Over the years death has come in many forms on iconic Route 66. The
highways realignment or construction of a bypass was often the death knell for communities and businesses. The ever increasing flow of traffic, including broken down Model A Fords and powerful new Buick Roadmaster sedans, on a highway peppered with narrow bridges that left no room for error, as well as blind curves, steep grades, long stretches without a shoulder, and gas stations that offered a free six pack of beer with every fill up of the tank all contributed to the moniker “Bloody 66.”
Shortly after WWII, two brothers opened a service station in western Arizona. Using a homemade wrecker to fulfill a contract with the state to remove wrecks from the highway, they soon discovered that there was gold in the tangled wrecks, broken glass, and carnage. Within twelve months they were able to pay cash for a brand new truck with Holmes wrecker body. Within three years they had three trucks and operated three shifts.
It was the winter of 1962 when a disaster at Chambers, Arizona fueled the growing demand to complete the interstate highway and end the carnage on Route 66. Eugene Wildenstein and his family were returning to their home in El Centro, California after visiting with family in Las Vegas, New Mexico. When a truck crossed the center line on a narrow section of highway without a shoulder, a head on collision was inevitable. Of the seven family members only five-year old Warren survived.
In the modern era Route 66 is often viewed as a neon lit amusement park, a string of time capsules that offers an almost endless opportunity for good times. It is easy to forget that this was once, literally the Main Street of America in countless cities and villages. It was an artery of commerce, a road of desperation, a highway of dreams traveled by vacationing families, hitchhiking soldiers, truck drivers, desperate people with nothing to loose, convicts, con artists, and murderers.
That is the focus of the current project, a journey into the dark side of Route 66, and Jim Hinckley’s America. I touched on the crime and disaster that was a part of the Route 66 experience in my book The Illustrated Route 66 Historic Atlas. This time we will be stepping into the shadows, and walk in the footsteps of some very dangerous people. This time we will give you reason to leave the light on at night after checking into that neon time capsule.
Consider the wake of tragedy and disaster that followed James Latham and George York in the summer of 1965. Both young men were from Jacksonville, Florida, and they were serving time in the US Army disciplinary barracks in Fort Hood, Texas for being AWOL as well as for theft. From these relatively minor crimes, the pair became two of the most wanted men in America after their escape in May of 1965.
Their first victim was of the few to survive. Shortly after picking up the hitchhiking duo near Mix, Louisiana, Edward Guidroz was beaten and his truck stolen. The next victims were two young ladies strangled in Florida. On June 7, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, John Whittaker was murdered for his car. After another murder and car theft in Troy, Illinois they headed west – on US 66. Near Edwardsville, Illinois they robbed a gas station and murdered the attendant. Before the crime spree ended in Colorado, they would claim two more victims.
Death is never funny but on occasion there is a dark comedy, and even a bit of retribution to the incident. The October 1, 1930 edition of The Arizona Republican, “A plan to escape from officers resulted in tragedy for Martin Bowman, 20-year old Illinois youth and alleged auto thief. Attempting to escape, Bowman is believed to have caused the accident that may cause his death, physicians at Mercy hospital said.”
“While handcuffed to Deputy Harry Cagle, Bowman attempted to leap from the car and caused Sheriff H.O. Coldren to crash into the Canyon Padre Bridge, thirty miles east of Flagstaff. Bowman went hurtling through the windshield as the car struck the bridge and is suffering from severe head injuries and loss of blood.”
On this adventure in Jim Hinckley’s America, we are pulling back the curtain. Do you stories to share?