SPRINGFIELD, Mo.- Missouri is known for its roads and highways and possibly most famous of all, Route 66, the Mother Road.
To understand traveling in Missouri, you have to take a trip back to a time before cars and trucks. What started as foot trails turned into rutted paths carved out by settlers. One of the first roads between St. Louis and Springfield, the Springfield Road, was created in 1837. The popularity of the automobile took off in the early 20th century, and people wanted to drive
Tom Peters, Dean of Library Services at Missouri State University and a Route 66 historian, says people wanted to go, and they wanted good roads to drive on, and they didn’t want to get stuck in the mud.
By 1911 Missouri had more than 16,000 cars, but travel hit a pothole. Poor road conditions frustrated Missouri drivers. In 1925 the federal government set out to fund highways, and with that, the government came up with an idea of numbering the highways. Under the new idea, the main roads running east to west would end in zero.
That’s when John T. Woodruff, C.Y. Avery, and A.H. Piepmeier proposed Route 60: A highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. But not everyone was on board.
“The great state of Kentucky noticed that proposed numbering scheme, and they didn’t like the fact that there was no 0 number highway going through their great state,” says Peters.
The disagreement led to six months of gridlock in Washington D.C.
“I think they knew they were losing the battle; they weren’t going to get number 60.”
Route 66 was born on April 30, 1926, in Springfield during a meeting at the Colonial Hotel between Woodruff, Avery, and Piepmeier. The telegraph sent to Washington on that day 95 years ago is one of the first times Route 66 is documented on paper.
Peters says that’s why Springfield likes to be known as the Birthplace of Route 66. The highway paved the way, bringing businesses to isolated communities.
“A paved two-lane road from coast to coast or from Chicago to L.A. was an amazing thing back then,” says Peters.
During the great depression, the road was dubbed “the road to opportunity” by those who used it to escape the dust bowl. In the 30s, workers paved the final stretch of Route 66, something that proved vital with our nation’s effort in World War II.
“It was a transportation corridor and economic corridor and a social and cultural corridor as well.”
As soldiers returned home, road trips on Route 66 became even more popular. And with that came the creation of motor courts. Motor courts featured cabins surrounding a gas station and a diner. Peters says motor courts took off with Route 66.
“There was an average of more than one motor court per mile. If they’d been spread out evenly, it would have been more than one per mile across Missouri.”
By 1985, the highway was decommissioned. But Missourians picked up where the feds left off by making the 307 miles of Route 66 in Missouri a historic district. Peters describes what Route 66 represented for many.
“Freedom, a simpler time, kind of a pre-corporate time. The adventure, you know, you just didn’t know what was quite going to happen.”
Today, Route 66 is one of the most recognized highways in the world. Its influence is not only seen on our nation’s infrastructure but in American art and literature.
“It’s the most recognized road in human history. You can say Route 66 just about anybody anywhere in the world, and you’re going to get a reaction. It’s going to be a positive reaction. They probably don’t know this. Springfield was the birthplace of this 66. They probably don’t know quite where it goes,” says Peters.