The Main Street Of America, Then And Now: Photos Of U.S. Route 66

When U.S. Route 66 opened on November 11, 1926, it changed America. One of the original highways in the country, Route 66 gave Americans the opportunity to travel West, and escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. From the time it was created, the highway brought American cities along the route to life. From Chicago to California, business popped up along Route 66 and could barely keep up with demand, as tourists traveled the country by road.

Then, in 1985, the famed Route 66 became America’s past time. Interstate 40 was established, not only diverting traffic away from the highway as a more convenient route but replacing some of the rural sections entirely. To add insult to injury, Officials of the American State Highway and Transportation Association officially decommissioned Route 66. Some businesses survived, but most are abandoned. See what the community of Carthage, Missouri did to keep Route 66 alive in their town.

Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Fifteen years after Route 66 was built, the Blue Swallow Motel opened its doors. The 12-unit motel, which also has a cafe, is one of the longest operating motels on Route 66 in New Mexico. Signs boasting “TV” and “100% Refrigerated Air” lured drivers in.

In 1958, Floyd Redman purchased the property as an engagement gift to his wife Lillian. Although vacancy increased as more traffic diverted to Interstate 40, Lillian remained in love with the property. She managed the motel for 40 years, continuing on after he husband’s death. When she eventually sold the motel, she purchased a house nearby, and would often visit until her death in 1999.

Wigwam Village Motel #6 in Holbrook, Arizona

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Instagram/hobby_enthusiast

Designed by Chester E. Lewis, Wigwam Village Motel is a group of motel rooms created to look like teepees, right off Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona. Lewis was inspired by the original Wigwam Village, designed by architect Frank Redford, located in Cave City, Kentucky.

Opened in 1950, this is the sixth Wigwam Village which features fifteen teepees arranged in a semi-circle. Each teepee is designed at 21 feet wide and 28 feet tall and is furnished with the original hickory furniture, bed, and a bathroom. Lewis left many of his vintage cars around the property to maintain its retro aesthetic.

Hackberry General Store in Hackberry, Arizona

Lou GRIVE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Lou GRIVE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Located in what’s become a ghost town in Arizona, the Hackberry General Store opened its doors in 1934 and was then called the Northside Grocery and Conoco station. Like several other historic landmarks on this list, the shop was forced to close in 1978 after Interstate 40 took people elsewhere. Luckily, it was given a second chance at life in 1992.

That’s when artist and cartographer Bob Waldmire re-opened the shop as a general store. Waldmire was known for traveling in his orange 1972 Volkswagen Microbus and was awarded the National Historic Route 66 Federation’s John Steinbeck Award for preserving the shop. The location is now a souvenir shop, and his bus is featured in the Route 66 Hall of Fame.

Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, Arizona

Robert Alexander/Getty Images/two_wheeled_scot
Robert Alexander/Getty Images/two_wheeled_scot

The Jack Rabbit Trading Post opened in the 1940s and still operates today. While many destinations along Route 66 perished with the opening of Interstate 40, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post pushed forward. The shop’s owner, James Taylor, bought billboards along the Mother Road, and also set-up hand-painted signs to urge tourists to pull off the road and visit the souvenir shop.

His “HERE IT IS” sign is repainted every few years to keep it in good shape. You can also tell that the jackrabbit statue has been replaced since the original. While it now officially resides on I-40, this Route 66 gem isn’t going anywhere.

Rainbow Rock Shop in Holbrook, Arizona

Located just off Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona, the Rainbow Rock Shop is hard to miss. Owner Adam Luna built the shop’s seven cement dinosaurs himself, and it reportedly took him 20 years. As its name implies, the shop sells a variety of rare rocks and gems, as well as petrified wood.

Some people deem this shop as a tourist trap, as Luna charges tourists around one dollar to take a photo with the dinosaurs. Others say the money is worth it. One reviewer wrote, “The owner truly loves his rocks! He and his store are a Holbrook treasure.”

Joe & Aggie’s Cafe in Holbrook, Arizona

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images/Braunger/ullsteinbild
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images/Braunger/ullsteinbild

Also located in Holbrook, Arizona is Joe & Aggie’s Cafe. Amazingly, this business is still in operation and is the oldest restaurant in town. Its still family owned and operated since it first opened its doors in 1943. Serving Mexican and American food, co-owner Kimberly Gallegos recalls the family business being busy all the time as a child.

“We were packed all the time,” Gallegos told, “You’d go out here on the street and it was like trying to cross a freeway. There was standing room they would stand outside for 20-30 minutes to get a table.” Then, I-40 opened, and it became a ghost town. Thankfully, Joe & Aggie’s was provided with a grant to keep the business running. While they say their business isn’t as busy as it used to be, tourism is picking up.

Sage Motel in Needles, California

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the city of Needles, California was a major stop on Route 66. For immigrants coming from the Midwest Dust Bowl, Needles was their official entry into the state of California. For decades, the town was filled with tourists who would shop and stay at one of the many motels.

The Sage Motel was a popular resting place. Once beautifully painted, surrounded by green landscape, the motel is now abandoned and closed. With Death Valley just to the north, it isn’t rare for Needles to break temperature records for being the hottest place in the country, or even the world.

Roy’s Motel Cafe in Amboy, California

Pinterest/Getty Images
Pinterest/Getty Images

Roy Crowl opened his gas and service station back in 1938. Along with his son-in-law, Herman “Buster” Burris, they expanded the business by adding a cafe and an auto shop. The two men are figures in their town, as they are responsible for bringing electricity to Amboy by building and running their own powerlines from the city of Barstow.

The garage and cafe were booming the 1950s, and the family business was also scrambling to hire more staff to keep up. Sadly, on the day I-40 opened, Burris said his business “went down to zero.” The entire town was sold in 2005 for a measly $425,000. While there is some talk of renovation, delivery costs of gas and lack of potable water have made things very difficult. Roy’s is still closed.

El Rancho Motel in Barstow, California Took A Beating

Flckr/David McNew/Getty Images
Flckr/David McNew/Getty Images

Once a major landmark along Route 66, El Rancho Hotel in Barstow, California has suffered major damage. In 2006 there was an arson fire that destroyed an entire section of the motel. While it remains open, it’s clear that the hotel has been neglected and is not in the beautiful condition it once was.

The hotel has only received a two-and-a-half star rating on Google, with visitors citing that it now attracts a dangerous crowd in San Bernardino County, California. One review warned: “Within 20 seconds of our arrival we were challenged from across the parking lot by a drug dealer, and a prostitute near him raised her miniskirt to us.”

66 Drive-In Theater in Carthage, Missouri

This Route 66 landmark offers a happy ending. Originally built in 1949, the 66 Drive-In Theatre in Carthage, Missouri was a popular spot for locals, as well as road-tripping tourists to pull up in their car and catch a movie.

The historic drive-in theatre opened before television was available in the area, and little-by-little, as families stayed home to watch TV and films, or opt for the cinema, the Drive-In’s popularity faded. In 1985, it closed. Luckily, the community rallied to open the theatre again. It was renovated in 1997 and reopened in 1998.