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Route 66 Museum sign text

as translated by our visitors!

中文翻译 (Chinese)

nederlandse vertaling (Dutch)

traduction française (French)

Deutsche Übersetzung (German)

traduzione italian (Italian)

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Long before U. S. Route 66 carried travelers back and forth, Native American tribes created the first “roads.”  Well-worn footpaths served as trade routes linking the current-day Arizona area to the Pacific Ocean.  A vast network of routes existed, with tribes traveling many miles to exchange treasures from all corners of the West.  Shells, stones, gems and woven baskets were some of the items used as currency.
Information on the lives of Native Americans was first recorded in 1604 by Juan de Onate who was the first European of record to visit this area.  Details were added in 1776, when a Franciscan missionary named Fr. Francisco Garces arrived in the area.  Local tribes such as the Mojave, Hualapai and Havasupai welcomed the missionary, shared with him their route to the Pacific Ocean, and assisted him as he traveled through their lands east to the Moqui (Hopi) villages.

Fr. Garces is believed to be the first European to have traveled these extensive trade routes, and his journal entries provided an account of life in an unknown land.
Today, the area surrounding these early trade routes is known as “the 35th parallel route,” denoting a measure of latitude which passes through northern Arizona.  The 35th parallel has historically served as the foundation for east/west travel, beginning with the Beale Wagon Road, National Old Trails Highway, and eventually the southwestern portion of U.S. Route 66.
The uniqueness of Arizona’s portion of U.S. Route 66 — from the Colorado River through the Black Mountains of Oatman, the valleys and mountain vistas of the Kingman area, the tall pines of Flagstaff, the Painted Desert and beyond — shows us that in creating their trade routes, the Native Americans chose, naturally, to take the scenic route.

In time, many travelers worked their way through this area.  Mountain men, free-roaming individuals such as fur trappers and gold panners, consistently wandered northern Arizona and the Colorado River area in search of valuable goods.  From 1810 to 1820, the Great Migration brought large numbers of settlers across the widening footpaths of the Native Americans.  With rumors of available land in the West, Americans began their long tradition of moving toward the Pacific coast.
Later in 1851, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves provided the first technical mapping of the region.  His many months of research concluded with a practical recommendation for building a road along the 35th parallel rather than along other existing trails in the West.  The findings of Sitgreaves earned him a place in the history of Route 66; the 3,652 foot (1,113 m) high mountain pass just outside Oatman was named in his honor.

As the 1800s brought more and more people emigrating to the West, the need for a “winterproof” route became increasingly important.  In 1857, the Secretary of War under President Buchanan awarded a contract to former Navy Lieutenant Edward F. Beale to survey and develop such a route.  The route would follow as closely as possible the 35th parallel, which was determined to be far enough south to provide an all-weather road while not-being too far south to be heavily influenced by Rebel sympathizers in southern Arizona. 
Using the 1851 findings of Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves as a guide, Lt. Beale and his team began their mission from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, with a crew of 44 men, 12 wagons and a string of 120 animals.
In addition to the assorted horses, mules and dogs in the caravan, there were 25 camels, fresh from Egypt. Part of Beale’s assignment included testing the success of camels in the southwest for military use.

With the help of a few less-than-knowledgeable guides, and the exceptional performance of the camels, Beale’s crew reached the Colorado River on the 49th day of their journey.  Beale made several other trips across this route in the next few years to make adjustments, particularly to shorten distances between springs and straighten difficult areas.
The result of this expedition was the Beale Wagon Road, the first federally funded wagon road in America.  At the cost of $50,000 for a 400-mile road, (or $125.00 per mile,) the completion of this project was a remarkable feat.  Compare this amount to a modern highway, such as the new Boston Central Artery Expressway:  at ten billion dollars for 7 miles, the cost is approximately $22,500 per inch of road.
Sections of the Beale Wagon Road are still visible today, and are accessible from several points along Route 66.

Of course, a journey westward in the 1850s was a far cry from cruising on U.S. Route 66 in the 1950s, although the paths were nearly the same.  The luxuries of food, shelter and water so easily available along America’s “Main Street” were absolute challenges for pioneers.
Finding water was always of primary importance, as both families and animals were dependent on an adequate supply.  Daily travel was restricted by the long distance between springs or other water sources, and travelers were often forced to wait for seasonal rains before moving on.
Conflicts with Native Americans were also common, as the trickle of settlers became a steady steam through native lands.  Many documented journal entries describe events in which travelers treated the local tribes poorly, and consequently suffered, while other parties who treated the tribe well were met with warmth.  Personality conflicts and fear on both sides dictated the frequency of the conflicts that occurred.
Rough trails, rickety wagons, animal and human sickness, theft and food shortages also contributed to the hardship faced by those determined west-bound families.

In 1858, just months after LT. Beale’s team had completed the initial survey work on the wagon road, travelers were already eager to use this new, improved route called the Beale Wagon Road.
One of the first groups to attempt this new road consisted of several families traveling together under the leadership of L. J. Rose.  The expense of a hired guide, scouting for water, and the harshness of daily life became a bit easier when these families worked together. It was also understood that there was “safety in numbers” for those traveling through unfamiliar country.
Approaching the Colorado River, the families separated into smaller groups as some were eager to get their animals to water.  The Mojave Indians, probably incited by outside sources, were suspicious of this group of families and perhaps believed that they might be trying to settle in their lands.

The Indians attacked and 8 or 9 of the emigrants were killed with 15 or 16 wounded.  Casualties among the Mojave’s were not recorded, but were probably higher.  Faced with the larger force of Indians and their persistence to be aggressive, the emigrants had to abandon most of their equipment and animals and beat a ragged retreat back up into the mountains.  Regrouping with the other survivors, the terrified and weary families made their way back eastward, linking up with several other wagon trains who were convinced to turn back and return to Albuquerque.
News of the Rose Party massacre ignited fear and outrage in the U.S.  New measures would need to be taken to protect the hundreds of emigrant families traveling the Beale Wagon Road. In 1859, Fort Mojave was established on the Colorado River, and proved to be a successful strategy for sheltering and protecting fearful travelers.  It is interesting to note that Beale’s 1857 journal had indicated that he felt a military presence would be necessary at the Colorado River to protect emigrants from possible aggression from the Mojave.

The covered wagons typically used by the overland pioneers were often called “prairie schooners”, since covered wagons crossing the prairies resembled ships crossing an ocean. A typical pioneer’s wagon looked much like a farm wagon with an attached hoop frame top for resting the cover. When these wagons were loaded with cargo for a long overland journey, they did not usually have space for passengers. Therefore, most of the westward-bound pioneers walked alongside their loaded wagons.

The coming of the railroad meant rapid growth for the area along the Beale Wagon Road.  Trains provided the transportation for goods from the many ranches and mines throughout the West.
It was 1866 when the original charter for a railroad along the 35th parallel was given to the Atlantic and Pacific Railway.  When the A&P Railway later fell upon financial difficulties, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe purchased a controlling interest in the company.  From 1880 to 1883 Lewis Kingman surveyed the route from Albuquerque to the Colorado River, crossing the river at Needles California.  Here the new line would connect with the Southern Pacific line, providing reliable cross-country distribution of goods and services.
While the railroad served as a purely functional innovation, in the eyes of the migrating public it represented a sort of freedom and power.  Moving westward was desirable; moving there quickly was, for most, unimaginable.  It is no coincidence, then, that U.S. Route 66 represents much of the same freedom as did the railroad at the turn of the 20th Century; both share common, unspoiled terrain as well as a knack for holding the attention of the curious traveler.
In 1915, when the National Old Trails Highway became the first coast-to-coast road, travelers began to experience running alongside the monstrous train engines.  Portions of this road, which later served as the 1926 alignment of the newly designated U.S. Route 66, through Northern Arizona gave some Americans their first taste of “riding shotgun” with the trains (a pastime which is still alive and well along Historic Route 66).
The railroad will always be associated with the West, as it was instrumental in the success of many Arizona towns.  Passenger and freight trains, including the Santa Fe, still parallel the “Mother Road”, and nearly 80 pass right outside this building each day, as you may have already heard!

The American love of the automobile started with the first car off the assembly line and that love affair has never gone sour.  With the advent of motored travel it became apparent that we needed roads — and lots of them.  In almost every part of the country chapters of the national Good Roads Association started up, and Arizona was no exception.  Good Roads Association in the northern and southern sections of the state vied for available funds.  Mohave County was represented by Dr. John Whitehead and Tom Devine, father of the movie actor Andy Devine.  They, along with representatives from other northern counties, were persuasive enough to get money to build and improve the northern Arizona portion of the Old Trails Highway.  This road eventually became US Highway 66.

These words from John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, forever immortalized Route 66 as a part of American history and culture.
The Great Depression, which followed the stock market crash of 1929 brought about conditions of unimaginable hardship.  Without unemployment insurance or social security, with banks failing, homes foreclosed, and savings gone, many destitute families were evicted forcibly from their bleak surroundings.  Having no other choice, they loaded up their meager belongings and took to the open road in search of jobs.  Route 66 became the lifeline to a better future “out west.”
Prosperity was supposed to be just around the corner, but some made the long trek to California in dilapidated “tin lizzies” only to turn back after finding more poverty and despair.  This sad chapter in the life of Route 66 continued through the 1930s until the onset of World War II brought about a new national sense of purpose and jobs for the unemployed.

The Midwestern United States experienced one of the worst droughts in recorded history beginning in 1931 and ending in 1939. As the crops died, the “black blizzards” began. As indicated by this photo of Rollo, Kansas, dust clouds several miles high blew across the plains, covering everything with a fine, dry silt. Crops would not grow and animals and humans were actually driven mad by the wind and the dust.  The desolation and destruction of the dust storms combined with the Great Depression caused many to leave their farms and seek a better life by following Route 66, the Mother Road, to California. However, of the more than 200,000 people that fled west to California, less than 16,000 of the dust bowlers stayed there. Most returned home within months.  Route 66 was even more important to those who stayed in the Midwest and toughed it out. The highways were linked to Roosevelt’s New Deal program for work relief and economic recovery. From 1933 to 1938, unemployed males from every state were hired as laborers on road gangs. As a result, in 1938 Route 66 was reported as completely paved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The drought and depression during the 1930’s drove over 200,000 people from the Midwest to California in hopes of a better life. For the most part, the life they found was not better. They would gather in migrant camps only to be driven away by the police who were instructed to force them to move on. On Route 66 at the California/Arizona border was an official sign from the state of California warning migrants to turn back because they were not welcome in California. Contrary to popular belief, only 8% of those who migrated to California stayed. Within a few months, most returned to the Midwest.

Route 66 was paved from Chicago to Los Angeles by 1938. The completion of the paving on the eve of World War II was very significant to the war effort. Improved highways were needed for rapid mobilization during the war. At the outset of WWII, the military chose the West for many of its training bases because of the good weather and geographic isolation. Several of these, including Kingman Army Airfield Gunnery School , were located on or near Route 66. The military appropriation of the railroads during the war proved a boom to the trucking industry. While car production fell from 3.7 million in 1941 to 610 rationed cars in 1943, production of trucks capable of hauling 300,000 pounds or more increased. Fifty percent of all military equipment was hauled by truck during the war years. It was not uncommon to see mile-long convoys transporting troops and equipment on U.S. Highway 66.

16. 1950 Studebaker Champion 4dr.
Manufacture’s Suggested Retail Price $1,487.00
The Champion was Studebaker’s low price car.
In 1852, the Studebaker brothers opened a blacksmith shop in South Bend, Indiana. They supplied wagons to the U.S. Army during the Civil War. In 1868, four of the Studebaker brothers established the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. As the 20th Century dawned, Studebaker began building both electric and gasoline powered automobiles.
In 1954, Studebaker & Packard Corp. merged to form Studebaker-Packard Corp. The dream was to form the 4th largest Car Company to challenge General Motors, Ford & Chrysler. The dream turned into a nightmare. The Packard car, once the top selling luxury car in America, disappeared in 1958. Studebaker ceased production in 1966.
Studebaker was the only company to span the time from settlers wagons to high performance automobiles in its 114 year history.

In 1925, Al Odell, in an effort to save his father’s failing shaving cream business, bought a bunch of second-hand signs, stenciled advertising slogans on them and pounded them into the ground on stakes. Thus, was born the first of the Burma-Shave signs. The first signs were not rhymes or jingles, but a simple prose:


Before long the prose turned to poetry and reading Burma-Shave signs became a national pastime. Travelers collected the rhymes and shouted with glee when they came across a new ditty. The verses not only promoted Burma-Shave, but the company also used the signs for public service messages:


But most of the signs were about smooth, soft skin for men:


Times changed and so did shaving methods and the company found itself in financial difficulty. Early in 1963 the company was sold to Phillip Morris, Inc. Are the Burma-Shave signs all gone? Better watch the roadside as you travel the roads. No telling what you might find:


The disruption caused by the Great Depression and World War II did not abate with peacetime. After the war, Americans were more mobile than ever before. Many men who had trained in the West during the war now decided to move from the Snowbelt to the Sunbelt. From 1945 to 1960, the population growth along Route 66 ranged from 40% in New Mexico to 74% in Arizona.

The phenomenal growth brought a lot of new roadside commerce. Gas stations, motels, and diners had all sprung up during the war years and started to mushroom during the good times of the 1950’s and 60’s. Cabin camps grew into motels that offered adjoining restaurants and swimming pools. Gas stations with one or two pumps started offering full service bays.

Hotel dining rooms and downtown cafes gave way to roadside diners and drive-in restaurants. Other roadside business such as trading posts, grocery/general stores, wrecking services, curio shops, and drive-in theaters made an appearance along the highways. Traveling Route 66 was an exciting and interesting experience with lots of things to see and do.

In 1957, President Eisenhower established the National Interstate Highway System. Inspired by the German Autobahn, Eisenhower envisioned a high-speed road which would carry vehicles across the country in a no-nonsense fashion. The leisurely pace of travel and anticipation of adventure would be replaced with speed and predictability.
It would take five separate interstate highways to replace U.S. Route 66. The historic route would be trampled on and paved over. No thought was given to the historical significance of the old road, as most of America’s most well-known highway became obsolete. Buried and by-passed with the road were pieces of American life: memories, landmarks and dreams.
In 1984, Interstate 40 across northern Arizona was opened and, as with any new toy, was instantly favored over the familiar, quirky U.S. Route 66. The highway department removed or changed the signs, map makers removed the route from their maps and once thriving towns were suddenly cut off from America’s travels. In Arizona, towns such as Winslow, Williams, Ash Fork, Seligman, Peach Springs, Truxton, Valentine and Hackberrry were bypassed and found themselves in danger of blowing away with the dust.
The combination of interstate highway and air travel spelled the doom for leisurely family vacations on the road. Rest stops were no longer dictated by the unique and enticing attractions along the road, but by large signs that said so. Today, food, gas and lodging facilities are nearly identical from state to state, and the blandness of driving an unremarkable stretch of highways takes its toll. After all, how many anthems have been written for the spirit and mystery of the interstate?


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