Before it was certified as U.S. 66, and long before it was
internationally recognized as a symbol of the quintessential American road trip, the ultimate expression of freedom that is found on the open road, the highway that would become known as Route 66 was a series of trails. They were given names and associations of boosters developed signage, performed road maintenance on occasion, and actively promoted to attract the growing legion of tourists that were traveling by automobile.
From a point just to the west of Las Vegas, New Mexico to downtown Los Angeles, the “highway” that would become Route 66 was the National Old Trails Road. This early “highway” that connected Maryland with California. was given this designation as it was a series of linked historic trails; the National Road, Pontiac Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Beale Wagon Road, Spanish Trail.
The Lincoln Highway was the primary competitor for status as the primary coast to coast highway. However, the National Old Trails Road was the recipient of headline grabbing promotion resultant of high profile events.
In 1914 the last of Desert Classic races placed the National Old Trails Highway on the front page of newspapers all over the world. The races derisively referenced as the Cactus Derby had commenced in 1909 as a contest to test the viability of steam powered vehicles versus those with internal combustion engines. I strongly suspect that drinking and some friendly wagering may have been involved with the races launch.
The course varied every year, but the starting point, Los Angeles, and the finish, the territorial fairgrounds, state fairgrounds after 1912, in Phoenix, Arizona remained the same. One year the course followed a southern track before turning east at the Mexican border, and one year it was an almost straight run across the desert.
The 1914 race followed the National Old Trails Road from Los Angeles to Ash Fork, Arizona before turning south through Prescott and down Yarnell Hill. The grueling nature of the course that pitted man and machine that November ensured that the race would provide fodder for some great news stories. But what really grabbed headlines, and gave the National Old Trails Highway a promotional boost, were the entrants that year; the son of William Durant, founder of General Motors, Barney Oldfeild, and Louis Chevrolet to name a few.
In 1915, Edsel Ford and some college buddies set out from Detroit on a grand adventure to the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Just as with tourists decades later on Route 66, they chose the National Old Trails Road in order to take in the sights of the southwest such as the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. His travel journey from the trip is being reprinted as a weekly serial on our crowdfunding Patreon site. Edsel shared the road that year with a small herd of travelers and tourists, the ghost of Christmas future. More than 20,000 people that attended the exposition from outside California in 1915 arrived by automobile.
The following year the road received another major promotion with the publication of By Motor to The Golden Gate by Emily Post. The illustrated book detailed her adventures from New York City to California and inspired a wave of automotive tourism along the National Old Trails Road.
An argument could easily be made that the cornerstone for the popularity of Route 66 that has continued into the 21st century was laid with the creation of the National Old Trails Road. And since Jim Hinckley’s America has been built on the popularity of Route 66, I suppose the argument could be made that I too owe a debt of gratitude to the people who popularized the National Old Trails Road.