AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — It winds from Chicago to Los Angeles, covering more than 2,000 miles through the U.S. Designated in 1926 and known as an icon of the American West, the historic Route 66 has been offering kicks for nearly 100 years.
As Amarillo and the High Plains celebrate the inaugural year of the Texas Route 66 Festival in June and continue to look ahead to the historic highway’s centennial anniversary, many have also taken the time for a (sometimes literal) look back on the road left behind.
While the road has changed in the last century, from shifting shape and alignment to losing its place on the U.S. Highway System, it is still standing as an artery of history, culture, and identity.
The major city acting as its midpoint is much the same, with both locals and travelers alike seeing an Amarillo of many shapes and faces during the first years of Route 66, the prime of the road, and the Yellow City of the present-day.
1926: Route 66 and the High Plains
As noted by the National Museum of American History, Route 66 carried hundreds of thousands of Depression-era migrants to California from across the country through the 1920s and 1930s.
By 1926, the city of Amarillo was already a midpoint to anywhere on the road to the American West by way of the railroad. After the completion of the Santa Fe Depot in 1910, Amarillo could boast its standing as a regional center for rail travel, oil and natural gas, radio stations, oil boom hotels, and a bustling cattle industry. In 1926, as noted by the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, an expansion of the A.T. & S.F. railroad was being built to link northeast to Borger.
Around that time, alongside the iconic rails of the region, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads recorded by 1927 the state of Texas had around 996,000 registered cars amid the fast-growing automobile industry, and would soon lead with the largest registration count among the southern states. As that number skyrocketed in Texas, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma (also known as the “Father of Route 66” and the first State Highway Commissioner of Oklahoma) was among those who promoted the idea of a “modern,” all-weather highway connecting Chicago and LA.
In the 1920s, the efforts of officials, business owners, and lobbyists like Avery were a major reason that transcontinental travel routes in the U.S. underwent a drastic change in shape. Leading up to the designation of Route 66, Avery was also among those who lobbied for a route that would pass through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Up to that point, many travelers and emigrants to the American West traveled by a patchwork of smaller county roads, railroads, boats, and even wagon trails. The first and, at that point, among the most complete guides to traveling west from Chicago to LA didn’t even mention a path through Texas or the High Plains at all – Edward H. Hall’s “The Great West” in 1864 only skated as close as Colorado.
However, in 1926, people in the Texas Panhandle would get a glimpse at the major routes across the U.S. not only including them, but swooping down pointedly to do so.
While the Texas and New Mexico sections of Route 66 weren’t paved until the 1930s, it sped into broad popularity due to its active promotional campaigns. Avery spearheaded advertising for the route and founded the US 66 Highway Association, which promoted it as “the shortest, best and most scenic route” from Chicago to LA and coined the nickname, “Main Street of America.”
Tourist traps 20 years in the making, and ‘A Guide Book to Highway 66’
By the time Route 66 through the Texas Panhandle was a fully paved road, the people of the region were less on their way to California by choice and more fleeing the devastation wrought by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. As previously reported on MyHighPlains.com, the 1930s on the High Plains were battered and bracketed by economic hardship and at least four different drought events, leaving many families desperate for relief and opportunity.
Reflected in what would become the media to cement Route 66 in the American consciousness, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” many families around the High Plains less saw the “Mother Road” as a trail leading into Texas and more of a path out of the dust.
However, on the other side of the road, a study from the National Park Service said that at the time others “opted to eke out their living within the devastated economies of Kansas, Oklahoma, West Texas, and New Mexico.” Throughout the 1930s, Route 66 and other major roads in the country were a crux to the New Deal program for work relief and economic recovery, with improvement and maintenance projects employing thousands. Through that effort, Route 66 was known as “continuously paved” in 1938 and reported to have affected more people on federal work relief than those who used it to escape to California.
Alongside the New Deal program and its impact, Route 66 and other roads in the new highway system became the major avenues used by the US to transport vehicles, materials, and troops to military bases and operations in the late 1930s and through World War II.
In Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle, those road projects sending workers across the country presented the need for accommodations and entertainment. Gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses began to pop up in droves for travelers on their way through a regular shipping route, headed to military training, moving westward, or taking time for a leisurely excursion.
By the time the highway had cemented itself in landmark pieces of American media like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or Nat King Cole’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” and through its position as a mainstay in work and military programs, however, there hadn’t yet been a full guide released for traveling the route.
Then, in the post-war prime of 1946, Jack D. Rittenhouse made a callback to Hall’s original westbound handbook and published a mile-by-mile guide for Route 66.
In the High Plains chapters of “A Guide Book to Highway 66,” Rittenhouse documented the entire path through the Texas Panhandle, including towns like Shamrock – which at the time already hosted the now-iconic Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Cafe – as he headed toward the center of the Mother Road.
“Now you are upon the vast High Plains of the eastern Texas Panhandle. Straight, paved highways and great, efficient ranches now obliterate all traces of the big herds of buffalo which once roamed here, together with Indians; the Kiowas and Comanches…” commented Rittenhouse in the guide. “Beneath the land lie deposits of helium and oil; the rich soil still provides cattle pasture but there are huge farms growing wheat and other grains.”
“The weather here is very fickle: storms of snow or rain come up suddenly on days which begin with sunshine; the unbelievably fierce winds, or “northers,” bring sudden temperature drops and sometimes whip up clouds of sand. Trees here are so scarce and other landmarks so infrequent that early settlers often marked their trails with stakes. The newcomer to this region is impressed with the almost limitless emptiness of the countryside.”Jack D. Rittenhouse, “A Guide Book to Highway 66”
At the time when Rittenhouse reached Amarillo, he also noted that “from this point west to the Arizona-California State Line,” drivers would need to be aware of slow-moving cattle in the roadways. Evidenced by the High Plains boasting one of the highest densities of feedlots in the country and still standing as a leader in cattle production, Rittenhouse’s 1946 advisory remains relevant into the 21st century.
Other sightseeing opportunities mentioned in the guide and available at the time of its writing include many famous buildings, businesses, and events that remain in the Amarillo area, such as:
- The Tri-State Fair & Rodeo, which is celebrating 100 years in 2023;
- The Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport, then known as the Amarillo Air Force Base and adjacent Amarillo Army Air Field;
- The Herring Hotel, which is currently subject to a renovation and revitalization project;
- The Santa Fe Railroad Depot, another landmark piece of infrastructure that worked to connect Texas and the High Plains to the rest of the country;
- The Amarillo Helium Plant, which was the only commercial helium plant in the world by 1934; and
- Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which is still standing and thriving as a local and tourist destination as the home of the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and now the TEXAS Outdoor Musical.
Just westward from Amarillo, recorded by historians as having been built in 1928, is the Midpoint Café in Adrian. While Amarillo is the centermost major city on Route 66, the Midpoint Café has billed itself as being the geographical midpoint. As previously noted on MyHighPlains.com, it remains standing in the present day and has variable operational hours throughout the year.
Amarillo, the High Plains, Route 66 in the 21st Century
While many local businesses and attractions remain active across Amarillo and the High Plains since the time of the first guidebook, those traveling Route 66 in the 21st century will see a number of new additions to the path as well as those that weren’t established or had not yet gained notoriety.
Aside from those listed above, Route 66 businesses, attractions, and landmarks still accepting visitors in the Amarillo and High Plains area include:
However, while a number of attractions have remained or sprung up during the prime of Route 66 and the decades after its decommissioning, other major points along the route have drifted into obscurity.
Although some places such as Tascosa, Landergin, and Glenrio were already considered “ghost towns” by 1946, other towns along the Route 66 path through the Panhandle have since gained the title. That includes Alanreed, which dropped from a population of around 150 in 1933 to 23 in the 2020 census, and Conway, which closed its post office in 1976.
Still, as noted in Route 66 itineraries and by modern road trippers, such towns around the High Plains have remained worth a stop or a passing appreciation. In that way, despite closed doors along an ever-shifting landscape of development and nostalgia, the consensus on each waypoint of the Mother Road is the same as it was in its prime; All worth a note, all worth a memory.
Today, then, locals of and visitors to the High Plains alike repeat the invitation as it has stood for decades, “Come get your kicks on Route 66.”