As Nat King Cole crooned and The Rolling Stones warbled, “Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best/Get your kicks on Route 66.” The iconic song details the destinations along the highway, places like Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Flagstaff, and San Bernardino. But what if these quintessential stops were replaced with others, more northerly in latitude? Would the music wrap itself as easily around names like “Las Vegas” and “Denver?” If history had proceeded as originally planned, lyricists would have been faced with incorporating an entirely different set of cities into their tune, but one man changed it all. The Father of Route 66, Cyrus Avery, was instrumental in creating this historic highway, right down to the route’s very route.
Avery’s unique mark on our nation’s highway system began over a century ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After flitting frequently between professions and cities as a young man, Avery finally settled his family in the newly booming oil town of Tulsa. Avery quickly developed an affection for the city and realized that his adoptive hometown was missing something: a well-kept highway system.
Rising quickly from the verdant lands at the edge of the plains, Tulsa and her sister towns hardly had enough buildings to accommodate her population, let alone a reliable highway; instead, visitors and locals alike commuted along shoddy dirt roads and eroding paths. When Avery arrived in Tulsa, he was impressed by the work of the Good Roads Movement, which had been working to regularize local byways since the 1870’s. Avery hastily joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, but never could he have guessed that he was embarking on the path that would define the rest of his life and legacy.
From his position in the OK Good Roads Association, Avery quickly rose through the ranks and positions in local government and community organizations, but he always returned to the problems surrounding regional travel. When he served as Chairman of the Tulsa County Commission, for example, Avery was instrumental in the construction of the Eleventh Street Bridge, which replaced its crumbling, wooden counterpart. Avery strove to improve travel statewide and, eventually, countrywide.
In the early ’20’s, Avery’s devotion to perfecting America’s roadways grew, as did his positions. He was chosen to be President of the Associated Highway Associations of America, then elected to the Oklahoma State Highway Commission, and finally, in 1925, he was selected as a member of the Joint Board of Interstate Highways. The new commissioned board had one task: design, name, and regulate a new system of federal interstate highways.
Avery joined representatives from around the country and set to laying out the best routes for cross-continental highways, down to the very details of mile markers and signs. Many of the routes were requested specifically by Congress; one such highway was to run across the country from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Los Angeles, California. The suggested route would thread across the states through Missouri, Southern Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Las Vegas before culminating in Los Angeles.
But Avery, sighting an opportunity to increase tourism in his own home, suggested an alternate route. In order to avoid the steep peaks and tough driving—and construction—of the Rocky Mountains, Avery proposed a more southerly route and drew out a path straight through—ahem—Tulsa, Oklahoma City, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona, and, finally, Southern California. Avery also pointed out that the highway should naturally wind through St. Louis and Chicago, already a natural path of commerce. Avery’s brethren in transportation saw the wisdom in his ways and assented to the new route.
In addition to deciding the paths of highways, the Board was also commissioned with the task of creating a system for naming the national interstates. Their proposed plan was simple enough: each highway would receive a number, rather than a name, based upon its direction; highways that ran east to west would be even, and those that traveled north to west, odd. They also noted that the nation’s greatest highways would be one or two digits, ending in a “0” or “1,” depending on their course of direction.
Avery, having succeeded in pushing the major highway through Tulsa, saw the burgeoning freeway as an inevitable triumph of travel, one of the greatest roads in America—and therefore decided to name the road “Route 60.” But in his haste to relocate the highway to include his own town, Avery had blinded himself to his own enemies. Snubbed by Avery’s route, representatives from Kentucky brooded sullenly and struck out at Avery when the opportunity arose. Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri all supported the appellation Route 60, but the bitter Kentuckians said nay.
Avery and the representatives from Kentucky became embroiled in a transit debate, reworking routes and names and still failing to find a compromise. Finally, Kentucky suggested “Route 62,” which Avery declined (whether from stubbornness or a genuine aversion for the number, we can only guess), but the number prompted him to look into the option of “66.” He liked the way the words tripped off his tongue and, after discovering that it was available, he christened his Chicago to LA roadway Route 66.
Avery devoted the rest of his life to his highway and watched as his simple solution to travel turned into an icon of Americana. Also known as the Main Street of America and the Mother Road, Route 66 became known the world over, inspiring countless family road trips for generations to come. Thanks to his tenacity and passion for his town, Avery fashioned an American legend. And because of Avery, Americans will forever be able to get their kicks on Route 66—whereas there may have been nothing to do on Route 62.
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