The most fabled and fondly remembered highway in the history of American road culture is Route 66. Thing is, it was almost called something else. And it didn’t rhyme with “get yer kicks”.
As the popularity of automobile travel exploded in the early days of the twentieth century the need for organized highway routes also grew. The American Association of State Highway Officials was formed in 1924 to establish a system of numbered highway routes that would criss-cross the country and facilitate long distance travel. (It is interesting to note that the Association was composed almost entirely of representatives from the individual states. The only federal involvement was from the Department of Agriculture — of all things — which had a seat at the table.)
It was determined from that start that the routes would be drawn along existing roadways and would have to traverse at least two states. East-west routes were given even numbers while north-south routes were odd numbered. Numbering began in the north and in the east and numbering grew larger as you moved toward the south and the west. (The Interstate Highway System is numbered in the opposite fashion, beginning in the west and the south.)
Furthermore, major routes would end in either “0” or “1”, depending on their direction of travel, while minor routes would have higher numbers within a series. For example, Route 51 from New Orleans to Hurley, Wisconsin, was a major route while Route 55 through Minnesota and Iowa was a minor route.
By 1926 the system of route numbers was almost ready to roll out but something about it had Kentucky in a lather: No major east-west routes passed through the state. Kentucky governor William Fields had assumed that Route 60 would run from the east coast through his state and on toward the west, but, instead, it ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. Kentucky was only going to be served by minor routes 52, 62 and 150.
Unable to reach a compromise with the Association, Gov. Fields headed to Washington to make his case with Kentucky’s congressional delegation. That trip resulted in a proposal to rename the Chicago-Los Angeles route “62” and establish a Route 60 from Newport News, Virginia, to Springfield, Missouri. When the AASHO Executive Committee floated this idea Missouri and Oklahoma protested as they had already printed maps or made highway signs using the Route 60 designation for the Chicago route.
An alternative proposal was then considered in which the Newport News-Springfield route would be called Route 60 East while the Chicago-Springfield segment would be Route 60 North with Springfield-Los Angeles to be simply Route 60. Both Kentucky and Kansas roundly rejected this idea and Missouri highway engineer B. H. Piepmeier pointed out that such nomenclature didn’t follow the general scheme. Implementation of the highway system was now being delayed by this single question.
The issue was finally resolved at an April 30, 1926 meeting when Oklahoma highway engineer John Page noticed that no Route 66 had been designated anywhere in the system. It was suggested that Newport News-Springfield be called Route 60 and that Chicago-Los Angeles be renamed Route 66, as it looked like a nice round number befitting such a major route.
The change was agreeable to all parties involved and the impasse was finally broken. And songwriter Bobby Troup Jr. would have the rhyme he needed to make his song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” a permanent part of American popular culture.