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Book review: “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery” October 28, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Highways, History, People.
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Some may assume Cyrus Avery became known as “The Father of Route 66″ simply because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the highway became designated and federally certified in 1926.

But as Susan Croce Kelly’s well-researched new biography shows, Avery’s involvement in Route 66’s birth and its rise to worldwide fame was anything but an accident. The book — the first solely devoted to him — lays out convincingly how Avery’s talent, his background, his drive and his confidence all were crucial to the Mother Road eventually becoming a legend.

One section of “Father of Route 66″ (288 pages, hardback, University of Oklahoma Press, e-book available) signals Avery’s crucial role to the road. Shortly after the founding of the U.S. 66 Highway Association — for which Avery became vice president and, later, president — Avery started calling the highway the “Main Street of America.” Advocates for U.S. 40 and the Roosevelt-Midland Trail also used the nickname, and the Lincoln Highway probably had it, too. But because of Avery’s persistence, the “Main Street of America” tag stuck to 66.

Outside of Tulsa, Cyrus Avery probably would have been little more than a footnote in history books if Route 66 hadn’t started its revival during the early 1990s. By that time, Avery had died almost 30 years before, and he said his proudest accomplishment was not Route 66, but shepherding the building of a 50-mile pipeline from the Spavinaw Creek to give Tulsa a much more reliable water supply. And despite Avery’s growing posthumous stature — including an elaborate statue on Route 66 in his honor — even the biggest Route 66 experts were unsure where Avery was buried until I tracked it down a few years ago.

Croce Kelly was an ideal author to tackle a book on Avery’s life, as she and photographer Quinta Scott published the essential “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” in 1990. Still, she had a challenge: By the time she announced the project, Avery had been dead for a half-century. Save for grandchildren and a few other folks, barely any people remembered Avery when he was alive.

Fortunately, the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa owned a substantial archive of Avery’s papers, and the man himself was so much in the public eye that plenty of material was found in the Tulsa World and other newspaper databases. Croce Kelly unearthed a lot of verified material about Avery and weaved it into the smooth and easy-reading narrative in “Father of Route 66.” In the occasions Croce Kelly speculates about what happened during a point Avery’s history, at least it’s well-informed speculation.

Avery was born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, but in his early teens moved 1,200 miles to northeast Oklahoma in a covered wagon when his father sought new opportunities after a deep recession in 1873. (Croce Kelly argues convincingly that Avery’s arduous journey helped convince him early about the importance of good roads.) The family settled in a dilapidated former homestead of Confederate Army general and Cherokee Indian Stand Watie.

Avery earned a bachelor’s degree at a teachers college but soon found himself adept in buying and selling real estate in Oklahoma — especially in the Tulsa area. His real-estate business put him in touch with many influential people in the state and gave him a sense of what the region needed to thrive.

One of Avery’s gifts was his ability to relate to anyone. It was said he could converse just as amiably with an oil tycoon as with a blue-collar worker or a small child.

He also proved to be an engaging public speaker. The Commercial Club — a forerunner to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce — quickly grasped his speechmaking skills and made Avery its primary public face. Avery also owned a farm on the edge of town where he often invited out-of-town guests for a meal and a few whiskeys to sell an idea or talk over how to improve Tulsa.

One of those passions on how to improve the city was to shore up its chronically muddy highways and streets. He proved to be an ideal advocate in the better-roads movement that was burgeoning nationwide. He brought the first split-log drags to Oklahoma in 1907 and paid several Tulsa County farmers $1 a mile to grade the roads after each rain. He directed the planting of sweet clover near the roads to better hold together the soil and reduce erosion; that clover still can be seen growing near Tulsa County’s rural roads.

During the early teens, he became a booster of the Ozark Trail — a predecessor of U.S. 66. Avery successfully lobbied in 1916 for a bond issue to build the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River. The bridge later carried Route 66 and stands today. He advocated for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Through it all, it seemed he attended dozens — perhaps hundreds — of meetings over the decades on how to improve roads in the nation and his adopted home base of Tulsa County.

During the 1920s, Avery overhauled the Oklahoma State Highway Department by eschewing cronyism and hiring qualified employees to improve roads. (He later was fired, but Avery had the last laugh when that governor was impeached and removed from office for incompetence.)

The irony about his “Father of Route 66″ tag was that infighting between states in early 1926 nearly sunk the landmark agreement that produced numbered federal highways. Kentucky officials quarreled over the placement of U.S. 60, which Avery wanted for his Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. Aware a landmark roads agreement was in peril, Avery compromised and accepted U.S. 66 for his road instead. Avery might have made that decision pragmatically for the greater good, but one also suspects he saw the marketing potential for “66” was well.

Avery’s involvement in improving Tulsa wasn’t limited to roads. In addition to that water line, he shepherded the development of Tulsa International Airport and the enormous Mohawk Park. He served as president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for a time. Although he nearly was financially ruined by the Great Depression, he remained active in local boosterism well into his late 80s.

And Avery seemed like a genuinely good guy. He ran Red Cross relief efforts for thousands of homeless Greenwood residents after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Avery also repeatedly was on the right side of history in clashes with the Ku Klux Klan, which ran much of the state at the time. Despite being offered a proposal from the Oklahoma Legislature that would have improved roads, he turned it down because the same bill would have prohibited black people from voting. Avery occasionally was accused of corruption, but those allegations never were credible. The only obvious direct benefit from his better-roads efforts was his building a gas station, motel and the Old English Inn cafe on a busy Admiral Place street in Tulsa, which later became Route 66.

Thanks to popular culture — Bobby Troup’s perennially covered “Route 66,” the “Route 66″ television drama and now Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movie — and Route 66’s own colorful history, the Main Street of America has arguably become the world’s most famous highway. And, as “Father of Route 66″ shows, that highway was very fortunate to have Cyrus Avery as its early champion to lay the foundation of its rise.

Highly recommended.

Route 66 in Mojave may reopen by late November October 17, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Bridges, Highways, Preservation, Weather.
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Long sections of historic Route 66 that were closed in mid-September because of extensive flood damage may reopen by late November, reported The Press-Enterprise.

The newspaper had more details about the damage:

In some spots there are holes large enough to swallow one of the motorcycles belonging to tourist groups that regularly retrace the Western route.

Those travelers and others now have to detour off of Route 66 between Newberry Springs and Needles, taking I-40 instead. San Bernardino County officials estimate it will take $1.4 million to fix the damage. [...]

Brendon Biggs is deputy director of operations for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works. He’s overseeing a workforce of 20 to 30 people making repairs to Route 66.

“Right now it’s high on the priority list,” Biggs said. “We want to get the road open.”
The flooding that hit the region was almost unprecedented, he said.

“We had multiple locations of severe damage,” he said. “We had approximately 40 bridges damaged in some way along with the road surface itself.”

The newspaper talked to several businesspeople in the desert who are suffering because travelers either can’t get to them or are deciding to bypass that area altogether on Interstate 40 between Needles, California, and Newberry Springs, California. That would include the small settlements of Essex, Amboy, Chambless, Cadiz, Goffs and Ludlow.

One Route 66 News reader recently took a few images of damaged roads and bridges in that area.

Biggs said even when Route 66 finally reopens, the county will have to eventually replace some bridges. He said the highway contains 127 timber bridges built in the 1930s, and replacing them will take longer because the improved structures will have to fit the road’s historic context. But when it finally happens, the road will wash out less often.

In the interim, many of those bridges will be limited to vehicles three tons or less in weight. That leaves out big RVs and tour buses — not an insignificant part of Route 66 tourism.

Amboy and its flagship business Roy’s still can be accessed from Interstate 40 through Kelbaker Road. You can check San Bernardino County’s progress in fixing the highway through this web page.

The part of the article that stings most is when the Press-Enterprise reporter talks to a clerk at the Desert Oasis gas station, just off Interstate 40 near Essex.

She said she recently had a conversation with a man from France who told her how much he and other Europeans revere the road.

“He said, ‘We don’t understand why you don’t take care of it,’” she said.

(Image of “Road Closed” sign by The Local People Photo Archive via Flickr)

New road would partly restore old section of Route 66 October 13, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Highways, History, Maps.
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Rolla, Missouri

The Phelps County commissioners may apply for a grant to build a north outer road near Interstate 44 that would partially restore an old section of Route 66 near Rolla, Missouri, according to The Leader Journal newspaper in St. James, Missouri.

The new section of road would run between U.S. 63 and Missouri Highway V. The board would apply for $452,000 through the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Community Development Block Grant program. Phelps County would give $131,000 and the City of Rolla another $37,500. If the county gets the grant, it would take about 21 months to build the road.

A key excerpt from the story:

Commissioners have stated that a new north outer road would improve driver safety, alleviate traffic through residential neighborhoods in the Northwye area, reduce heavy truck traffic on county roads, open the area for development, improve the appearance of the area and restore the original historic Route 66 path.

Currently, a north outer road starts at Highway V and turns into County Road 2020. From there, travelers can access Highway 63 via County Road 2000.

A preliminary drawing created by Hargis shows that the new outer road would run parallel to I-44 from where the state maintenance ends west of Route V to the east end of County Road 2000.

It turns out that the new road does not restore the original Route 66 in that part of the county. I asked Jerry McClanahan, a Route 66 researcher and author of the “Route 66: EZ66 Guide for Travelers” guidebook to check into it. In short, he found the county’s proposed new road would restore a late 1940s or 1950s section of Route 66, not the original alignment.

The original section of Route 66 between U.S. 63 and Highway V follows what now is County Road 2020 (see Google Maps screen capture above). That section remains accessible today, and is marked as Historic U.S. 66 locally.

The proposed north outer road, McClanahan says, would reconnect a dead end of County Road 2000, which is the updated alignment of Route 66, circa 1950 (see screen shot of Google Maps above). That’s about 2,000 feet of new road. But the real part of that remains buried under I-44.

McClanahan sent me documentation from original maps from those eras to back his assertions.

So the county board thought it was doing a good deed for Route 66 travelers. It turns out it was still good — just not as good as they apparently thought it was.

(Image of a section of Route 66 in Rolla, Missouri, by Dustin Holmes via Flickr)

Route 66 in Mojave may be closed for months October 8, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Businesses, Highways, Towns, Weather.
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can't get there from here. 2014.

Severe seasonal flooding closed a section of old Route 66 between Essex and Ludlow in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, and it may be weeks or even months before it reopens, according to one news source in the area.

Zachnews, based in Needles, California, reports more than 40 bridges and some of the Route 66 roadbed between Goffs and Ludlow were damaged by raging floodwaters after monsoon rains about Sept. 7.

Most of the time, these desert roads are closed a few days until bulldozers move debris out of the way, which is why I didn’t think much about it when the closure occurred. But Tuesday, Zachnews made it clear the situation is much more than temporary:

Several residents of Needles, California who recently traveled from Twentynine Palms, California and Goffs, California tell ZachNews that portions of Route 66 still remain closed and had to use other roads to get around the closures.

The storm damage includes damage of the highway’s asphalt and some bridges have had their flow abutments washed out and are in need of new timber for support and flow alignment.

The hardest hit by the road closures because of storm damage to the Route 66 was reportedly is to Amboy, California which has been working hard to build up and bring in tourists over drive along the historic and world famous highway.

When repaired and reopened, portions of Route 66 from Ludlow, California to Amboy, California will have signs posted with a maximum vehicle weight of only 3-tons.

Personal vehicles will be allow to travel on Route 66, but will restricts Class C and larger Class A recreational vehicles and buses from driving on those marked portions of Route 66.

Zachnews also reported that according to the California Department of Transportation, Route 66 from Cadiz to Mountain Springs Road near Goffs is expected to stay closed for at least 2 months. Indeed, a bulletin from San Bernardino County says there is “no anticipated time for reopening,” which is unusual.

About the only good thing from this is the flooding occurred after the peak of tourism season. The Route 66 hamlet of Amboy, California, which is home to the much-photographed and visited Roy’s gas station and convenience store, remains accessible through Kelbaker Road from Interstate 40. Except for that one route, Amboy is essentially cut off.

(Image of a closed Route 66 east of Barstow, California, in Sept. 9 by eyetwist via Flickr)

‘Singing Road’ developed near Albuquerque October 3, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Highways, Music.
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On a stretch of old Route 66 east of Albuquerque is a set of rumble strips that play “America the Beautiful” when you drive over them.

We’ll let KOAT-TV in Albuquerque explain:

The Associated Press reported that Tigress Productions created the road in Tijeras, New Mexico, for a new National Geographic Channel series, “Crowd Control,” that debuts next month. National Geographic paid for everything; no tax money was involved.

If you want to avoid the rumble strips entirely, they’re near the fog line and are easily avoided. But if you want to play that tune, you have to drive a steady 45 mph over the strips to create the effect.

A few other singing highways exist, as this YouTube search will show.

Here’s hoping someone will use the same idea and have the rumble strips play “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66″ instead. It seems a stretch of Mother Road near Seligman, Arizona, would be ideal. Of course, working out the royalties might be a bit tricky. “America the Beautiful” has long passed into the public domain.

(An image of Route 66 road surface by cm_hartman via Flickr)

County will seek grant for Sidewalk Highway October 1, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Highways, Preservation.
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Ottawa County, Oklahoma, will apply for a $300,000 “Rails to Trails” grant to shore up and ultimately preserve the Route 66 section of the historic Ribbon Road, aka Sidewalk Highway, between Miami and Afton, Oklahoma, reported the Miami News-Record.

The article does a good job explaining the complex issues about preserving the 1922 Sidewalk Highway, which is so called because local highway officials at the time had only enough money to build it 9 feet wide. It served as Route 66 until 1937.

Then, as now, the main problem facing the county is lack of money.

A few points gleaned from the article:

  • County Commissioner Russel Earls said recent heavy rains washed out two portions of the road, requiring quick but temporary repairs. He said road crews grade the washouts and add gravel to halt further deterioration.
  • He estimated the cost of preserving the road includes grinding up the old asphalt inside the curbs and overlaying the pavement. He said with more funding, lanes could be built on either side. He said the original road still is structurally sound.
  • Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Amanda Davis said talks with the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and the state about preservation plans — including closing the road to keep it from decaying further — have yielded nothing. She said the Sidewalk Highway is in the “top three” for tourism in the area.
  • Earls noted although some rural landowners are against the Rails to Trails idea,real-estate agents are all for it because homeowners having a trail nearby is an attractive selling point.

If Ottawa County applies for a rails-to-trails grant, it probably will have to be through federal channels. The state is Oklahoma is notoriously stingy about funding even basic maintenance for roads and bridges, as a highway engineer acknowledged during the historic Bird Creek Bridge debacle a few years ago.

Engineers also said ODOT had become “reactive, not preventative” with highway and bridge maintenance from 1985 to 2005 because state funding for the agency remained “flat.” That neglect from a 20-year lack of funds greatly shortened the life of bridges, including Bird Creek. Currently, about 400 bridges in the district that includes much of northeastern Oklahoma need repair.

Here’s a video I shot a few years ago of the Afton section of the highway:

(Image of the Sidewalk Highway in September 2013 by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr)

Half-mile section of original Route 66 added to National Register September 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Highways, History.
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Original road - Route 66

A half-mile section of original Route 66 near Depew, Oklahoma, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, according to an email from the National Park Service.

The section of road runs east of Milfay Road for 0.46 miles. CLARIFICATION: I had the Google Street View map in the right place, but facing the wrong way. Also, Route 66 historian Jim Ross informs me that section of Route 66 has been open to travelers from Milfay Road for over a year because of a man from Tulsa who cleaned up the property and put an RV park there. The 2011 edition of Ross’ book, “Oklahoma Route 66,” indicated that stretch was inaccessible to travelers.


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This section of road served as Route 66 from 1926 to 1984, according to Ross’ book.

In fact, a lot of original Route 66 can be found between Bristow and Stroud in Oklahoma. Another section, called the Tank Farm Loop, is drivable and listed on the National Register. Here’s a video I produced about it a few years ago:

(Image of a stretch of original Route 66 between Stroud and Depew, Oklahoma, by Janice Duryea via Flickr)

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