A fairly sound argument could be made that Route 66 and the faded, refurbished, or vanishing infrastructure along that highway corridor may be the most famous of America’s transportation time capsules. From Chicago to Santa Monica vestiges from more than a century of transportation evolution are preserved as a hodgepodge collection of roadways and bridges, service stations and motels, dealerships and garages, abandoned automobiles and trucks.
East portal of the Johnson Canyon tunnel.
The speed of this evolution during this past century often resulted in the designation of a road or bridge as obsolete almost as soon as it was complete. Subsequent realignments, and technological advancements in automobile, aircraft, and railroad engineering, fueled the abandonment or transformation of nearly new garages, motels, railroad stations, airports, and service stations. As an overwhelming percentage of my published work focuses on the development of the American auto industry between the years 1885 and 1940, and the majority of the rest is travel orientated, I often find myself opening, visiting, and exploring these time capsules. Still, it was our recent adventure to the circa 1880s Johnson Canyon railroad tunnel that sparked a more intense and in depth look into our transportation time capsules, the tangible links to a very rich history that we often drive by but never see. As an example, Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman is a haven for Route 66 enthusiasts. Dating to the late 1930s when the facility opened as the Kimo Cafe, it serves as a direct link to the past. Immediately to the east is an old dealership that seldom garners a second glance unless a vintage or custom car is on display in the former showroom. How many who walk or drive past notice the unique facade of the garage that hints of Ford dealerships during the 1940s or the doorway that was once dominated by a large “E” for Edsel? For me these dusty, tarnished, or abandoned monuments to our quest for speed, for the latest and greatest are more than sources of mere fascination, they are just a bit disturbing. As so eloquently captured in the images on the Ruins of Detroitwebsite, like lines on a weather worn face and the stooped shoulder of of an aged warrior they speak of faded youth with its unbridled exuberance. They are the ruins of a lost civilization and that civilization was mine.
What would have happened if the original alignment of Route 66 had its eastern terminus at Grant Park in Chicago but the western terminus was in Yuma, Arizona? What would have happened if I-40 had been routed west, over Coyote Pass, across the Sacramento Valley, over Union Pass, crossed the Colorado River near Davis Dam and ended in a junction with I-15 near the California/Nevada state line?
Kingman Army Airfield memorial.
As I learned during the research phase of Ghost Towns of Route 66, and the Route 66 Encyclopedia & Atlas, these little bits of alternate history almost became a reality. I also learned that an increase in knowledge about Route 66 and its predecessors leads to the realization about how little I actually knew Initially the National Old Trails Highway utilized segments of the older Trail to Sunset (with its terminus at Grant Park in Chicago) and the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway. In fact, for a brief period in 1912 the two organizations joined forces and linked the highways in promotion and development. Even when a contingent of business promoters from Kingman and Needles, later joined by a group from Barstow and Flagstaff, (with what I suspect as financial backing from the railroad) made the presentation at the National Old Trails Highway convention in 1913 that resulted in realignment across northern Arizona, it was not along the course of what became Route 66. Initially the National Old Trails Highway continued on a southerly course from Albuquerque to Socorro before turning west and entering Arizona near Springerville. Hence the Madonna of the Trail commemorative statue in that city. At some point in mid to late 1914, realignment resulted in it roughly following the future course of Route 66 west from Albuquerque. The primary deviation was that road went from Gallup to Window Rock before turning southwest into Arizona. Alternate histories always add a touch of flavor and mystery to evaluating the past it relates to the present and future. The I-40 alignment proposed for the bypass of Yucca, Needles, and everything between there and Barstow was deemed the most cost effective and the most direct. Large degrees were surveyed. Why then did it make the big loop through Needles before striking across the desert? Since before the construction of the Appian Way, politics and favoritism have trumped almost all other considerations in the arena of road construction. How many communities were economically devastated when I-40 replaced Route 66 and they were severed from the commerce vital to their survival much like the mythical Radiator Springs? Why was Needles spared but Baxter Springs and Galena in Kansas were left to wither and die? On occasion, these little jaunts into alternative history provide ample reason for a smile or two. They also provide an illustrated lesson in regard the assumption that the experts are always right. The reasons behind approval of the Kingman Army Airfield site were the same ones that kept the airfield in Las Vegas alive when the plug was pulled in Kingman. See, after World War II informed opinion said that projected growth in Kingman would quickly negate the airfields feasibility while anemic grow in Las Vegas would allow for the airfield there to remain as an isolated desert base for years to come. If there is a moral to be found in this story it is a simple one. History is never boring, alternative history is like finding pieces to the puzzle you thought was complete.