Is Theme of SM History Museum Exhibit
By LIBBY MOTIKA
Circling the News Contributor
In November 1926, a highway of 2,400 miles was established in the United States. It wasn’t the first American highway, or the longest, or the fastest. But this road was to inspire musicians, writers and filmmakers. It appealed to explorers and dreamers. It was Route 66.
To illustrate the Route’s history, the current exhibition at the Santa Monica History Museum through October 19 features artifacts and historic photographs from the museum’s collection.
Traveling across the broad expanse of the young nation was an arduous journey. In the 1800s, a stagecoach trip from Missouri to the West Coast took 29 days and necessitated an entire book of turn-by-turn directions.
By the turn of the 19th century, planners began to see the efficiency of linking existing roads into a unified network. And by 1912, the transcontinental road took shape and became known as the National Old Trails Road (NOTR).
This opened up possibilities for state and local groups to see the economic benefits of marketing the NOTR as a gateway to the west. To promote the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, the Automobile Club of Southern California installed over 3,000 signs along the route. Ten years later, parts of the NOTR were absorbed into Route 66 when the Federal Highway Administration declared it a federal highway.
Connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 meandered through eight states including Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. It passed through cornfields, deserts, mountains and geologic formations. It tied together agricultural communities, small towns and urban centers.
The last 315 miles funneled though the California desert to Santa Monica. But when it was dedicated in 1926, it ended at 7th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Ten years later it was extended to Santa Monica.
Probably the biggest misconception remains about the location of the official end point. The marker in Palisades Park at Santa Monica Boulevard was installed for a film about Will Rogers. In fact, Route 66 does follow that boulevard but then turns south onto Lincoln Boulevard, where it officially ends at Olympic at Mel’s Drive-In with a neon sign proclaiming the end—or beginning—of Route 66.
Not to short the Pier, the city of Santa Monica installed a sign declaring the Pier the spiritual “End of The Trail.”
The SM History Museum’s exhibit shows how the route provided a through-line of history and legend, including fables about cowboys, Native Americans and Mexican traditions. The road’s attractions were also accessible and affordable to middle-income levels, with gas stations, motels and diners proliferating in the towns along the way.
The romance of Route 66 for many of us recalls the pilgrimage of the refugees of the Dust Bowl, who sought a better opportunity in California, and was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
“Route 66 is the mother road, the road of flight from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership.”
After World War II, car travel became more than a means of getting from here to there. Merchants and café owners made 66 colorful enough and diverting enough to change the notion that the route was a road to someplace else; rather it was a destination in itself.
Clever merchants learned to catch drivers’ attention with bold 1950’s-style neon signs advertising diners, drive-ins, motels and gas stations. Other structures in the shape of objects, such as Bono’s orange-shaped juice stand and the Wigwam Motel’s teepee-shaped rooms proliferated along the route.
As major highways developed, many of these unique American stops disappeared. But, in Los Angeles County, there are still many Route 66 roadside attractions, including 80 landmarks listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Landmarks include Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, the “End of the Trail” sign on the Santa Monica Pier; Union Station and the Phoenix Bakery in downtown L.A., and in Northeast L. A. Chicken Boy, which promoted a fried chicken restaurant.
When President Dwight Eisenhower decided in 1956 that the country needed a quick way to get troops, material and people to where they were going, he implemented the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, which put an end to Route 66, replaced by Interstate 40 from Oklahoma to California.
The small town of Williams, Arizona, tried to say no to the interstate, but in 1985, the last official Route 66 signs came down. Federal highway officials said it wasn’t their road anymore and they weren’t going to maintain it.
Nine decades after it began, Route 66 is once again attracting travelers to this nostalgic scenic byway. In fact, the Route 66 sign is the most recognized highway icon in the world and almost half of its visitors are from Europe and Asia.
The California Historic Route 66 Association, founded in 1990, fosters, expands and promotes public awareness of the historic significance of Route 66 in California. Their hope is that curious travelers will get off the interstate and drive what remains of Route 66, refreshing memories and acquainting themselves with this significant part of America.