Route 66: A History

Ancient Paths and Railways

Long before U.S. Highway 66 wound its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, the ancient footpaths of regional Native American populations roughly prefigured its course. Spear points and arrowheads found across the Great Plains of Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico suggest that some of the hunting trails Route 66 would eventually parallel dated back as early as 9,000 B.C.E. (Krim 15). Beginning in the 1500s, French, Spanish, and American explorers followed the early trails of Indigenous Peoples on horseback in search of gold, furs, and other riches.

Preliminary map of the reconnaissance and survey for a Pacific railroad route near the 35th parallel, 1853

In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Beale led a crew of surveyors and imported Egyptian camels along stretches of these preexisting trails, marking a wagon-accessible path from Santa Fe, New Mexico to California. Beale’s Wagon Road connected with an earlier road running through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle – surveyed in 1849 by Captain Randolph Marcy and Lieutenant James Simpson – and became the first federally-funded corridor to reach the California border (Krim 32). Route 66 would eventually mirror Beale’s Wagon Road on its way across New Mexico and northern Arizona.

Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway depot. Flagstaff, Arizona, 1895.

By the 1880s, railroads had surpassed stagecoaches as the preferred method of travel. Quicker and safer than the wagon roads they traced, the railroads opened Arizona and New Mexico to tourism for the first time. The vast desert stretch, previously seen as an obstacle in the journey to California, gradually became a destination spot in itself. Shops, hotels, and roadside attractions sprouted up around train stops to accommodate the influx of railway passengers and crews, and corporations like the Fred Harvey Company set about trying to brand the ruggedness of the Southwest and capitalize on the art and culture of the Native tribes. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and other western railways that carried tourists from the east "established the locations, basic layouts, and early architecture of most Route 66 towns" (Dedek 11).

Good Roads Movement