How Did Route 66 Get Its Number?

30, April 2017

The black-and-white Route 66 shield is an internationally recognized symbol of America, on par with the Golden Gate Bridge, Gateway Arch, and Statue of Liberty. The road itself is a 2,400-mile icon of America’s collective memory. Even for those of us who weren’t around to drive it during its heyday, the number 66 is mythical. But what if that number had been different, like 60, 62, or even 60N?

If the road hadn’t been named Route 66, would it still have become the Main Street of America? We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that 66 was the number the highway’s promoters settled for. The path to Route 66’s birth is an interesting ride, and it starts with two roads boosters who had Missouri ties.

Cy Avery and John Woodruff

Black-and-white portrait photos of Cy Avery (left) and John Woodruff (right)Left: Cy Avery, the Father of Route 66. Image courtesy of Oklahoma State University. Right: John Woodruff, the godfather of roadbuilding. Image courtesy of Missouri State University.

In the 1920s, two men living less than 200 miles apart had incredibly similar visions for a transcontinental road that would become the foundation for the world’s most famous highway.

Cy Avery spent a decade in Missouri before moving to what eventually became the state of Oklahoma. Watching as the frontier transformed into a patchwork of oil-rich farms, Avery realized progress would soon grind to a halt without roads. He became chairman of the Oklahoma State Highway Commission in 1923 and was elected president of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) soon after. Under Avery’s lead, AASHO pressured Congress to pass a bill creating a comprehensive national-highway system. Avery dreamed of better roads everywhere, but he focused his vision on a curving road that would sweep through his beloved Tulsa, connecting it to the distant cities of Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California.

Although Avery is justifiably remembered as the Father of Route 66, another Missouri man also played a crucial role in the Mother Road’s creation and legacy. John Woodruff was born into poverty in central Missouri but took control of his education and became an attorney for the Frisco Railroad in St. Louis. In 1904 he moved to Springfield, Missouri, and soon ventured into development, dotting the city with hotels and office towers. Woodruff was a fervent roads booster who fought to win Springfield a connected region of roadways through his Inter-Ozarks Highway Association. He saw enormous potential in Springfield’s geographic location, calling it the crossroads of America, and dreamed of two transcontinental roads—one running east to west, the other north to south—that would intersect in the Queen City of the Ozarks.

The Federal Highway System Is Born

Sepia-toned photo of Jefferson Hotel (left) and black-and-white portrait photo of B. H. Piepmeier (right)Left: St. Louis's Jefferson Hotel, where many of the nation's highways were numbered. Missouri History Museum. Right: B. H. Piepmeier, Missouri highway engineer. Image courtesy of Missouri State University.

In the fall of 1925, a group of state highway representatives and members of the Bureau of Public Roads laid out a standardized numbering system for the future American highways. North-to-south highways would be odd numbered, with transcontinental routes ending in 1; east-to-west highways would be even numbered, with transcontinental routes ending in 0. Avery was among the five highway officials chosen to assign the numbers, along with Missouri highway engineer B. H. Piepmeier, who shared Woodruff and Avery’s grand hopes for the region’s highways.

On September 25, 1925, the group of five assembled at the Jefferson Hotel in St. Louis. Huddled over a map of the United States, they plotted out numbers on more than 75,000 miles of highway. You can still see many of these numbers in use while driving around today.

Highway 60 . . . and 62

Color postcard of the Colonial HotelJohn Woodruff’s Colonial Hotel, at the corner of St. Louis Street (Route 66) and Jefferson Avenue. It was demolished in 1997. Image courtesy of Springfield History Museum on the Square.

Avery’s much-touted Chicago–to–Los Angeles route was designated Highway 60. It broke the rules because the route wasn’t truly transcontinental, but Avery and Woodruff couldn’t have been more pleased with securing a major number. However, Kentucky governor William Fields was baffled to see no zero-numbered highway crossing his state. Highway 50 went north of Kentucky and Highway 70 went south, so what happened to Highway 60? He found it curving up through St. Louis and Chicago, an insult he refused to allow.

Fields demanded that the highway from Newport News, Virginia, to Los Angeles become Highway 60 and that Avery and Woodruff’s Chicago-bound highway take the (much less important) number 62. The highway board agreed and made the switch, leaving Missouri with more than 600,000 road maps featuring the now-incorrect name Highway 60 stretching across the state to St. Louis.

In the eyes of Avery, Woodruff, and Piepmeier, getting demoted to Highway 62 couldn’t have been a worse outcome. It was forgettable, a road to nowhere important. They fought against the number 62 through the spring, briefly considering naming the highway 60 North, before finally realizing they were losing the battle.

The Birth of a Legendary Road

Scan of Route 66 telegram dated April 30, 1926The last line of this telegram, “we prefer sixty six to sixty two,” was the first mention of Route 66. Image courtesy of Springfield History Museum on the Square.

The solution to the confusing puzzle came on April 30, 1926, in Springfield. Avery, along with Oklahoma highway engineer John Page, traveled up from Tulsa to meet with Piepmeier and discuss the dilemma at Woodruff’s Colonial Hotel. The men restlessly pored over a list of the 24 unused highway numbers, when one number suddenly jumped off the page. Perhaps it was the ease with which the number rolled off the tongue, or the shape and repetition of the double sixes. Whatever the reason, at four o’clock that afternoon, Avery and Piepmeier sent a three-line telegram to Washington. It read:

Regarding Chicago Los Angeles Road, if California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Illinois will accept Sixty Six instead of Sixty, we are inclined to agree to this change. We prefer Sixty Six to Sixty Two.

The other states agreed, and that simple telegram became the birth of the nation’s most famous highway. The U.S. Numbered Highway System was approved on November 11, 1926, and soon afterward the United States was connected like never before. Highway 66 quickly rose above all the rest thanks to a very concerted effort by the U.S. Highway 66 Association, which formed in Springfield the following year.

Woodruff became the group’s first president, hosting its early meetings in his Kentwood Arms Hotel. The association had two seemingly lofty goals: pave Highway 66 from end to end and make it the most famous road in America. The group’s drive paid off. It managed to get the entire road paved by 1938, and Highway 66 is now more famous than ever, despite being decommissioned more than 30 years ago.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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