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Route 66: The Road that Refused to Die

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In 1956 Route 66 was bypassed by the Interstate Highway System.

During its heyday business flourished from Chicago to Santa Monica along Route 66. In 1956 the legendary route’s identity and existence began to decline with the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

New Mexico’s Beeline on I-40

In 1959 Interstate 40, which paralleled Highway 66 opened in New Mexico. Now motorists were able to zip through the state at 70 mph. Unless you needed gas, food, or lodging there was no need to stop. Most of the small local businesses began to suffer. National chain restaurants and gas stations opened along the new interstate. There was no incentive for the people passing through to venture off the interstate to patronize the local Mom & Pop establishments.

America’s Main Street Threatened

Across the country, entire communities were bypassed by the new interstates. There were five interstate highways that imperiled the survival of Main Street America. They included: I-55 from Chicago to St. Louis; I-44 from St. Louis to Oklahoma City; I-40 from Oklahoma City to Barstow, California; I-15 from Barstow to San Bernardino; and from San Bernardino to Santa Monica. Interstate 40 bypassed the last stretch of Route 66, near Williams, Arizona in 1984.

Historical Marker for Route 66 in New Mexico.

When Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985 it just refused to die. Organizations began to emerge to preserve the route’s identity. Businesses began to advertise their location along “Historic Route 66.” Each of the eight states along the route installed signs at the interstate exits to encourage drivers to experience stretches of the old road. The legend and lore of Route 66 became a cottage industry with all types of merchandise bearing images of the historic route.

Route 66 Preservation

In 1999 President Bill Clinton signed a law providing $10 million to support state, local and private efforts to preserve commerce along Route 66. Albuquerque has 19 nationally registered historic buildings along the route. Route 66’s legacy in the Duke City includes an extensive archive on the historic route at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.