Route 66, once the primary highway from America’s interior to the West Coast, has played a now-legendary role in U.S. history since its designation in 1926. During the 1930s, it carried Dust Bowl farmers west to California. Throughout World War II, it was a lifeline conveying troops and supplies across eight states. By the 1950s, when the car became king and millions discovered the road trip, America’s “Mother Road” had come to symbolize the freedom of the open highway. Lined with eclectic curiosities—diners, motels, gas stations, and fanciful “attractions”—Route 66 delighted travelers and supported the economies of hundreds of small towns along its length.
2008 World Monuments Watch
Route 66 was listed on the 2008 World Monuments Watch to draw attention to the complex challenges of preserving not only an iconic cultural landscape, but a historic American experience. Protecting the many sites along the route depends on generating new tourism and economic opportunities for the eight states and countless communities through which it passes. Toward this end, World Monuments Fund is supporting several Route 66 projects. The first of these is an online travel itinerary, Discover Our Shared Heritage, launched by the National Park Service in September 2009 and available at www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/route66. The itinerary highlights destinations listed in the National Register of Historic Places that bring the history and charm of Route 66 to life. Building upon the online itinerary, WMF has developed a pilot Virtual Reality of a portion of Route 66 in South Pasadena, CA. Working with the National Park Service, researchers from Rutgers University, and local stakeholders, WMF is exploring the benefits of preservation in an effort to galvanize public and private investment in the long-term stewardship of the “Mother Road.” A 3-volume Economic Impact Study demonstrates the positive community and economic effects of preserving heritage along Route 66 and identifies opportunities to enhance revitalization efforts and sustainable tourism. Following on the findings of the Economic Impact Study, WMF convened a strategic roundtable titled “Route 66: The Road Ahead” to explore ways to leverage new opportunities for investment and innovative partnerships in heritage tourism and historic preservation along Route 66. The roundtable brought together more than 100 representatives from industry, government, community groups, and nonprofits to explore the sustainability of the Mother Road as a cultural and recreational venue, as well as an economic engine for local communities. WMF developed a report of the roundtable discussions, Route 66: The Road Ahead, to promote continued collaboration and dialogue and foster investment in the preservation and sustainable development of the Mother Road. The study, roundtable, and report were made possible with the generous support of American Express.
Starting in the 1960s, drivers largely abandoned Route 66 in favor of newer interstate highways. Today, its surviving businesses are struggling, and its roadside architecture—a tapestry of 20th-century Americana—is deteriorating. Some places are threatened by development. Others are falling prey to vandals, decay, and abandonment. More importantly, the communities whose economies they once supported are no longer thriving. The vast stretch of landscape that comprises Route 66 tells a story of America that is still unfolding. Preserving Route 66 is not simply about nostalgia, it is about valuing heritage as an important tool for education, community building, and sustainable development. Through collective action and shared stewardship, the highway from the past still holds a bright future.