental highway Route 66, which opened in 1926, brought travelers through the tourist corridor composed of Santa Fe, the pueblos along the Rio Grande, and Albuquerque. Commercial outlets in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Gallup continued to sell better-made Native arts, but the emphasis shifted to inexpensive items.

“Tourist traps” throughout the region masqueraded as “trading posts” and sold thousands of inexpensive, Indian-made bracelets, rings, and pins appropriate for tight travel budgets. Ironically, the souvenirs sold as trinkets to travelers did not raise the ire of the anthropologists and modernist artists as they had a decade earlier in the 1920s. Clearly, the hardships of the 1930s tempered the rejection of commercialization and calls for a return to the “authentic” styles of the past.

Route 66 and New Mexico: Past and Present

Route 66 was first laid out in 1926. Back then it followed the Old Pecos Trail from Santa Rosa through Dilia, Romeroville, and Pecos to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe, it went over La Bajada Hill and down to Albuquerque.

In 1937, the New Mexico section of the highway was shortened by 107 miles. This more-direct route bypassed Santa Fe. By the end of 1937, the paving of Route 66 throughout the entire state was complete, making Route 66 New Mexico’s first fully paved highway. This is the route that would be followed by the new interstate years later.

Today there are over 260 miles of pre-interstate era Route 66 that remains drivable. In a few places, the old road is still designated as state highway, although none continue to carry the U.S. 66 designation. Other portions have reverted back to county or tribal maintenance. The remaining miles have long since been “covered over” with super highway I-40.

To further the preservation of the Mother Road and the many historic landmarks along the old sections of the highway, New Mexico established those original roads still open to traffic as a National Scenic Byway in 1994. Starting at the New Mexico/Texas State Line, the byway travels 300 miles through compelling, scenic, and dramatic stretches of the famed highway.

Another major undertaking in New Mexico was the Route 66 Neon Sign Restoration project by the New Mexico Route 66 Association. The Association led a tremendous effort along Route 66, restoring vintage neon signs in Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Moriorty, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup. As a result, business owners, as well as entire communities, have a renewed pride in their Mother Road heritage.

Curriculum Images

Hill and Clouds, 1933 (printed 1937) Edward Weston (American, 1886 – 1958) gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 3/8 in. (19.1 x 23.8 cm) Gift of New Mexico Magazine, 1982 1982.61.11 © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
Gallup, New Mexico, 1966 David Vestal (American, born 1924) gelatin silver print, 7 x 10 in. (17.8 x 25.4 cm) Gift of David Vestal, 1990 1990.43.6
World Court Motel, Albuquerque, 1986 Phyllis Jennings (American, active late 20th Century) cibachrome print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm) Museum purchase with funds from the New Mexico Council on Photography, 1987 1987.458.2
Highway and Mesa, 1982 Woody Gwyn (American, born 1944) oil with alkyd resins on linen, 60 x 78 in. (152.4 x 198.1 cm) Museum purchase, 1983 1982.62

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever traveled down Route 66? If so, what was your experience? How did you perceive it at the time, and does your perception change knowing some of the road’s history?
  2. The artwork provided shows images from both the past and the present. How has both Route 66, and the way that it is represented, changed?
  3. How would you describe Route 66 based on Hill and Clouds, 1933 by Edward Weston or Highway and Mesa, 1982 by Woody Gwyn?
  4. Route 66 was created to fill the demands of a specific time period. How have those demands changed? In the present day, does Route 66 fulfill the same purpose that it once did?

About the Artists

A selection of the artists featured in this curriculum are listed below. Click on their names to learn more about each artist.

Peter Hurd grew up in Roswell, NM. At the age of seventeen he went to the United States Military Academy for two years. He left to study the liberal arts, finally devoting himself to painting. He studied with N. C. Wyeth, the renowned illustrator, and fell in love with Wyeth’s eldest daughter, Henriette, herself an excellent painter. They married in 1929, spending ten years on the east coast until returning to San Patricio, N. M. where they spent the rest of their lives. It was here that Hurd developed his mature style, focusing on the changing light in the landscape he loved.


Woody Gwynn, a longtime resident of New Mexico, was born in San Antonio, Texas and received his formal art education from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His oil paintings of vast landscape horizons and long highways show great technical skill, exploring his primary interest in light and space. They reflect the wide horizons of his childhood in West Texas, and are often inspired by the landscape from his travels worldwide, and his home in Galisteo, NM.

David Vestal, photographer, critic, and teacher, is one of the most influential teachers, critics and magazine editors in American black and white photography today. His publications include The Art of Black and White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.

Edward Weston began taking photographs at age 16 when he was given a Kodak Bull’s-Eye #2, and met with early success thereafter. He settled in California in 1906 where he remained for more than fifty years. Most of his work was done using an 8 by 10 inch view camera, with nudes, still lifes and landscape as his primary subject matter. Weston was a founding member of Group f/64, which advocated unmanipulated, sharp-focus photography.



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