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American dream

Much of America's Route 66 has been bypassed, but its mystique lives on. Andrew Bolton reports.

One of the most famous roads in the world is Route 66, running between Chicago in the north west United States and Los Angeles on the west coast. The road has probably passed into folklore as much because of Bobby Troupe's 1946 hit 'Get Your Kicks on Route 66' as because of its undoubted economic significance.

In the late 1920s the road opened up travel by car between the eastern and western US for the first time, when car ownership had just begun to take off.

Some might describe the construction of the road as an ego trip promoted by Oklahoma farmer, property developer and oil speculator Cy Avery. In many ways Route 66 was his brainchild, even though he had originally favoured christening it Route 60. As a businessman, Avery was keen to develop roads in Oklahoma, which had only been settled at the end of the 19th century.

By the turn of the century the advent of the car had increased demand for better transport links: most rural roads in eastern states like Oklahoma were unpaved and almost impossible to negotiate in wet weather.

Avery sat on a government-appointed joint board of state and federal highway engineers, which had been set up to map out America's most important long distance east-west and north-south routes. Strategic routes were then singled out for priority development, with Congress agreeing to match money put up by individual states for construction.

Avery used his position to promote the route which became Route 66, ensuring that it ran through Oklahoma. At the time, his home state was in danger of being bypassed by established stage coach routes running north through Kansas or further south through Colorado.

Initially, most of the road was unpaved except for the sections outside Chicago and Los Angeles. This made travel difficult and time-consuming as motorists had to negotiate muddy roads in the east and sandy flash flood prone desert tracks in the west. A steep hill on the section through Geary, Oklahoma became impassable for buses in wet weather.

The road was originally prioritised for development in late 1926, but it was 1938 before it was paved from one end to the other.

Paving work got a big boost during the depression in the 1930s when the government used infrastructure spending to boost the economy. Unemployment was so bad that Congress even passed a law ordering roadbuilders to maximise employment where possible, setting employment levels at a fixed proportion of the local population.

The depression, accompanied by the collapse of the farming communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas, brought Route 66 into its own as a vital piece of the US economy. Thousands of farmers and their families used it to flee bankruptcy and search for work in California during the 1930s.

Depression and migration also brought trade to the sleepy desert communities on the isolated western sections of Route 66 for the first time. Petrol stations and hotels began to spring up along the way to California to serve migrant farmers and an emerging tourist trade. A souvenirs trade also started up.

In the 1940s, more people emigrated down Route 66, this time seeking work in California's munitions factories. The road also became a vital route for ferrying arms and soldiers to the east to feed the war effort in Europe.

After the Second World War, the road's popularity grew as the economy prospered again and people used their cars to discover America for themselves. Its mystique was enhanced by a synonymous television series, novels like Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and the popularity of Bobby Troupe's song, which went on to become a rock'n'roll standard.

In the 1960s parts of Route 66 were bypassed by the faster, multi laned interstate roads which began to spread across the States. Several states abandoned the old road altogether and it is only in recent years that heritage groups have begun to restore neglected sections of route.

Some parts of the road have survived almost intact in states like California and Arizona. These days the road is almost exclusively given over to nostalgia- crazed tourists, biker gangs and weekend Hells Angels.

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