Disasters And Tales of Tragedy

Truck wreck on Route 66 near Sullivan, Missouri. Photo Joe Sonderman collection

On August 11,1955 a horrendous accident along Route 66 a few miles west of Clines Corner, New Mexico claimed the lives six men. In May 1957 at a highway junction near Cuba, Missouri a two car collision killed five members of a Chicago family. Two weeks prior on Route 66 in western Missouri another wreck took the lives of five people from Indiana. The Indiana Gazette carried the story as filler as wrecks along Route 66 were a common but tragic occurrence. ,

Dateline Springfield, Missouri – Five persons died in an automobile accident about 15 miles northeast of here Saturday night. Sergeant Al Leslie of the Missouri Highway Patrol said the brand new hardtop apparently was doing between 100 and 110 miles per hour when it ran of U.S.66. Four of five occupants thrown from the vehicle died instantly. The fifth succumbed to injuries before he could be extricated from the wreckage. He had been pinned in the vehicle by the engine and impaled by the steering column.

Today in the era of Route 66 renaissance we can have our cake and eat it as well. We can enjoy the essence of the historic Route 66 by cruising the shade dappled highway through the Ozarks, spending a restful night at the time capsule that is the Wagon Wheel Motel, and enjoying a hearty breakfast at Shelly’s. And if we are in a hurry, the interstate highway is an option.

We tend to see Route 66 in the context of neon and tail fins. It is easy to forget that the highway was know as bloody 66 for good reason. And we also forget that the highway was more than a linear theme park. It was an artery of commerce, both legal and illicit.

It was a highway of commerce traveled by truckers and salesman. Vacationing families traveled the well promoted highway on trips to the Grand Canyon, to California, to the newly opened Disneyland and to see the scenic wonders of the southwest. Gangsters and outlaws traveled the highway in flight from the law. And serial killers and grifters drove the highway in search of victims.

Wreck on Route 66 from the Joe Sonderman collection

It was also a segregated highway. The accident at Clines Corners sparked an investigation by the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In article published by the Albuquerque Tribune  on August 16, 1955, Edward L. Boyd, special assistant with the NAACP said that the accident was not surprising. Neither was the determination that fatigue had been the cause of the accident. He noted that the men killed, African-Americans, “…could not have found a welcome at any of the courts, motels, or hotels on Route 66 from Amarillo to Albuquerque.” He also noted that the investigation had determined that less than eight percent of the more than one hundred motels and auto courts along Central Avenue (Route 66) in Albuquerque would provide lodging to “Negro travelers.”

Like tens of thousands of Route 66 enthusiasts I derive a great deal of enjoyment from traveling this storied old highway. But knowing its history enhances the sense of time travel. Being aware of the stories of tragedy and disaster blur the line between past and present seamlessly.