Once dubbed the “Main Street of America,” Route 66 not only is a landmark in U.S. history, but also played a vital role in developing Arizona’s economy as a major piece of the state’s infrastructure not long after statehood in 1912.
Arizona has always been known as a gateway to California. First, with the California Gold Rush of 1849, when thousands of people traveled through Arizona on their way to hunt for riches in the Golden State. Since there were no established routes through Arizona, these pioneers blazed their own trails, eventually creating a travel corridor. When built in Arizona, Route 66 followed this same path.
Commissioned in 1936, Route 66 began in Chicago and spanned all the way to Santa Monica, Calif. It was not fully paved until 1937.
Taking Route 66 through Arizona to California not only was popular because it was the easiest way to California, but also because of the tourist attractions and small towns that thrived along the route’s path. From the 1930s into the mid-1950s, Arizona’s tourism industry experienced a golden age as this historic route ran near the Grand Canyon and was a short jaunt away from the Painted Desert and Meteor Crater. In time, Route 66 took its place in American folklore, inspiring a popular song.
Route 66 entered Arizona through Holbrook, which attracted Easterners. Tourism instantly became an important part of its economy. It is reported that the first tourist camp in the U.S. was built in Holbrook. When Route 66 became the official transcontinental highway, tourism took off. It ceased during World War II when gasoline was rationed, but resumed after the war.
The advent of the automobile also was an economic boon to Winslow, which was a major stopping point along Route 66. Cafes, trading posts, motor courts and garages thrived. Similarly, Flagstaff’s economy grew. For years its motor courts and cafes catered to weary travelers.
Seligman, a railroad town founded in 1886, was referred to as the “Historic Birthplace of Route 66.” Its economy flourished when the Santa Fe Railroad established repair facilities there, including the Harvey House Road House.
The last major Route 66 town in Arizona was Kingman, although Oatman and Topock were officially the last towns along the old route. Again, the stretch of 66 that ran through Kingman’s downtown was rich in motels, restaurants and shops. That downtown is listed in the Historic Register for Historic Places. The neon signs of the 1940s proclaiming “Motel Row” remain intact.
But as the nation’s infrastructure grew and improved in the post-war boom years, Interstate-40 arose and Route 66 became irrelevant. Soon, much of the old route was decommissioned.
If it’s “fun in the sun” that attracts people to Arizona these days, it was Route 66 that paved the way for millions to visit and even more to stay and call the Grand Canyon State home.