Birth of Route 66 in 1926 was tied to creation of the U.S. interstate system

Road enthusiasts, history buffs, and nostalgia fans are gearing up for the 100-year anniversary of historic Route 66 in 2026. About 345 miles of the historic 2,400-mile highway pass through Southern California and there are plenty of fascinating historic sites left to see along the old route.

While Route 66 may be the country’s best known, and most nostalgic highway, it wasn’t the nation’s first cross-country highway, or the first interstate highway.

Often referred to as the nation’s “Mother Road,” Route 66 was officially designated in 1926, and the iconic road signs that marked the route were posted in the following years. The western portion of the route was essentially overlaid onto National Old Trails Road, which was established in 1913.

National Old Trails Road was created from a collection of existing roads and historic trails that were patched together to make up a new highway that cut a rambling path from New York City to Los Angeles. This trailblazing automobile road became known and promoted as the nation’s first “Ocean to Ocean Highway.”

The routing of the road was handled by numerous private committees, and it was heavily influenced by the Automobile Association of America, and their local branches such as the Automobile Club of Southern California.

During the early years of automobile road building, the federal government had minimal involvement in routing and financing, so these issues were generally left up to local governments and committees.

The route for National Old Trails Road underwent numerous changes, and the states, counties and towns along the way fought tooth and nail to ensure the great road would pass through and benefit their areas.

RELATED: Route 66, America’s ‘Mother Road,’ readies for its centennial 

Roads didn’t become “automobile roads” until the early 1900s, when automobiles became widely produced and affordable. In Southern California, the road over the Cajon Pass was a wagon road until 1905, when the first automobile traveled from San Bernardino to Victorville in three hours and 15 minutes (Ironically, it can still take that long on a superhighway today!).

Automobile roads were such a new concept in the early 1900s, that rivers, canyons and gorges were typically only spanned by bridges built for the railroads. Wagons and automobiles had to go around the obstacles, or be ferried across the rivers.

There wasn’t an automobile bridge built across the Colorado River between California and Arizona until 1915, when the Old Trails Bridge near Topock, Arizona, and the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge near Yuma, Arizona, were built.

Automobiles were dramatically increasing the mobility of the American public and the unstoppable phenomenon was forcing a revolution in road building across the country.

In July 1916, Congress passed the 5-year, $75 million dollar Federal-Aid Road Act, which was the first major federal program established for the purpose of building roads. California received an appropriation of $151,000 for fiscal 1917, and by the end of that year, every state had a highway agency to administer the federal funds.

Under the Road Act, the states could choose their own road projects, but they were required to provide 50% of the funding, and all roads had to be toll-free, and approved by the federal government.

Spurred in part by the new national focus on road building, paving of National Old Trails Road was completed from Los Angeles to the summit of the Cajon Pass by 1916. It would take another two decades to get the entire length of Route 66 paved.

RELATED: Top 10 must-sees along Route 66, from Santa Monica to Amarillo, Texas

By 1921, there were more than 10 million automobiles in the U.S., and their owners were eager to travel on good roads. The 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act was expiring that year, and congress passed a milestone highway bill known as the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

The bill allocated $75 million annually to fund roads, and this act was targeted toward roads of “interstate or primary character.” States had to continue matching funds, and the new road width had to be at least 18 feet wide.

In 1926, the United States Numbered Highway System was adopted, and that’s when sections of National Old Trails Road became Route 66. The numbering system helped to unscramble the national maze of road and trail names that started and stopped randomly, and caused endless frustration for automobile drivers.

Highway construction progressed rapidly in the 1920s and ’30s, but a complete plan for a true interstate system didn’t appear until after World War II, and the election of Dwight Eisenhower. On a cross-country trip in 1919, Eisenhower was appalled by the terrible conditions of the roads in the U.S., and he was impressed by German autobahns in the 1940s.

In 1940, a 6-mile stretch of the Arroyo Seco Parkway (later renamed the Pasadena Freeway) was opened, marking the first freeway in the Western U.S. In the mid-1940s, construction began on the new Romona Freeway (later renamed the San Bernardino Freeway) that would link Los Angeles to the inland valleys.

Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, and getting legislation passed for an interstate highway system was one of his top priorities.

On June 29, 1956, Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which launched the nation’s formal interstate highway system. The act called for the construction of a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways that would be paid for in part by a federal motor fuel tax.


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