April 21, 2010

A Look Back: Route 66 still remembered fondly

The original Summit Inn in the Cajon Pass around 1928 on Route 66.
(The Press-Enterprise)
Special to The Press-Enterprise

Historic Route 66 has been honored by festivals, TV, movies and song since its inception on Nov.11, 1926, and still exists in the memories of those who traveled this Main Street of America or the Mother Road to come west.

In 1857, by order of the War Department, Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a Naval officer in the service of the U.S. Army Topographical Corps, built a government-funded wagon road across the 35th Parallel, which later became part of U.S. Route 66.

Also known as the Will Rogers Highway by 1940, named after the humorist, the highway linked Chicago to Los Angeles over 2,448 miles. The route crossed through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, eventually ending in Santa Monica.

The road planners meant for the route to connect main streets of the cities and rural areas because until then, most small towns had no access to major national thoroughfares. The highway became a major route for the Dust Bowl 1930s migrants to follow west. As the road grew in popularity, businesses such as restaurants, filling or gas stations and neon-lit motels popped up along the route, making traveling easier for the public.

From the 1930s to through the 1960s, the road was well-traveled by millions of people heading west for opportunity to those taking their children to California for a vacation to Disneyland or the beach.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway System was instituted by the Federal Highway Act, more popularly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.

The interstates effectively replaced the need for Route 66 and other routes. In 1984, Route 66 was officially deactivated.

The deactivation stirred nostalgic people to honor the route, and many state and local associations were formed to celebrate Route 66 with festivals, fairs, antique car meets, conventions and parades.

One of those festivals is held annually in San Bernardino to celebrate the highway and that era when it was popularly used. A TV show, Route 66, featured two men and a Corvette traveling the route and encountering adventure.

The song about the highway has the words, "Get your kicks on Route 66." In the movie "Grapes of Wrath" from the book by John Steinbeck, the family travels the "Mother Road" to California for work.

Nick Cataldo, local historian, special education teacher and past president and member of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society, recently gave a presentation and talk to the society about the history of Route 66 through San Bernardino County and his own experiences traveling it as his family moved to California in 1966.

"I remember the trip from New Jersey. You'd see New Jersey plates on other cars and wave to the people. There was a camaraderie on that road," said Cataldo. "You'd stop at a cafe and see the same people on the road with you."

He said that today's response to constantly running into and seeing the same people on a freeway might have a different consequence.

"They'd probably shoot you!" he said.

He said the I-40 and I-15 obliterated the need for Route 66, but there are still memorable cafes and motels along the route.

Cataldo said Juan Pollo owner Albert Okura bought Roy's Cafe in Amboy and hopes to open it once again for those nostalgic for that era. Main Street in Barstow and D Street in Victorville were once part of the route. Over the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino, Route 66 followed today's Cajon Blvd. to Mt.Vernon Ave. south to 5th St. and then Foothill Blvd. from San Bernardino to the Los Angeles County line.

Along the route, old restaurants, motels and gas stations, most abandoned or razed, served travellers.

Cataldo said the Summit Inn at the top of Cajon Pass, one of those places, still serves the traveler and has a lot of Route 66 flavor, with old signs and gas pumps. Mitla Cafe, a Mexican restaurant opened in 1937 at Mt. Vernon Avenue and 6th St. in San Bernardino, the Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino and the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga opened in 1921, are all survivors and serve travelers today.

The 21st Annual Route 66 Rendezvous will be held in San Bernardino Sept. 16 through 19 this year.