Along Route 66
8th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium
on Heritage Interpretation
Charleston, South Carolina
May 5 - 8, 2005
path and road stood for some intense experience: freedom, new
human relationships, a new awareness of the landscape. The road
offered a journey into the unknown that could end up allowing
us to discover who we were and where we belonged.” John
Brinkerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time
The challenges of interpreting significant cultural corridors
are many, and often include complexities of geographic distance,
layering of history, and diversity of cultural themes. Historic
Route 66 characterizes many of these challenges, as the corridor
is more than 2,400 miles in length; and passes through hundreds
of communities along the length of the route. An additional
challenge is the corridor’s relationship to the recent
past, a period of time that is often under-valued or little
This paper will discuss how the National Park Service (NPS)
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is working with stakeholders
including private property owners, nonprofit organizations,
and government agencies, to address issues of interpretation
along the cultural corridor. The NPS program, established in
2001, is directed by the United States Congress to provide financial
and technical assistance to stakeholders for historic preservation
of the corridor. One of the roles of the NPS program is to encourage
and support grassroots interpretive initiatives, in a deliberate
effort to maintain the “idiosyncratic nature of the Route”
(Public Law 106-45.) The diversity of interpretive medium and
approaches such as wayside exhibits, museum and visitor center
exhibits, oral history, and literature is presented in the paper.
The needs, strengths, and effects of these grassroots interpretive
efforts are discussed.
Automobile Highways and the Significance of Route 66
United States ushered in the automobile age in the early part
of the 20th century, and with it came the symbiotic relationship
of the car and the highway. History will look at this car culture
era as pivotal in how people interact and conduct their daily
lives. Auto highways can unite and provide efficient means to
travel long distances. But they can also divide as witnessed
by highways slicing through neighborhoods of the disenfranchised,
separating the “haves” from the “have nots”.
Highways have dictated how we live today, and how our city and
suburban plans have developed.
J. B. Jackson states in A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, “…
the road has long suffered from neglect by historians and students
of the landscape: dismissed as an unsightly, elongated, crooked
space used by merchants and ravaging armies and highway robbers…”
automobile highways throughout the world are finally being considered
as important parts of our 20th century heritage. Highways such
as the German autobahn system, the early designed Swiss auto
routes, the Pan American Highway, and the designed roads within
the U.S. National Parks are just a few examples. Even the U.S.
interstate system, considered by many to be the largest man-made
structure in the world, is gaining recognition as a seminal
social phenomena that has changed, for better or worse, the
way people interact and travel.
66 is one of the best known of these highways. Even though its
period of significance spanned only six decades from 1926 to
1970, the name of this historic corridor is recognizable by
millions of people all over the world. Some would be reticent
to consider placing Route 66 in the same category with other
historic routes in the world such as the Silk Road, Camino de
Santiago, the Tokaido Road, and the many Caminos Reales in the
former Spanish Empire. However, Route 66 is representative of
the enormous significance and large-scale impact of the automobile
on the development, history, and culture of America. It is unique
among other historic automobile highways because of its phenomenal
relationship with the arts, and its popularity as an all-weather
route connecting the industrial Midwest to the California coast.
Created in 1926, Route 66 cut across America through eight states
from Chicago to Los Angeles linking rural communities to urban
ones, and permitting an unprecedented flow of ideas and economic
growth across the country. It saw the migration of Dust Bowl
refugees; World War II troop movement; large-scale settlement
of the West; and the advent of car culture and automobile tourism.
For many people in the United States, the highway has come to
symbolize the spirit and freedom of America, and the pursuit
of the American Dream. It has gained legendary status through
literature, song, film, television, and personal experiences,
and represents an important developmental chapter in American
The National Park Service and Route 66
Historic automobile highways are similar in many respects to
officially designated National Historic Trails (such as the
Oregon and Santa Fe) in that they are linear cultural resources
with stories to tell, many of them thousands of miles long,
crossing diverse cultural landscapes, and representing diverse
public and private ownerships. However, historic highways differ
from historic trails in that most historic highways are still
in use, thus posing the challenge of balancing growth and safety
needs of the traveling public with the need to preserve the
character defining features of the highway. There is also no
established program to deal exclusively with the preservation
of historic highways in the United States, as there is with
the historic trails through the National Trails System Act of
1968. Nonetheless, in response to the public’s desire
to preserve the rich resources of what many have termed the
“Mother Road,” the Route 66 Corridor Preservation
Program was established by Congressional directive. This unique
program is administered by the National Park Service’s
National Trails System in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Designed as
a “seed,” or stimulus, program, it is scheduled
to legislatively terminate at the end of fiscal year 2009, at
which time a non-federal entity (or entities) will continue
the program’s purpose. Route 66 is the first automobile
highway in the United States to receive multi-year funding from
Congress to assist in its preservation and continued use.
The program collaborates with private property owners; non-profit
organizations; and local, state, federal, and tribal governments
to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs.
It provides cost-share grants to successful applicants for the
preservation and restoration of the most significant and representative
properties dating from the route’s period of outstanding
historical significance. These properties include the familiar
transportation related properties such as motels, gas stations,
cafés; the engineered road and associated road features
such as bridges, culverts, and guard rails; and the all encompassing
Cost-share grants are also available for research, planning,
oral history, interpretation, and education/outreach projects
related to Route 66, for the purpose of gaining insight into
the history, context and significance of the highway, as well
as to preserve the stories and experiences of the people and
culture of the road. The program also serves as a clearinghouse
of preservation information, and provides limited technical
National Park Service and Interpretation
has been a leader and role model in professional interpretation
in the United States and internationally for many decades. In
the 1950s, NPS hired Freeman Tilden, a journalist, to visit
the national parks and evaluate their interpretive programs.
After visiting many park areas, viewing many indoor and outdoor
exhibits, and attending many ranger-led interpretive programs,
Tilden developed several principals that defined effective interpretation.
These principals were the “mantra” for professional
interpreters up until 1996. At that time NPS reevaluated and
updated their definition of effective interpretation. Almost
ten years later, this new definition has been accepted by most
of the other land management agencies in the USA as well as
non-federal visitor-use facilities such as museums, state and
local parks, private nature centers, etc.
biggest shift in the definition of interpretation is that rather
than the ranger, volunteer, docent, etc. providing the interpretation
for the visitor; the interpretation happens within the visitor.
So, a personal service such as a guided walk, or a non-personal
service such as a museum exhibit, provides the visitor an interpretive
opportunity. It is up to the visitor as to whether they take
that opportunity or not.
essence of this “opportunity” is that it provide
the visitor a connection to the emotional and intellectual values
inherent in the resource. The person and/or the media serves
as a catalyst for the visitor to make those connections. The
emotional connections are those “universal” concepts
that we as human share regardless of culture, country, or continent.
These would include family, community, safety, fear, love, death,
hate, survival, etc.
of Tilden’s concepts that has not changed in 50 years
is the essence of why we even provide interpretive opportunities
in the first place, and that is—through interpretation
comes understanding; through understanding comes appreciation;
and through appreciation comes protection. We protect those
things we appreciate!
application of interpretive techniques along historic corridors
is different from those within the boundaries of a National
Park. Usually there is no controlled visitor experience, and
there are no entrance stations. Many travelers along historic
corridors are “accidental tourists” who may suddenly
see a sign indicating they are on an historic route, or find
a wayside exhibit along the road that interprets the location
in context with the corridor. The stop at a wayside exhibit
may be just to get out and stretch after hours at the wheel.
The challenge is to transform these people’s momentary
interest into captivation.
that is effective, and that makes places come alive, is usually
brief. It gets to core ideas quickly (Payne). NPS interpretive
strategies strive to stimulate that exhilarating sense of connection
with place, and to bring to life the most compelling aspects
of a story. Interpretation that presents large amounts of text
or too many panels, tends to interfere with the visitor’s
ability to experience the story that is waiting to be conveyed.
The profession has learned when to interpret, and when not to
interpret; what to interpret and what not interpret. It has
evolved to be sensitive to the country’s multi-cultural
complexity. The NPS philosophy is in-line with the philosophy
put forth in the Ename ICOMOS Draft Charter, in that “interpretive
programs must play second fiddle to the actual place, that they
remain discreet; and that the authenticity of the site –
in whatever way the host culture or associated communities may
conceive it to be – never be sacrificed for the sake of
an interpretive program” (US/ICOMOS Newsletter, number
3, third quarter of 2004). Of course, along a 2,400 mile route
such as Route 66, there are many opportunities for interpretation
without being obtrusive.
Route 66, NPS, and Interpretation
the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999 that established
the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Congress directed
Secretary (of Interior) shall assist in the preservation of
the Route 66 corridor in a manner that is consistent with the
idiosyncratic nature of the Route 66 corridor”
are probably very few instances in which Congress has used the
word “idiosyncratic” in an official congressional
Act. What was Congress’ intent? From a number of public
scoping meetings held along the 2,400 mile route in the 1990s,
NPS heard requests for the federal government to provide technical
assistance and cost-share grant funds for preservation. Implied
in these meetings was the desire to not have the federal government
develop an overall interpretative plan or approach for the route,
but rather to maintain the idiosyncratic character of the route
through various interpretive media expressed locally along the
road by grassroots, local, and/or regional entities. In its
Route 66 Special Resource Study, NPS stressed to Congress the
importance of the idiosyncratic nature of the road.
Act also states: “The Secretary (of Interior) shall develop
a program of technical assistance in the preservation and interpretation
of the Route 66 corridor.” The key word here is assistance.
The Act does not instruct the federal government to lead or
manage interpretation. So what role can the Route 66 Corridor
Preservation Program play in interpreting the corridor?
66 - Fact and Fiction
America has always had a love for the highway. The arts have
nurtured this obsession with roads through such works as: John
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, William Least Heat-Moon’s
Blue Highways, the movie Easy Rider, and the plethora of songs
written about highway travel, such as Get Your Kicks on Route
66. The most widely known image of Route 66 is the one of two
young Anglo men in a corvette from the Route 66 television show
who are looking to find themselves on the open road. The story
evokes the “good old days” of the 1960s with fast
cars, wide open spaces, roadside architecture, and beautiful
people filling the screen. Re-runs of these episodes are still
being shown in Europe and Asia and are one of the reasons for
such widespread international recognition.
how about the lesser known stories? There are many layers of
history to be told along most historic corridors, and Route
66 is no exception. Much of Route 66 follows the 35th parallel
that has served as a natural travel corridor for millennia.
Along many parts of the route, traces of the Trail of Tears,
the Santa Fe Trail and the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National
Historic Trails are underneath the pavement. There are many
American Indian stories to be told, many stories of the early
Spanish and French exploration and settlements, and the later
conquering of the West by the Anglo culture. During the time
Route 66 was commissioned, the road was known as Bloody 66 because
of the tragic accidents caused by traffic congestion and fast
cars. There are many stories as well about how Route 66 was
rerouted around downtown areas to alleviate congestion, leaving
businesses along the former route without customers. Termed
the Road of Flight in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Route
66 was used as a migrant route for people searching for better
lives during the Depression. There was segregation of services
along the road, as there were along most roads throughout the
country. Even though the road was public, the services were
not. If you were Black and traveling along the route up until
the 1960s, you could not sleep at just any motel, or eat at
just any restaurant, or gas up at just any filling station.
You had to know where to stop for the services, or you were
in trouble. This was also many times the case with Latinos,
Indians, and other minorities.
of existing types of interpretation on the road
road interprets itself
Interpretation of Route 66 is really the experiencing of Route
66. In many ways it interprets itself. Even though Route 66
was officially decommissioned in 1985, 85% of it can still be
driven. Route 66 is traveled by thousands of people every year
who are seeking an “authentic” American experience.
The route has become a heritage tourism destination for regional,
national, and especially, international travelers. This heritage
tourism brings economic enrichment to many small, rural communities.
Travelers want to experience the car culture on the open road,
the wide-open spaces, traveling for days without borders, visiting
drive-in theatres and drive-up diners. The visitor knows that
to travel Route 66 is to experience the “real thing”;
that is, the authentic, idiosyncratic America, which is very
different from the formulaic Disneylands. Route 66 has no pretensions,
no waitresses with canned chained mantras such as “my
name is Laura and I will be your server today”. The waitresses,
and other service professions, are often the best, first person,
interpreters the road offers.
sensory stimuli of the open road make the experiences real and
alive: the slower pace of the two lane roads, opened car windows
where you can experience muggy air, or a brisk, fall chill.
The “thump, thump” of the car traveling over the
concrete-seamed road. The smell of horse pastures and freshly
cut hay. The sights of the landscape, of billboards enticing
travelers to stop to see live rattlesnakes, of farmers in the
fields, of vernacular house and vernacular art, of the roadside
architecture with its gas stations, cafes, and motels. The sounds
of nature, of local radio stations such as the ones in Navajo
through western New Mexico announcing specials at a Kentucky
Fried Chicken. The contours of the road as it winds around hills
and mesas, instead of through them. The commonplace, the vernacular,
becomes special. For many, these sensory experiences don’t
need to be interpreted.
One of the most widely used forms of interpretation is the guidebooks
and maps that have been developed by historians, researchers,
nonprofit groups, and others. These are available for travel
in the individual states, and also for the national route. As
different authors produce them, they vary in their approach,
content, and format, but are typically readily available through
bookstores, and Internet sources.
Since Route 66 was decommissioned, the various Departments of
Transportation (DOT), in collaboration with Route 66 Associations
and tourism offices, have marked exits along the interstates
(that usually parallel Route 66 by within a half-mile) with
distinctive “Historic Route 66” signs. In addition,
many DOTs have marked the actual highway corridor to serve as
pathfinders for those traveling the route. Some of the historic
properties along the corridor have signs that have been installed
by either private business owners, or by non-profit organizations.
Within the last few years, Hampton Inn has placed 66 interpretive
“points of interest” signs, with the company logo,
at prominent transportation-related properties along the route.
Hampton’s placement of these signs were many times done
with media fanfare and work days where Hampton Inn employees
would refurbish an historic property.
Visitor centers/rest stops
Each of the eight states has visitor centers and/or rest stops
for the traveling public on the interstates near Route 66. Many
of these facilities direct travelers to the old road, and provide
informational brochures about Route 66. Some are Route 66 themed
where the public is made aware of the Route’s importance
through two-dimensional panels, three dimensional exhibits and
audio/visual media. Two states that have capitalized on this
are Texas and Illinois.
There are numerous pull-offs along the corridor where wayside
exhibits have been installed by various entities. These range
from a wayside exhibit installed by the Illinois Route 66 Association
interpreting a barn roof billboard, to wayside exhibits prepared
and installed by the U.S. Forest Service interpreting historic
road beds west of Flagstaff, Arizona, to the Bureau of Land
Management interpreting the road alignment through the Mohave
Desert. There are instances as well of schools becoming actively
involved with interpreting the road. For example, a high school
teacher in Towanda, Illinois developed course curriculum that
involved his students in a multi-year project to develop and
install outdoor interpretive panels on an abandoned two-lane
stretch of Route 66 pavement, which now serves as a walking
trail for both visitors and the local community.
and city museums
Active interpretation along the corridor appears in small to
medium sized museums operated by local municipalities, non-profit
groups such as Route 66 Associations, and individuals. The majority
of the exhibits in the museums are designed and implemented
by local volunteers or paid local staff. The style and content
of exhibits often depends on the amount of staffing and annual
budgets. Some are open part-time or by appointment only. Many
combine the interpretation of local Route 66 history with the
history and traditions of the locale. Some of these museums
have received public funding to design and implement the exhibits,
and in some instances, to build a museum building or rehabilitate
a historic structure such as a gas station or café for
exhibit space. Others are developed by private and locally raised
funds. There may be as many as thirty of these types of facilities
along the route.
There are a few larger museums, two of which are run by the
states of Oklahoma and Missouri, whose purpose is to exclusively
interpret Route 66. These facilities have professionally designed
and fabricated exhibits, and full time staffs, along with a
core of docents who work to provide visitor services. Other
larger museums are not located on Route 66, but have incorporated
Route 66 exhibits. Of particular note is the Smithsonian National
History Museum in Washington D.C. which has installed its largest
exhibit ever titled “America on the Move”, in which
Route 66 is one of the main themes interpreted.
Highways such as Route 66 are unique in that many people who
traveled the road, worked at its businesses, or built the roadway,
are still alive, their stories begging to be captured. These
first person stories make places come alive. Over the years,
there have been scores of oral histories recorded that have
been used to interpret the history of the road. Most of these
have been collected by local historical societies or libraries.
Many of these have been used for interpretation at museums and
for published articles.
In addition to the afore mentioned interpretive media, each
state has a Route 66 Association that produces a newsletter
or magazine. The extent and type of material covered in the
publications varies from state to state. Many of these are available
to the traveling public along the route at restaurants, motels,
visitor centers, etc.
are two national publications that come out quarterly: The Route
66 Federation News and the Route 66 Magazine.
Each publishes articles on research/preservation related topics,
and popular stories about the corridor.
are frequent articles that appear in the more popular outlets
such as the Smithsonian and Sunset magazines. In addition, numerous
videos and other documentaries have been produced that interpret
the popular culture of the road. One documentary titled Route
66: Neon Road, funded in part by the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation
Program, documents the restoration of ten neon signs in New
Mexico as told from the business owners and sign makers perspectives.
This documentary, aired nationally on public television stations,
recently won a Rocky Mountain Emmy award for best cultural documentary.
Route 66 logo, typified by the Route 66 highway shield, can
be found all around the world. Numerous businesses, having nothing
to do with Route 66, have picked up on its usage.
of existing interpretation
How do the existing interpretive media effect the visitor experience
and what is learned? Many times, the small, local interpretive
efforts can be just as effective at interpreting the story as
the larger, professionally designed exhibits. They are eclectic
and unpredictable, like the road itself. There is a good mix
of local, regional, and national perspectives presented. Granted,
some locally designed exhibits may be too text heavy; others
may not be exhibiting materials that are sensitive to ambient
conditions such as light and humidity. But what is alluring
to the visitor is the local story of what the road meant to
people: the truck drivers, the café waitresses, the gas
station attendants, the road maintenance crews, the citizens
of the communities interacting with the mass flow of humanity
at their front door step every day.
is the danger of “too many” interpretative stops
along the corridor. If there is not communication among stakeholders
along the road, duplication of interpretive stories can occur,
thus running the risk of “boring” the traveler.
The “authentic experience” is also impacted if there
is a preponderance of buildings preserved like house museums
(interpretive stops). The challenge is to develop a good balance
of interpretive stops, with buildings that are being used to
service the community or traveler, such as motels, cafes, and
gas stations. A positive example is the Palm’s Grill in
Atlanta, Illinois. The building had been used as a café
for the majority of its existence, but has not operated as such
for a number of years. After much discussion among the community
members as to whether the property should serve as a visitor
center, where one could read about its use as a former diner,
the community instead decided to rehabilitate it as a diner
where one can actually eat a good mid-western meal and learn
about its history and the town’s history from the employees.
This is experiencing, and interpreting, the road at its best.
oral histories that have been collected in the past vary in
quality, content, and media durability. Most of these oral histories
are not easily accessible to the public or to researchers wishing
to learn more about a particular subject. Up until recently,
there was not a planned effort to interview a good cross-section
of persons who had been affected by the road.
such a mix of interpretive media, and entities producing the
media, there is varied quality in the visitor experience. This
is in line with the sense of independence and idiosyncratic
nature of the corridor, but can have the potential of providing
the visitor with information that can be overly redundant, incomplete,
or perhaps not reliable, making it difficult for the visitor
to gain a comprehensive perspective of the road.
The assistance role NPS is playing in the interpretation of
Route 66 is multi-faceted.
NPS is creating an inventory of existing interpretive facilities,
with annotations as to what and where the road is interpreted,
and to what level. NPS plans on providing a forum for communication
and information sharing between groups. The program is already
sharing information with local, state, federal interpretive
initiatives on request.
Historical Context and Statements of Significance
Resources of the recent past present special challenges. In
the case of Route 66, its close relationship with popular culture,
for example, has resulted with some frequency in the creation
of romanticized interpretations of the highway, at the expense
of historical fact.
NPS program has been instrumental in updating or developing
historic contexts in most of the states through which the highway
passes, as well as an overall national historic context to help
alleviate this issue. These contexts are the basis under which
individual National Register nominations are prepared. Each
of these contexts contains information about the history and
significance of the road that is concise and multi-faceted.
They put into context the societal issues during the period
of significance, as well as discuss the impacts the road had
on such groups as Indians, Blacks, Latinos, road builders, the
trucking industry, and the local businesses. These contexts
are available on the NPS program web site and are available
to all media sources. Tied in with this initiative is the nomination
of fifty transportation-related properties along the road. These
nominations can also be used for interpretation at various media
outlets such as visitor centers, museums, informational brochures,
etc. As a result of the national register nomination work, a
National Register Travel Itinerary is being developed on the
web that will enable heritage tourists to access information
through a GIS program about National Register properties along
NPS Interpretive Standards are already being shared with partners
through our web site and by one-on-one visits when requested.
These standards range from how to develop an effective story
line, to how to fabricate cost-efficient, durable wayside exhibits.
Interpretive staff within the National Trails System can also
provide the highest quality of mentoring and training when requested
by partners along the route.
The Program also distributes a resource guide in hard copy and
on the web that lists various private foundations and government
sources that provide funding for design and implementation of
exhibits, or other interpretive media such as wayside exhibits
and brochures along the corridor. Training opportunities are
also posted, such as those through the AASLH (American Association
of State and Local History), and the National Endowment for
The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is in its third year
of an oral history project in which ten oral history workshops
have been held along the route to instruct amateurs on the techniques
of collecting oral histories from a cross-section of informants,
and how to use these stories in the future for interpretation.
The project has also inventoried, annotated, and conducted a
condition assessment of the oral histories encountered from
over three hundred entities queried, and is investigating which
archival repositories would be most accessible and responsible
to house oral history collections from each state.
NPS Program has been fulfilling its directive from the U.S.
Congress to maintain the idiosyncratic nature of the route,
and to assist with its interpretation. Part of the eclectic
experience of traveling Route 66 is appreciating, and learning
from, the various types of grassroots interpretive media sprinkled
among the small towns and rural businesses. These represent
the wonderful stories already being told on the road. NPS offers
assistance in telling these stories in ways that can enhance
the visitor experience.
corridors are, in essence, linear heritage sites that should
have a prominent role in discussions dealing with heritage site
interpretation as outlined in the ICOMOS Ename Charter for the
Interpretation of Cultural Heritage Sites (third draft). The
NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program embraces the charter’s
objectives, and acknowledges that interpretation of cultural
corridors is an integral part of the preservation process and
fundamental to positive preservation outcomes.
ICOMOS Specialized Committee on Cultural Corridors has been
very active in promoting an understanding and appreciation among
ICOMOS members and the general public for the importance of
cultural corridors. The thoughtful work evident in the Ename
Charter draft, compliments the current initiatives of the Cultural
Corridors Specialized Committee.
affiliation of the authors:
Michael Taylor, Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Manager,
NPS; voting member of the ICOMOS Specialized Committee on Cultural
Kaisa Barthuli, Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Assoc.
Program Manager, NPS
Andrea Sharon, Interpretive Specialist,
National Trails System – IMR, NPS
John Brinkerhoff. A Sense of Place a Sense of Time. New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: The Cambridge
University Press, 1985.
challenge of interpreting heritage places.” US/ICOMOS
Newsletter number 3 – third quarter of 2004
Cherry. “Pearls on a String.” CRM, Cultural Resource
Management, Volume 20, No. 1, 1977.
States Department of Interior, National Park Service. Wayside
Exhibit Guidelines. National Center for Recreation and Conservation
and Harpers Ferry Center, 1998
States Government, National Park Service Special Resource Study/Route
66. Denver Service Center, 1995