On this date in 1926, the United States Numbered Highway System was established. In the early days of automobile travel, the federal government wasn’t involved in interstate roads, because most people traveled long distances by train rather than car. Many of the highways were based on heavily traveled wagon trails from the 19th century, like the Oregon Trail or the Santa Fe Trail. The first major interstate highway was the Lincoln Highway, and it ran from New York City all the way to San Francisco, but most highways were located in and around larger cities. By 1925, there were more than 250 named highways in the United States, including transcontinental highways like the Dixie Overland Highway, which ran from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, California; the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway, which ran between the Portlands — Maine’s and Oregon’s — with a brief sojourn into Canada; and north-south routes such as the Jackson Highway, which ran from Chicago to New Orleans.
Local trails had their own boosters, who gave them catchy names and collected dues from any businesses that lay on the route. The booster organizations would then put up signposts and promote the route, which brought in customers to those businesses. But it was a confusing system for travelers. In some cases — especially out in the sparsely populated West — trails overlapped one another. And the auto associations were for-profit organizations, and that made their motives suspect. They would often route their highways so that they could take advantage of the dues that they could collect in cities, rather than choosing the most direct route. In 1924, the Reno Gazette commented: “The public is learning this fact — that transcontinental highway associations, with all their clamor, controversy, recriminations, and meddlesome interference, build mighty few highways. […] In nine cases out of 10, these transcontinental highway associations are common nuisances and nothing else. They are more mischievous than constructive. And in many instances, they are organized by clever boomers who are not interested in building roads but in obtaining salaries at the expense of an easily beguiled public.” Wisconsin was the first state to step in to organize and number its trails. The federal government took up the cause and on this date unveiled a standardized numbering and signage system for United States highways.
Perhaps the most famous of the new numbered highways was America’s “Mother Road,” Route 66. Roughly following a patchwork of old wagon trails that were built on the eve of the Civil War, Route 66 linked the main streets of small towns from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles. Until then, residents of these isolated communities had been cut off from any national thoroughfares. Trade across state lines had been difficult and slow. Travel had been limited. When the trucking industry took off in the late 1920s, national planners saw the promise of a diagonal route through the Southwest.
John Steinbeck immortalized Route 66 in the American awareness with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his tale of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing their barren farms for better opportunity in California. Throughout its history, the highway drew writers, wanderers, and adventurers. Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise traveled the highway in his novel On The Road (1957). Bobby Troup’s song “Route 66” was covered by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones, advising: “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, the highway that’s best, get your kicks from Route 66.”