Marty and one of the horses that trailed us as we sought out remnants of the National Old Trails Road
What do you call a day that includes a Route 66 road trip, an awesome possum breakfast at a classic Route 66 restaurant, exploring not one but three historic highways and seeking out Arizona railroad history, and a shared adventure with an old friend? Well, in normal times you would call it a great day. In the era of COVID 19 you call it a very rare treat.
It was to be a short run of just 200 miles round trip but being seasoned desert adventurers, and as the Jeep is now 23 years old with an unknown number of miles (a story for another day), we packed a shovel, water, a few edibles, cameras, a few quarts of oil and basic tools. And as the quest was to find remnants of the National Old Trails Road west of Seligman, Arizona, I also carried a copy of the Arizona Good Roads Association guide book to roads in Arizona and southern California that was published in 1914.
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and berries, we hit the road at first light before the sun had chased the shadows from the Hualapai Valley east of Kingman. The conversation was lively as we are both story tellers, hadn’t had a visit for a spell and have aged a bit, and we both had desert adventures to share. The pace was slow as there were things to point to in the brush and desert along Route 66.
A link that enabled dating the car shell.
The first stop was just east of Grand Canyon Caverns. Some years ago Marty had found traces of what may have been an early alignment of the National Old Trails Road, the fast fading remnants of a building that had most likely once served as a garage and livery stable, and the picked bones of an old car. On a previous stop at the site Marty had found an ancient piece of iron with ornate Cadillac script. This and some of the trash at the site enabled us to pin down a rough date for the car as well as the former business – pre 1910. I suppose some of us never out grow the childhood excitement that comes with a search for lost treasure, and discoveries that spark the imagination.
The next stop was a few miles to the east. As we followed the faintest trace of old road through the dry grass and the junipers, confirmation that we were on the right track appeared in the form of a stone masonry culvert. That quickened the spirt as I reflected on Edsel Ford’s travel journal from July 16, 1915 and the notes he had made after driving this very road. Here was a tangible link to more than a century of transportation. Was this the alignment followed by Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield during the 1914 Desert Classic automobile race that had followed the National Old Trails Road east from Los Angles to Ash Fork, Arizona?
The second breakfast, a brunch of sorts, at the one and only Road Kill Café in Seligman included a visit with Debbie and her husband, the owners. The awesome possum breakfast was delicious and the conversation lively as they had spent most of their lives in Seligman or the immediate area. They were able to fill a few holes, point us in the right direction, and inspire plans for the next adventure before even completing the first one. And after breakfast we explored the back streets of Seligman in search of automotive treasures.
We continued east along Route 66 past the old Crookton railroad overpass, and then followed an older alignment to a long forgotten rest area. From here we set off on foot to follow the earliest alignment of Route 66, and segments of the National Old Trails Road. As an added bonus we found an even older road and vague hints that this was most likely a trace of the 1850s Beale Wagon Road. By this time the temperature was closing in on 100 degrees and the sweat was rolling into our eyes, but we pressed on speculating, sharing discoveries found under the junipers or among the rocks and discussing plans for a return excursion when the weather cooled during the fall.
On the return trip we made a couple more stops. One was to explore an interesting section of old road bordered by two concrete curbs near the Crookton overpass. Route 66? National Old Trails Road? Little discoveries raised more questions than they answered; remnants of a telegraph pole with threaded wooden dowel for the insulator, a weathered railroad tie with 1948 date nail, a broken Coca Cola bottle with Needles, California stamp. A herd of horses let curiosity overcome concerns and became our travel companions as we followed the old road across the high desert prairie of dried grass.
The last stop was at the 19th century railroad siding at Pica. The depot gave every indication that it would soon be little more than a forgotten relic and a pile of dried lumber amongst the grass. The big steam driven pumps and pump house that was hereon the last visit are gone. The towering water tanks that dated to the late 19th century and the era of steam engines still stood tall. Surprisingly, a graffiti artist of extraordinary talent had used them as his canvas creating a masterpiece or two. The things you find in the most remote of places, amazing.
The drive home was a leisurely discussion of discoveries made, tall tales heard and shared, and savoring the vast landscapes that have soothed my soul for nearly sixty years. Even in these trying times, the best medicine is still a road trip, or even better a road trip on Route 66, old friends, good food, a desert adventure and discoveries that provide a tangible link to another time.
Shortly after the U.S. Highway 66 Association was established in early 1927, a marketing campaign was launched that branded the newly minted highway as the Main Street of America. It was a brilliant strategy as one of the most famous “named highways” in America, the National Old Trails Road, had been branded the Main Street of America by Judge Lowe of the National Old Trails Road Association in 1913. Linking Route 66 to a road with an established reputation, a road popular with tourists traveling to see the natural wonders of the southwest was the cornerstone for the eventual transformation of this highway into an an icon with an international fan club.
The National Old Trails Road, after 1913, coursed across northern New Mexico and Arizona, and across the California desert to Los Angeles. It provided travelers with access to the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon. Near Peach Springs, Arizona a popular side trip was Diamond Creek which is still the only road that allows for vehicle access to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. These natural wonders were one reason the then twenty-one year old Edsel Ford and his college buddies traveled along this road to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in California during the summer of 1915. Likewise with Emily Post. Attesting to the popularity of the National Old Trails Road in the southwest is the fact that more than 20,000 people attending the Panama Pacific Exposition from outside California arrived by automobile and the overwhelming majority traveled this road.
While much of the National Old Trails Road history is documented there are still secrets hidden in dusty archives, road departments, family photo albums and old travel diaries. One of these mysteries is found on the western slope of Sitgreaves Pass in the Black Mountains of Arizona. Route 66 enthusiasts are intimately familiar with this section of highway that began as the National Old Trails Road. Arguably it is one of the most scenic portions of this storied old highway and Oatman is known throughout the world.
This old road dates to about 1907. It was upgraded to meet the needs of the National Old Trails Road in about 1913. When was it bypassed? When was it realigned to the current course for the pre 1952 alignment of Route 66?
This rare map from the state of Arizona shows U.S. 60 instead of U.S. 66
Much of this morning was spent with an engineer and unofficial archivist at the Mohave County Road Department in search of answers. Instead of what I was looking for, I found new mysteries that need answers as well as rare and obscure historic footnotes. As an example, did you know that originally U.S. 66 was designated U.S. 60? Early 1926 Arizona maps show U.S. 60 and it is also designated the National Old Trails Road in places. This takes us to another mystery. U.S. 66 and the National Old Trails Road shared the same road in much of the southwest. There are postcards that show both designations. When did the first U.S. 66 signs go up? Was the road ever signed as U.S. 60?
“The best commentary on the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque is that it took us less than three hours to make the sixty-six miles, whereas the seventy-three miles from Las Vegas to Santa Fe took us nearly six.” Emily Post, By Motor to The Golden Gate, 1916. The first coast to coast trip by automobile occurred in 1903. In 1909 factories in America manufactured more than 825,000 horse drawn vehicles compared to 125,000 automobiles. And yet in 1915, the year that Emily Post and Edsel Ford followed the National Old Trails Road to see the scenic wonders of the southwest on their journey to the west coast, more than 20,000 people from outside the state of California arrived at the Panama Pacific Exposition by automobile. Needless to say, it was an era of rapid transition.
In this photo from the Don Gray collection you can see both the Sparton sign and the NOTR sign west of Williams, Arizona.
For a number of years I have been gathering information on the infancy of the American auto industry, the rise of the Good Roads movement and the named highways with the intention being the writing of a book about this period of dramatic societal evolution. That was the subject of a presentation made last October at the site of what I had been led to believe would become the Hackett Auto Museum in Jackson, Michigan. And as Jackson and the surrounding area was at the heart of an industrial boom that included more than 25 automobile manufacturers during the first decades of the 20th century, the trip was also about research.
One of the contacts made during this trip was Russell Rein who has been documenting the history of the named highways for many, many years. He is also a passionate student of the history of a leading manufacturer in Jackson, Sparks-Wirthington. This company was the largest manufacturer of automobile horns in the world during the teens, and later became a leading producer of radios and pioneer in television development as well as manufacturing. In 1915, Clifford and Harry Sparks, sons of one of the company founders, set out from Chicago to San Francisco in a new Ford truck putting up road signs that were a public service as well as an advertising campaign. The signs read, “Safety First – Sound Sparton.”
Fast forward to this past Friday. For several years I have been in discussion with Don Gray, a fellow with an interesting family history. The chapter of that history that spans the period 1910 to 1930 is chronicled in an extensive collection of family photos. Yesterday we finally had the opportunity to meet and to peruse his collection during a visit with Andy Sansom, the archivist at the Mohave Museum of History & Arts in Kingman, Arizona.
All of the materials in his collection were fascinating. As an example, one photo was of his grandfather, on a Michaelson motorcycle at the Padre Canyon Bridge that was under construction at the time. That would be 1914. And then we came to a photo taken on the National Old Trails Road between Ash Fork and Williams, Arizona. One lady in the photograph was standing next to a Sparton sign!
Needless to say the new presentation about the National Trails Road developed for spring and summer 2020 will be revised before its debut in Needles, California on February 7. And it looks like a new chapter in the 5 Minutes With Jimaudio podcast series about the National Old Trails Road has been added.
Meanwhile the search continues. I will be meeting with Don Gray again son. And I will be returning to Jackson this year for more research and a series of presentations that is in development.
Before I40, before Route 66, people got their kicks on the National Old Trails Road in the southwest. That is a story that needs to be told. It has adventure. It has adventurers like Edsel Ford, Emily Post and Ezra Meeker. It has famous and colorful people like Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman and Louis Chevrolet. It has auto racing, serial killers and pioneering automobile manufacturers giving their vehicles a bit of real world testing.
The National Old Trails Road at the Colorado River. Photo Mohave Museum of History & Arts.
Carlos F. Hurd was a reporter that had gained international notoriety in 1912 for his series of interviews with survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. He was no stranger to disaster, to stories of human suffering and to gut wrenching stories of family tragedy. Nothing, however, prepared him for coverage of the vicious race riots in East St. Louis during the summer of 1917. His initial story published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on July 3 opened with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.”
His first person report continued with shocking detail. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. There was a horribly cold deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.” Additional articles provided gruesome and proven details; a person nearly beheaded by an assailant with a butcher knife, a twelve-year old girl pulled from a trolley, people shot as they desperately tried to escape by swimming the Mississippi River, a mother beaten to death in front of her children.
Even though the incident took place before certification of Route 66, I wrote of it in my latest book, Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales from Bloody 66. The riot in East St. Louis was not an isolated incident. There was a similar event in Springfield, Illinois in the same period, and a few years later, an even more horrendous riot occurred in Tulsa, the city where Cyrus Avery, the man heralded as the father of Route 66, owned businesses. These prejudices, these racial hostilities would be woven into the fabric of Route 66 development and it would affect everything from tourism to trucking, motels to restaurants.
In Santa Fe, one of the oldest cities in America, passenger cars crowded the plaza and travelers such as Emily Post shared the road with ox carts.
The years between 1890 and 1930 were an incredible period of dramatic technological advancement and societal upheaval and evolution. A tsunami of immigration was transforming the very fabric of the country. The era of the western frontier was drawing to a close but there were still violent clashes with Native Americans such as the incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890. The labor movement was dawning, and that too led to violent clashes.
One of these was an incident now known as the the Bisbee Deportation. On July 12, 1917, in Bisbee, Arizona, about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders were attached members of a deputized posse. The deputies forced more than 1,200 men into cattle cars, at gunpoint, and shipped them to New Mexico without food, water, luggage or anything more than what they carried in their pockets and the clothes on their back.
Bicycle mania swept the country during the 1890s but in the shadows the automobile was about to take center stage. Ransom E. Olds was experimenting with steam and gasoline engines. The Duryea brothers had began building automobiles for sale, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave one of their “motor wagons” top billing over the albino and fat lady. The first automobile race in America took place in 1898, people were driving coast to coast by 1905, and in that year a Stanley steamer was driven to a new speed record that was just short of 150 miles per hour.
Between 1909 and 1930 the number of horse drawn vehicles manufactured plummeted but while automobile production soared. Traffic lights and motels, service stations and garages became a part of the roadside culture. In a span of less than thirty years air travel evolved from rudimentary experimentation to becoming an integral component of the modern military and even coast to coast passenger service.
A few points to ponder. Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame died in Los Angeles in 1929. Geronimo was photographed in a Cadillac. Between 1898 and 1930 there were more than 1,500 automobile manufacturing companies launched. Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail by ox cart, and the National Old Trails Road by automobile. The movie theater was introduced and those movies became talkies.
These heady times are being woven into a rich and colorful tapestry, my latest presentation series – In The Beginning. It promises to be informative, fast paced and to inspire some interesting conversation. It is a bit of time travel to what is, perhaps, one of the most amazing forty year period in our nations history. Curious? Contact us today to schedule a presentation for your event, festival or fund raiser.
Scientific American, August 3, 1901 – “Covering the North American Continent from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Ocean in an automobile has been attempted by Alexander Winton, president of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, of Cleveland, Ohio. That the expedition failed is no fault of the machine Mr. Winton used, nor was it due to absence of grit or determination on the part of the operator. Neither was the failure due to roads. The utter absence of roads was the direct and only cause.”
Fame is a fickle thing. People that transform the world through innovation can be less than an historic footnote a generation or two later. Even the rich and famous are not immune to the curse of time that can render them a forgotten obscurity with the passing of time. Case in point, Alexander Winton, father of the great America road trip.
By 1891 the fledgling hobby of bicycling was on the cusp of becoming a national obsession. Within a few short years the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States soared from a mere handful to hundreds. Winton opened his factory in 1891. Before the decade closed, it was the embryonic automobile industry and related technologies that was grabbing the nations attention. Alexander Winton was a pioneer in this industry as well. The Winton Motor Car Carriage Company was established in 1897, and his first automobile sold in 1898.
Winton pioneered racing and performance sports as a marketing tool, and in 1901 he set out on what was to be an epic adventure that ensured his company and the cars that he produced would be the most famous ones in the world. Accompanied by Charles B. Shank, a journalist with Scientific American, Winton’s grueling odyssey was chronicled. The duo left from San Francisco on the morning of Monday, May 20. They rolled into Mill City on the eastern slope of the Sierras in Nevada on May 29, and then loaded their battered car onto a a train for shipping home to Cleveland. The epic adventure was a failure in only that Winton did not complete his trip. The riveting tale added to Winton’s fame, and ignited a national passion for automobile odysseys worthy of Jason and the Argo-naughts, and stories about daring “automobilists.”
In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast. Five years later in an epic race drivers fought a first place finish over a course that stretched from New York City to Paris France. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway, the first highway built specifically for automobile drivers, that connected Times Square in New York City with Lincoln Park in San Francisco was completed and extensively marketed. Dozens of other highways were completed during this period including the National Old Trails Road, predecessor to Route 66 in the southwest.
Every day dozens of feature articles, books, and speakers extolled the wonders experienced on the great America road trip. Emily Post chronicled her adventure in a best selling book By Motor to The Golden Gate. In 1915, Edsel Ford chronicled his adventure to California from Michigan with college buddies in a journal and provided dozens of interviews to interested journalists. Road trips, even if just for a Sunday drive, was national mania by 1920. Preachers lamented the decline in church in attendance as families took to the road in ever increasing numbers. All of this publicity coupled with a healthy dose of media induced romanticism set the stage for a series of marketing campaigns that would transform a mere highway into an internationally recognized icon that has come to symbolize the quintessential American experience – the road trip.
Route 66 Czech style
US 66 was commissioned in November 1926. In early 1927, Cyrus Avery and a handful of businessmen with vision launched the US Highway 66 Association, and kicked off a marketing campaign that promoted Route 66 as the Main Street of America. This was followed by the Transcontinental Foot Race, an event dubbed as the Bunion Derby that garnered international media attention, and a promotional campaign that promoted the highway as the best route to the Olympics in Los Angles. Then came the book and movie The Grapes of Wrath, a little song about getting your kicks on Route 66, and a television program.
Fast forward to 2019. Communities and states along the highway corridor are planning centennial Route 66 celebrations. The Dutch Route 66 Association is planning a “meet & greet” in Amsterdam this August. Organizers in Poland are working on details for a 2020 European Route 66 Festival. Companies in Australia and the Czech Republic, Germany and New Zealand, Netherlands and Norway specialize in Route 66 tours.
Alexander Winton may have fallen short of his goal. But the Great American Road Trip that he launched in 1901 is today more popular than ever before. The big difference between then and now is that that road trip has an international fan club.