The point of our Route 66 trip was to take in America at ground level – to experience the countryside’s changing terrain as we moved west, to enjoy the small towns that dot the route, and to take in any tourist traps that interested us. But me being me, I also wanted to see some old-road infrastructure. So I favored the oldest alignments in hopes of finding some old pavement. I was not disappointed.
We found only one brick segment, just north of Auburn, IL. But oh, was it glorious – and well tended, too, with every brick in place and no asphalt patches. It lasted for about a mile.
A section of the old highway on the edge of Lexington, IL, is open only to pedestrians. It’s known as Memory Lane because it is lined with vintage-style billboards and Burma-Shave signs.
Route 66’s first alignment in much of southern Illinois was routed along what had been State Route 4 at about the same time it was being paved in concrete, which was in 1926. Notice the lack of expansion joints. Early concrete highways were usually a long ribbon of concrete, which then predictably cracked as the seasons warmed and cooled it. By the end of the 1920s, highway departments pretty much everywhere were placing a central expansion joint and usually regularly spaced lateral expansion joints in their concrete roads to retard cracking.
This stretch of concrete is most famous for the marks a turkey left in it while it was still wet.
About four miles west of Doolittle, MO, we found not only some abandoned Route 66, but some abandoned and obliterated Interstate 44. There isn’t much information about this stretch of I-44 on the Internet so I’m not sure why it was rerouted. But it had the unfortunate effect of cutting off this alignment of the Mother Road.
Here’s the abandoned stretch of Route 66. I-44 used to be on the right. We went here to see John’s Modern Cabins, a kind of motel, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post. The green arrow in the map excerpt above marks the location of this photo.
The segment of concrete pavement in this photo passes a restored former Phillips 66 service station in Spencer, Missouri. Notice the center expansion joint and the lack of cracking in this concrete.
One of the most significant stretches of old pavement is the “ribbon road” or “sidewalk highway” south of Miami, Oklahoma. This pavement is all of nine feet wide! That’s narrower than a single modern highway lane. The state of Oklahoma completed this road in 1922, and Route 66 was routed along it when it was “born” in 1927. The 1910s and 1920s were a highly experimental time for those who built highways.
Route 66 was realigned here in 1937, which is what saved this historic pavement – the old alignment became just a rural road and was not improved. This road is a concrete pad overlaid with a thin layer of asphalt. It is in very poor condition; the asphalt is missing in many places and is often covered in gravel.
My favorite stretch of old pavement begins just west of El Reno, Oklahoma, and runs for nearly 80 miles west to Elk City. It’s a concrete road, laid in about 1930. The first 40 miles or so west of El Reno are gloriously free of I-40, which parallels (and occasionally interrupts) it the rest of the way to Elk City. Driving these first 40 miles was among my most favorite experiences on the trip. This 80-year-old concrete is mostly in wonderful condition – with crumbling asphalt patches in most low spots, so even though the speed limit is 55, slow down where the road is patched.
Once upon a time, this road was choked with traffic. Route 66 was a very busy highway! Today, not so much.
I’ve geotagged all of these photos, so if you’d like to find these locations yourself, click them to see them on Flickr and use Flickr’s map to pinpoint them.
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Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey