The Oregon Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Trail of Tears — most Americans knows about these famous trails in history, but one of the most famous of them all isn’t protected by the federal government.
Portions of U.S. Route 66 have faced troubles in recent years because of a lack of state and federal funding throughout the U.S.
If the “Mother Road” joined those other famous paths on the list of National Historic Trails, it would gain funding and federal protections that could help it continue to flourish as an icon of America’s love for the open road and adventure. Route 66 would be the 20th trail and the first motor trail on the list.
Though it continues to draw thousands of tourists annually from home and abroad, the 2,400-mile-long Route 66 made the 2017 list of Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois. In 2008, the World Monuments Fund named Route 66 on its watch list “to draw attention to the complex challenges of preserving not only an iconic cultural landscape, but a historic American experience.”
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Making those lists are just a few indications upkeep of Route 66 has suffered in the past decade, despite its importance as a tourism and economic engine.
Since 1999, the National Park Service has protected the Mother Road through its Route 66 Preservation Program, but that program is set to expire in 2019. The Park Service has said it does not expect the program to be reinstated. Cuts to the Route 66 Scenic Byway program have also made less money available for preservation.
The preservation program could expire as soon as the end of next summer, said Bill Thomas, chairman of the board of directors for the national Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership. Selling specialty Route 66 license plates has helped boost the bottom line in Illinois, but other states have suffered because of funding cuts, Thomas said.
But some lawmakers have already taken steps to protect Route 66, namely by moving to designate it as a National Historic Trail. U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois, introduced legislation that would put Route 66 on the list.
“Name value and recognition alone would be great,” Thomas said. “It gives us a platform from which we can identify sites, attractions and infrastructure itself that needs to be preserved.”
Thomas said he’s not sure what Route 66’s budget would be if designated a National Historic Trail, but he hopes it’s in line with funding from the preservation program. The Road Ahead receives roughly $20,000 annually from the National Park Service.
Route 66 historian Cheryl Eichar Jett, of Edwardsville, said the designation would be a boon to Route 66.
“I think it’s promising,” Jett said. “The general consensus is it would be a good thing for protection and recognition of Route 66.”
A study by the National Park Service found Route 66 meets all of the qualifications necessary to become a National Historic Trail and it received unanimous support in the House, Thomas said.
“We thought that was very significant that there was no opposition to it,” Thomas said.
LaHood’s bill passed the House in June and now sits in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The committee plans to hold hearings on some of its bills soon. Thomas said he hopes the Route 66 bill is among them.
Economic benefits on Route 66
Meantime, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, has pushed a bill to create a Centennial Commission to celebrate Route 66 when it reaches its 100th anniversary in 2026. Congressmen from other states, including Graciela Flores “Grace” Napolitano of California where Route 66 ends, have supported his efforts.
The 19-member commission would develop “a comprehensive plan to ensure the first all-paved U.S. highway” connecting the Midwest and California will be preserved, Davis said at a hearing in July. The commission would also recommend activities to celebrate Route 66’s 100th anniversary.
Route 66 is essential to the survival of small businesses along its path, Davis said. The Mother Road is the number one tourism destination for international travelers in Illinois and the second major destination of domestic travelers. One museum in Oklahoma received 35,000 visitors in one year, four times the local population, according to a study by Rutgers University.
“I think it’s important to recognize the economic impact especially in smaller communities along Route 66,” Davis said. “You see local communities being impacted seven days a week. Those are jobs in our small towns. That road is the anchor that gets people coming to those small businesses.”
Jett, the Route 66 historian, said international tourists are some of the best supporters of those small businesses.
“International visitors are the best as far as supporting our mom and pops,” Jett said. “If you go to a McDonald’s, you’re not supporting Route 66.”
Earlier this month, Madison County board members approved a resolution calling for Route 66 to be listed as a National Historic Trail. Protecting the symbol of “American’s search for freedom, adventure and prosperity” will also bring economic benefits in the eight states along the route, the resolution stated.
A brief Route 66 timeline, according to the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway:
- Nov. 11, 1926: U.S. Route 66 is designated as a national highway;
- 1930-1936: Migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl use Route 66 to head west to California;
1939-1945: Troops, equipment and supplies are transported along Route 66 during World War II. Troops used Route 66 to travel home after the Allied victory;
Early 1950s: Families take long vacations to drive Route 66 and ex-GIs use the road to move their families west during a booming economy following the war;
1956: The Eisenhower Interstate System begins to replace highways like Route 66;
1984: Interstate 40 bypasses the last stretch of Route 66 in Arizona;
June 27, 1985: Route 66 is fully decommissioned;
March 5, 1989: The Route 66 Association of Illinois is formed.