Flagstaff's Route 66 Heritage: The “Mother Road” Runs through Town
In 1946 Bobby Troup wrote the popular song “(Get your kicks on) Route 66.” A little later that year Nat King Cole recorded it and the song helped immortalize the 2,448 mile road from Chicago to Los Angeles as a central piece of American popular culture.
The lyrics of Troup’s song celebrated America’s new-found romance with the road, and the freedom of post-war auto travel. Also known as The Mother Road, The Main Street of America, and The Will Rogers Highway, Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, but not fully paved until 1937. During the years of the Great Depression, Route 66 carried migrants fleeing the Dustbowl to California’s rich farm lands. Later, in times of wealth, the road carried vacationing families to iconic American destinations like Meteor Crater, Monument Valley, the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon.
Today Route 66 is a vivid fixture of American history during the 20th century. It represents the modernization of a nation. It is immortalized in Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. It was popularized in a television series and lives on in the memories of Americans who traveled it as youngsters on family vacations to the West.
However, as the United States prospered after the war, Route 66 became a victim to the success of the nation it helped build. By 1986, Interstate 40 replaced the old highway as the primary route through the Southwest, and the last stretch of Route 66 was closed just west of Flagstaff.
Route 66 disappeared off many maps, and many stretches of the road were torn up. The old Route still bisects Flagstaff, though, and the longest open stretches of the route traverse the high Arizona desert from Seligman to the Colorado River. This makes Flagstaff a great area to explore some of the old landmarks, and a great resting point before or after a memorable trip across the high desert.
Many of the old route 66 hotels and auto shops, constructed of native rock and brick, still stand in downtown Flagstaff. The Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau has produced a historic walking tour describing the history and location of many of the old buildings. There are also a number of old hotels still serving the public along Flagstaff’s stretch of the road, and no Route 66 enthusiast would want to miss the Museum Club, a historic road house that still welcomes visitors looking to quench their thirst after a long day behind the wheel.