It’s not entirely clear to me why the founders of Yukon, OK named their town after the Yukon Gold Rush, nor why its county is called Canadian County. But on the day of our visit to the Yukon of Route 66, the only blizzard we might possibly have witnessed was one of enriched white flour.
When I started my 66 Fridays series back at the turn of the new year, I knew I was in for a long road ahead. But here we are, 33 Fridays later, already at the halfway point of the series! I figured it was only fitting to pair this post with a sketch of the symbolic halfway point of the Mother Road. Since Route 66 has seen so many changes to its path over the years, it’s unlikely this sign marks the exact midpoint—but it hardly matters. I’m glad there’s a marker at all, wherever they ended up putting it.
Some of you may just be tuning in to this series now, so I figured a recap of where we’ve been so far was in order. Like everything else on this blog, my subjects jump around in space and time. So below is a list of all the Route 66 posts I’ve done so far, loosely grouped by category.
Posts about Route 66 itself:
Intro: Mother Road, Mother Lode
Chicago’s Eastern Terminus
Filling Stations of 66
Where 66 Intersects Itself
The history under your wheels
Route 66 Attractions:
Meramec Caverns Billboards
The Round Barn
The Leaning Tower
Mufflermen of the Mother Road
The Harvey House Empire
The Armory Museum
The Continental Divide
Thank you for traveling along the Mother Road with me for so much of this year. And we still have many miles to cover—see you next Friday with the latest installment!
In downtown Albuquerque is an unassuming corner with a curious distinction. This is the place—the only place—where Route 66 intersects itself.
It’s not so unusual to have several Route 66-es in the same city—after all, Tulsa has at least three, and St. Louis changed the alignment of the route so many times I’ve lost track of the number. Yet nowhere else along the Mother Road do two different alignments actually cross each other. You see, when Route 66 was first established in New Mexico in 1926, the logical thing to do was to send the road through the capital city—so off to Santa Fe it went, and then it curved southward to come into Albuquerque from the north. At that time, there was no straight-line route across New Mexico, so travelers coming to Albuquerque from the east had no choice but to take that winding, partial-dirt, mountainous road through the capital first. But then, quite suddenly, all that changed: just a few years later, a new 66 cut an arrow-straight path into Albuquerque from the east and bypassed Santa Fe entirely. (And today many people have no idea that 66 ever went to Santa Fe at all.)
Like everything else along Route 66, there’s a story behind this. The short version is this: Arthur T. Hannett, who was governor of New Mexico when Route 66 was born, lost his reelection bid in 1926, and found himself with an axe to grind. Convinced he had been ousted by a conspiracy on the part of his political opponents at the state capitol, he hatched a scheme to reroute 66 away from Santa Fe in revenge.
The trouble was, he had only a little over a month before his successor would be sworn in. So he ordered nearly every piece of road-construction equipment in the northern half of the state to be diverted to his project, and made every construction worker he could get his hands on work nonstop to cut a new road bed from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque. The workers slept at the construction sites, toiled through snowstorms and skipped the holidays, and the new 69-mile road was completed in just 31 days. By the time the new governor, Richard Dillon, took office on January 1, 1927, it was too late. Despite opponents trying to block the project during those 31 days (including sabotage attempts where people put sand in the gas tanks of the construction equipment), nobody could deny the convenience of a straight, fully-paved road. The new route saved hours of driving, so before long, motorists were already using it heavily, leaving Santa Fe in the dust. It took another ten years before the road was paved all the way to the Texas border and the new section gained the official Route 66 designation, but by then it was already the main arterial across the state.
That story isn’t the only thing interesting about the corner of 4th and Central. That spot’s other claim to fame is what might just be Albuquerque’s best and most iconic building: the KiMo theatre.
Built in 1927 in a spectacular blend of Art Deco and Pueblo Revival styles (who knew those two went together so well?!), the theater’s name translates to “mountain lion” in Tewa, the language spoken by many of the region’s Pueblo people. The KiMo narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in the late 1970s, when residents voted for the city to buy the building. After an extensive restoration completed in 2000, the KiMo is once again hosting public performances.
Yes, that symbol above is what it looks like; and no, it doesn’t mean what you might think. The swastika is an ancient symbol that once had positive connotations in many cultures before Hitler twisted it to his own ends. To the Navajo it stood for the Whirling Log, a healing symbol, and to the Hopi (whose traditions the above design emulates) it represents spiritual wandering.
Oh, and hey: apparently the building is haunted. The theater staff leave appeasement offerings in a back stairwell and everything. The place was closed on the day we were there, so I couldn’t get a look at the inside, but you can bet I’ll be back. Neither angry ghosts or vengeful ex-governors can stop me.
If you travel Route 66, you’re sure to come across the name of Fred Harvey. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re far from alone. Yet Harvey and his commercial empire had a lot to do with creating, collecting and curating that slice of Americana we call the Southwest.
If I were throw another name at you, though, I bet you’d be able to place it: Howard Johnson. That’s right, the hospitality magnate who, in the 1960s and 70s, controlled the largest restaurant chain in the United States. Well, I’m not knocking Johnson (or all that fabulous midcentury decor), but Harvey did it first, and best.
Harvey got his start in the late 1870s, when the West was still very much a wild place, and the railroads were busy cutting new paths over the old overland trade routes. Harvey was revolted by the food the railroad companies offered their passengers—he figured if eastern travelers could access the same quality of cuisine they’d find in a New York City restaurant, they’d get over their fear of “roughing it” and head West in style. His employer, the Burlington Railroad, turned him down, but the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway saw merit in the idea. Harvey signed a contract with AT&SF, and the first American restaurant chain was born.
Before long, Harvey had added hotels and tour services to his repertoire, and by the early twentieth century there were “Harvey Houses” scattered all over the Southwest. Some of his best-known properties still stand—including nearly all of the historic buildings that comprise the South Rim complex at the Grand Canyon.
Early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt were horrified by the prospect of commercializing the Grand Canyon, yet one could easily argue that if Fred Harvey hadn’t done it, someone else most assuredly would have (and they did! Google the mayhem that is Ralph Henry Cameron sometime, if you’re curious).
One vote in favor of Harvey was that each of his establishments was thoughtfully designed to be at once beautiful, well-made, reflective of its natural surroundings and sensitive to its area’s cultural heritage. (I’m sure that last box wasn’t checked as well as it might have been, but considering the era in which these places were designed, the fact that any cultural sensitivity came about at all is nothing short of astonishing.)
And we have one person to thank for much of that:
That’s right: Fred Harvey’s right-hand man was a woman. And it’s Mary Jane Colter’s style and sensibility that come through in the most memorable Harvey Houses. She is the one who created much of that unified “look” that we associate with the American Southwest. And that’s because she did her research—she looked at all the different regional architectural styles of the various Native cultures of the region, and blended them with the popular architectural styles of the day: Arts & Crafts, Mission, and various revivals of European and even North African traditions.
Colter went one step further, and did something that was way ahead of her time: she actually hired Native artists and craftspeople to complete many of the details on and in her buildings. She worked most often with Hopi painter Fred Kabotie, who contributed elements like the murals at the Painted Desert Inn and various interior details at Hopi House. In working with artists like Kabotie, Colter’s buildings have an authenticity to them that, along with their craftsmanship, elevates them way above your average tourist trap.
I didn’t know any of this before my trip, nor had I ever heard of Fred Harvey before. Luckily for me, many of the surviving Harvey Houses are located along Route 66, so I had ample opportunity to find out—
—and to gaze in wonder at so many architectural treasures still standing along the Mother Road.
Most serendipitous for my Harvey education was our decision to drive the original (and less-traveled) pre-1937 alignment of Route 66, which took us to Santa Fe. For one thing, Santa Fe is home to the most magnificent example of extant Harvey Houses: Hotel La Fonda.
The place is often nicknamed “the oldest hotel in the United States,” but that’s not exactly true. What is true is that an inn or fonda has stood continuously upon this location for over four hundred years. Harvey must have known that particular historical tidbit, because La Fonda doesn’t mess around. Every inch of the place is jam-packed with Harvey’s version of Southwest Americana.
The hotel has been remade and renovated seemingly endlessly over the years, but you can still find traces of its history (and Mary Colter’s interior touches) everywhere.
La Fonda is the place where you learn to recognize the Harvey style—where even if you don’t know the history behind any of it, you’ll still know it when you see it.
The other thing Santa Fe gave me was a glimpse of Harvey’s empire on a micro scale, thanks to the New Mexico History Museum at the Palace of the Governors. Far beyond capitalizing on the idea of a hospitality chain, what Fred Harvey really understood was branding. And branding really isn’t even the right word here: while other hotels might have an “identity,” Harvey went way beyond that. For his employees, he created a culture. For his customers, he created something more akin to mythology.
For an amateur graphic design historian like me, I felt like I’d struck gold at the Palace of the Governors. Their Harvey House exhibit displayed the length, breadth and depth of Harvey branding—beyond any logo, their aesthetic covered everything from letterhead to jewelry to employee pamphlets. Harvey’s penchant for hiring professional artists paid off on every front: every last detail was carefully considered, equally beautiful, and a stand-alone work of art.
And that brings me to the most famous and curious piece of Harvey branding: the Harvey Girl.* A living, breathing icon, the Harvey Girl became the very embodiment of the taming of the West.
Fred Harvey felt that while the romantic idea of the Wild West might be a draw to tourists, its rough-and-tumble connotations would be more of a hinderance than anything else, as wealthy customers viewed western travel as dangerous and uncomfortable. To counteract this notion, Harvey committed to hiring only educated young women from the East and Midwest to wait upon, entertain and guide his guests. The Harvey Girls had to adhere to strict codes of dress, conduct and morality; live in single-sex barracks run by middle-aged den mothers; and sign year-long contracts which forbade them to marry while employed by the Harvey Company. The idea of “civilizing” the West, one genteel lady at a time, was a smash hit, and the Harvey Girl became so iconic that Judy Garland even played one on the silver screen.
What really interests me, however, is that the Harvey Girls—and there were 100,000 of them in all—were the first female workforce in America. The guests may have seen them as mere waitresses, but in reality these were educated women who were responsible for far more than carrying trays or taking orders. Later, as automobiles became popular and Harvey started his Indian Detours auto tour service, Harvey Girls—renamed “Couriers” or even, ugh, Indian Maids—comprised the entire staff of tour guides. Most had college degrees, and each Courier was required to have a working knowledge of local history, botany, geology, archaeology, anthropology, geography, or any other subject the tourists might inquire about.
* Note: Much of my Harvey Girl information comes from Katrina Parks’s wonderful documentary, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound. Excerpts from the documentary are included in the Harvey exhibit at the Palace of the Governors, and it is these that introduced me to Ms. Parks’s work. She is currently working on a new project called The Women on the Mother Road—her website features some of my Route 66 sketches, and I’m excited and honored to be included!
I tell you all of this to illustrate just how far-reaching Fred Harvey’s empire was, how much of modern American history was touched by his ideas. The Harvey Houses weren’t just another hotel chain—they were an astonishing and vast collective work of art. And they were an incredible economic engine that provided work to thousands of people—many of them highly skilled artists, designers, craftspeople, historians, scientists and anthropologists.
The Harvey Company also employed many unskilled laborers, like the Civilian Conservation Corps (one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Soup” agencies founded during the Great Depression), who built and then painted this glass skylight at the Painted Desert Inn.
More than anything, I think it’s this constant mixing of things that marks Harvey’s legacy: east and west, Native and Anglo, public and private. (For instance, the hotels and restaurants themselves were funded by the private railroad company, but many of them were located on or near public lands, and many used government-funded labor to build them.) I don’t think Harvey gets much of the credit for it, but the WPA (Works Progress Administration, another Alphabet Soup agency) borrowed heavily from Harvey House ideas and aesthetics when they built the national park lodges in the 1920s and 30s.
And sadly, it’s no wonder: while the national park lodges still stand, protected on public land, very few Harvey Houses survive today, and even fewer are still hotels or restaurants. Many of them were demolished in the 1970s and 80s—an awful time to be an historic building—and still others hold on as empty shells, stripped of all their glory and slowly decaying.
Still, Route 66 is the best path to take to discover what’s left of Fred Harvey’s world. As you drive the Mother Road along the old Santa Fe railway, remember that somebody came before you—leaving the lights on and turning back the covers, all in hopes of making the West feel more welcoming.
The last post was a big fat tribute to the National Park Service, which celebrated its centennial yesterday. So it’s only fitting to spend today telling you about Petrified Forest National Park, which is the exact center of the Venn Diagram between the national parks and Route 66. In fact, it’s the only national park to contain a section of the original Mother Road.
Of course, even if you didn’t know anything about Route 66, Petrified Forest is still infinitely worth visiting. There is the namesake petrified wood, of course, but it’s the landscapes that touched this artist’s soul.
Around every bend in the road was some new desert vista, each one vastly different than the one before. And with every passing cloud the light changed, essentially remaking the land in a totally new image, all within minutes.
And just when you’ve all but forgotten what brought you here, you crest a hill and see a telltale line of telephone poles, still marching westward to the horizon.
Next time you’re in New Mexico to admire the hollyhocks, you’ll be sure to work up an appetite. And Route 66 is dotted with some of the best lunch spots in the Land of Enchantment. My favorite is probably the Plaza Cafe, the oldest recipe in Santa Fe (yes, Route 66 goes through Santa Fe…or it did, anyway; that’s a story for another day). I didn’t know that fact when we walked in, but it makes sense: both the food and the decor make this place a keeper.
Downstate a bit in Albuquerque is another Route 66 relic that is still alive and well. You might recognize it from my earlier post featuring its sister property across the street. Like the Plaza Cafe, this place is quintessentially New Mexican, inside and out.
El Camino was chosen for us by some local friends, and it turns out they knew us well. From the impeccably preserved interior to the killa-dilla sopapillas, I was ready to move in by the end.
There are few Route 66 landmarks more iconic than the art installation known as Cadillac Ranch, so the Tailor and I were really looking forward to seeing it in person. Unfortunately, however, long before we reached Amarillo we knew we’d lose the race for daylight. To make matters worse, a big thunderstorm was rapidly approaching from the west, the intermittent flashes of lightning coming ever closer, ever more quickly. Not exactly ideal weather to go fumbling around in the dark in search of roadside attractions. After all, it’s not like Cadillac Ranch is in the center of town—it’s out in the middle of an unmarked field, and I had a sneaking suspicion there were no floodlights trained on those cars.
The Tailor really wanted to stop anyway, and said, “Surely it’s lit after dark. It’s so famous!” I told him I didn’t think so—according to our maps we were within spitting distance of it, and there was nothing but inky black out there. Besides, the Texas Panhandle is so flat that if it were lit at all, we would have seen it from miles away.
I’m sorry to say I was right about that: it’s not lit. At all. It’s not marked in any way—at least, not by any method that could be discerned by headlight. We drove back and forth a few times on the mile-long stretch of beat-up frontage road to which I’d narrowed down the location, while I peered through the passenger-side window into the darkness, hoping a flash of lightning might give us a clue. Finally I broke down and, for the one and only time on our entire Route 66 trip, consulted the GPS map on my phone to see if we’d found the right place. With the one available bar of mobile service, our insistence on paper maps was at least vindicated: we had gotten the location precisely right.
“This is the spot, ” I said. “Can’t see anything, but we’re looking right at it.”
“Wait,” he answered, “maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of it in the storm.”
We waited. A few heartbeats of silence.
And then: CRACK.
A fork of lightning, directly in front of us, not half a mile ahead. The flash illuminated ten unmistakeable silhouettes for a split second that felt like an eternity.
We looked at each other and simultaneously burst into nervous cackling, our eyes wide, the hairs on the napes of our necks standing on end.
Route 66 was commissioned during something of a golden age of American infrastructure design. Thanks to various building booms and organizations like the WPA, the highway is studded with functional architecture that is also incredibly beautiful. One shining example is the magnificent Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena.
Curving gracefully across the Arroyo Seco that divides Los Angeles from its inner-ring suburbs, the bridge was once the tallest concrete span on earth. Sadly, this may be what inspired the bridge’s more well-known moniker: Suicide Bridge. Over a hundred suicides have taken place there over the years—the vast majority of them during the Great Depression. With so many deaths to its name, the bridge also has a reputation for ghost sightings and other haunted tales.
I knew none of this on the day I crossed (and sketched) the Arroyo. To me, the bridge was just a stunning welcome to Los Angeles, the last major city on Route 66. I guess it’s a fitting way to cross over into the City of Angels.
Polly want a pit stop?
If you’re going to take a road trip, at some point you’re going to need to refuel. And nobody knows how to fill your tank like the folks on Route 66. Of course, since the route crosses a big swath of American oil country, you’ll know that the milk of the Mother Road is petroleum.
The thing is, though, the designers and architects and advertisers and engineers responsible for putting gas stations all along the route got into the spirit of 66 in their own unique ways. Forget what you know about ugly garages lining Interstate exits—many of Route 66’s filling stations are downright works of art.
And many of them look absolutely nothing like gas stations.
Interestingly, the Mother Road was built at a time when more and more Americans owned automobiles—all over the country there was an increasingly large demand for petrol. Filling stations moved into town centers and residential neighborhoods, and some oil companies wanted their fuel stops to blend in with the neighborhood architecture.
Since American architecture is highly regional in nature, many of these “camoflaged” filling stations took on the look of their local culture—Spanish-Mission-style canopies in California, limestone façades in the Ozarks, clapboard farmhouse lookalikes in the Plains, etc. And then, of course, architectural tastes changed over the years, so you’ll find examples from the Victorian era to midcentury pop-Googie, and everything in between. (Not to mention the tradition of kitschy filling stations shaped like random objects or weird ho-made roadside giants.) Finally, each oil company wanted to attract customers away from the others, so they relied on creating distinctive architectural styles as a form of branding. The result is a veritable encyclopedia of diverse and spectacular specimens—and Route 66 might just have the best collection of all.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
After a few hundred miles, we started getting really good at spotting the buildings that used to be filling stations (this is an obvious one, but many had been deeply camoflaged, or totally remade in some other image, or else fallen into ruin). And we also developed a knack for pegging which style belonged to which company (above is a classic 1930s Texaco design).
Then again, sometimes a building would throw us completely—the sealed-up garage bays hint at the Blue Dome’s history, but if I didn’t know better, I would have guessed this was once a Greek Orthodox church or something.
The filling stations of Route 66 also serve as markers of time’s passage, and the rise and fall of communities along the way. This one is all that remains of a ghost town in Missouri that fell into disuse when the highway changed its route. (I’m not talking about the advent of the Interstate, either, although that’s a common story—this place lost its prime spot decades before that, when the 66 alignment was simply moved to a spot further south.)
Ranco Cucamonga, California
While many petroleum relics have faded into oblivion, others are being brought back, at least in some form or other. Above is one of the oldest specimens we found (it actually predates the birth of Route 66 by nearly a decade). While part of the structure has been torn down, at least the main part of the station is getting a lovely facelift.
It’s not just the oldest samples being preserved, either. This guy is only a little over fifty years old, but it, too, has been returned to its former glory.
For many old stations, however, the opposite is true. Countless specimens either sit empty, their original purpose unknown to the average passerby—or else they get cannibalized and transformed into some other creature, usually without any fanfare.
These stories of disrepair and restoration interest me greatly, of course, but what really gets me is the story of each place: the whys and wherefores of each station, and the tastes and quirks of the people who either built or ran them.
Cool Springs, Arizona
After all, Route 66 crosses through some seriously unpopulated territory. Many of these old filling stations were the only game in town—or in the most remote corners, something closer to the last chance for salvation.
While others, meanwhile, live on in notoriety, attracting tourists to the spots where blood was shed or infamous characters once stood.
Still, most tell the story of perfectly ordinary people running perfectly ordinary businesses along one of the backbones of American travel and commerce. They might be extraordinary today, but usually that’s boils down to having somehow lasted long enough to stand out amongst more modern surroundings.
I’m glad, at least, that I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed these things—that there is an army of conservators and historians and artists and boosters out there, preserving as many of these old filling stations as possible, and documenting the ones that can’t be saved.
I know that these days, oil companies have fallen out of public favor (heaven knows I have my own beef with the oil industry)—regardless of their nostalgia, these places are also reminders of American excess and the damaging effects of fossil fuels. Yet however we may be careening toward Peak Oil, these relics still have a place on the Mother Road—the path that might just traverse this country’s Peak History.