Route 66 is more than just an old road. It’s a legendary road that has been immortalized in popular culture in everything from classic literature to kids films.
It’s got enough legend to have inspired the Disney franchise Cars, and a sort of haunting nostalgia that still draws thousands of motorists to drive its dusty lanes each year.
If you’ve ever landed on the old Route 66, either intentionally or by accident, it’s hard to deny its super cool, innately historic vibe.
And while it’s hard to boil Route 66 down to just a few measly facts, we think these cool facts about Route 66 tell a lot of the tale as to how the old road has become so fabled.
1 – Route 66 wasn’t originally Route 66.
Today, Route 66 has been swallowed up by a series of expanded state routes, access roads, and Interstates.
But those roads were only returning the favor.
Route 66 itself was largely built upon pre-existing local roads with stretches constructed between to connect them together.
2 – Most of Route 66 started out on dirt or gravel.
When Route 66 started stretching across large swaths of the country, rural America wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now.
Especially, in the Southwest.
As such, the route was laid out largely along gravel and dirt roads with only sporadic pockets of pavement in between.
3 – At the beginning, Illinois was the only state through which most of Route 66 was paved.
As the easternmost state on Route 66, Illinois was more developed than the other states Route 66 passed through.
But, still, the fact that it was the only state in which the route was mostly paved? A bit hard to fathom in these modern times.
4 – Route 66 earned its darkest moniker from the number of accidents that occurred along it.
Over the years, Route 66 had many nicknames.
Main Street of America. Mother Road (coined by John Steinbeck).
But it also had a far less favorable title – Bloody 66.
From the beginning, Route 66 was largely rural, unpaved, and, unfortunately, poorly-maintained.
It was also narrow, heavily-trafficked, and, in some places, extremely curvy. (If you want an idea of just how narrow and curvy the route could be, you can drive an old portion of Route 66, today known as Oatman Highway, that will give you some idea.)
Understandably, that meant there were a lot of accidents along the road.
Safety statistics on Route 66 didn’t improve until the federal government started noting the number of deadly accidents and provided funding for repairs and upgrades.
5 – More than one section of Route 66 has earned the name “Dead Man’s Curve.”
In a testament to the dangerous stretches Route 66 encompassed, there is more than one segment of the old route called “Dead Man’s Curve” by locals and travelers.
One of those segments, in Towanda, Illinois, bears a historic marker that pays homage to its dangerous past.
Two others are in New Mexico, one east of Albuquerque just a few miles west of Tijeras and one west of Albuquerque in Mesita.
And this doesn’t even include the nonstop (often horseshoe) curves of Oatman Highway.
6 – McDonald’s started on Route 66.
To be more specific, on an early alignment of the route through San Bernardino, California.
But if you’d been around for that first version of McDonald’s, you wouldn’t recognize it as the McDonald’s we know now.
The original McDonald’s restaurant specialized in barbecue, before the McDonalds brothers realized they made more money from their burgers.
In 1948, they switched to burgers full-time and perfected their fast food model, creating the McDonald’s we see in many towns today.
7 – There’s good evidence famous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde used Route 66 as a criminal throughway.
Bonnie and Clyde are known to have stayed at the now defunct Camp Joy, right off of Route 66, in Lebanon, Missouri, a fact the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society still takes great pride in.
And the garage apartment where Bonnie and Clyde were forced to flee police with their gang, leaving behind the first known photographs of the crew, is in Joplin, just over two miles south of the Mother Road.
8 – Long before Cars, Route 66 had a namesake TV series, which aired between 1960 and 1964 on CBS.
But, unlike Cars, the show had little to do with the route itself.
While the show moved from location to location with every episode, few of those locations came near the real Route 66.
9 – Cars used the working title Route 66 while in pre-production.
It was never a secret the old abandoned route in Cars is based off of Route 66. (Pixar animators did all their research in towns along the old route.)
But you might not know Route 66 was also a working title of the film prior to its release.
10 – Route 66 might never have been completed and fully paved if not for Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Though it was commissioned in 1926, the full alignment of Route 66 was only finished and paved by the late 1930s, thanks in large part to The New Deal which put many unemployed men to work on national infrastructure.
Route 66 FAQ
And now a few more quick facts about route 66.
Where does route 66 start and end?
Route 66 starts in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Santa Monica, California.
Or vice versa.
But, originally, it was meant to help spread commerce from the more industrial east to the still somewhat wild west.
How long is Route 66?
Today, Route 66 isn’t the length it once was, broken up and realigned as it’s been.
But it’s still close to its original 2,500-ish miles.
The combined total of roads that are still officially-designated “Route 66” or “Historic Route 66” come in at just under 2,300 miles.
How long was the original Route 66?
As commissioned, the original Route 66 was 2,448 miles.
Other Names For Route 66
As previously mentioned, Route 66 had several nicknames.
Names that were used to describe the route over the years include:
- Mother Road
- The Main Street of America
- Will Rogers Highway
- The Great Diagonal Way (along the eastern part of the route before it evens out in Oklahoma City)
- Bloody 66
Why is Route 66 called the Mother Road?
Route 66 was dubbed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The nickname comes from the idea that the road itself served as a base of sorts for the migrant worker characters in the novel who fled the Dust Bowl in the prairies and traveled west to find work in California.
When was Route 66 decommissioned?
Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985.
But it ceased to be a road the year before when the final segment of I-40, which would replace Route 66 between Oklahoma City and Barstow, opened in Williams, Arizona.
The Driving FAQ
These facts about Rt 66 not quite what you’re looking for?
If you’re planning to set out on an adventure along the Mother Road, you’ll get more help from our Route 66 Road Trip FAQ.