Here is a thought to ponder. In eight years we will be
celebrating the centennial of Route 66. What will the road be like in 2026? What will the Route 66 community look like in eight years? Will the renaissance continue into the centennial and beyond? Will Route 66 be as popular in 2026 as it is today?
To answer any of these questions, or to get a glimpse of what the future might look like on Route 66, we first need to move beyond the narrow focus of neon and tail fins. We need to accept the fact that Route 66 has been in a state of transition since its inception in 1926. The Route 66 of 1930 was quite different from the Route 66 of 1950, and the Route 66 of 1990 is dramatically different from the highway today.
From its inception, the organizers of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, realized the importance of fostering development of a sense of community along the highway corridor, and of the need for an organization that could serve as a quasi chamber of commerce for the entire corridor. In 1931, the association hosted a convention in Elk City, Oklahoma, now home to the National Route 66 Museum, and more than 20,000 people were in attendance.
From the dawning of the highways renaissance, a wide array of organizations have been established but not one has had the longevity of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, or been able to emulate its success. Still, there is an amazing network of international grassroots initiatives that are engaged in preservation, education, economic development, and revitalization, and this bodes well for the Route 66 community.
The brilliant and far reaching marketing initiatives of the U.S. Highway 66 Association were restricted by dirt roads, hand crank telephones, and the limitations imposed by the Great Depression. Enthusiasts and organizers today have access to social media, the ability to take and share photographs instantly, travel that allows attendance of international Route 66 festival in a single day, and Skype. As an example of how this can be of benefit to the Route 66 community in the modern era, the weekly Jim Hinckley’s America Adventurers Club Facebook live programs had a reach of nearly 79,000 people in 2017.
The popularity of Route 66 has grown exponentially in recent years. However, if that popularity is to continue into the centennial and beyond, there is a need to instill passion and curiosity in a new generation of enthusiasts, and to develop ways of marketing the road to diverse ethnic groups. That is a major, but not insurmountable, challenge. A more pressing issue is preservation of the historic infrastructure that is crucial to preserving the context of the Route 66 experience. That, however, presents challenges which will most likely require a recreation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association to resolve.
The future can never be predicted with accuracy. Still, we can make an educated guess. I see the popularity of Route 66 holding steady. I also see a Route 66 that will be quite different from the one we know today. In 2026, the number of people that drove the road when it was the Main Street of America will be few. Many historic buildings will be lost, and many others will be preserved but repurposed. Case in point, the 1908 Powerhouse in Kingman, Arizona that now houses an electric vehicle museum. Young entrepreneurs and visionary community developers will build on the nostalgia and romanticism that underlies the Route 66 renaissance, but the context and meaning will change.
The centennial will mark the end of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one in the history of this storied old highway.