Famed and feted Route 66 has been placed on a historic list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. But don’t immediately panic about the future of its hospitality industry.
Despite setbacks, the world’s most famous highway is not yet ready to put up the “no vacancy” signs when it comes to its decaying motels.
“This historic road might be staging a comeback,” writes YourHub.com of the 2,400-mile path from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“Staying at a vintage Route 66 motel is part of the charm and mystique of the Mother Road,” says Johnnie Meier, special projects manager for the New Mexico Route 66 Association. “When you travel, you should make memories. Staying at a franchise
motel is not making a memory.”
Soon after it opened in 1926, writer John Steinbeck labeled it the “Mother Road.” The path of Route 66 followed many of the trails originally forged by exploring pioneers in the early 1800s as Americans began the move westward. The brisk growth of more modern-day tourism spawned motels and service stations.
“Route 66 changed the travel landscape and cemented its reputation as a microcosm of the cultures of America linked by the automobile,” wrote the Associated Press.
During its heyday, it linked small town America. Thousands of hotels, such as The Wigwam, the Blue Swallow and the El Vado, lined its path.
Traffic along Route 66 and the businesses along it began to fade when the Interstate Highway Act was signed in 1956. Multi-lane interstates began to bypass the small town centers. By 1970, nearly all segments of Route 66 had been bypassed. The road was officially removed from the United States highway system in 1985.
The evolution of Route 66 in many ways parallels modern-day hotel history. Auto camps and tourist homes called cottages, offering minimal comfort at affordable prices, eventually led to motor courts with all rooms under one roof. Motor courts began offering additional amenities such as restaurants, swimming pools and souvenir shops.
Some famous hotel chains withered and died as Americans took to the interstates. One of the best-known was Harvey House.
Former dishwasher Fred Harvey was just 15 years old when he left his native Liverpool, England, to come to the U.S., where he started his first restaurant in St. Louis in 1853. His early restaurants were almost entirely at train station locations. He later expanded into hotels.
“Commonly referred to as Harvey Houses, these hotels offered comfort on a grand scale,” says a Harvey Web site.
When Harvey died in 1901, there were 15 hotels with his name, which by the 1970s had all gone out of business.
The Associated Press wrote that today, there are “at least 3,000 motels along the route (66) in various states of repair or disrepair.” But that could that be changing, in part because of a revival of interest in repairing old facilities and perhaps even building new ones. Retired entrepreneur Richard Talley thinks so.
Talley is president of Smalltown America, whose goal is to buy, renovate and reopen some of the motels along the route. His first project was the Motel Safari in Tucumari, NM, a 23-room structure built in the 1950s.
“There are still a lot of families and highway traffic that comes through town that love the old hotels but don’t want to be on a 50-year-old mattress with the springs popping through it,” he says.
A real hotbed of Route 66 renewal has been the small town of Williams, AZ, which has only 3,000 people but has 1,512 hotel rooms, some of them new. It has long been known as a year-round, old western tourist stop along Route 66.
The 16-room Rodeway Inn & Suites recently opened in the heart of downtown in this small city, often called the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”
“The historic motor hotels are experiencing a renaissance as new owners take over in many cases run-down properties and re-energize them with unique furnishings and a fresh exterior,” says Mike Finney, who has a local public relations company.
Finney points out that Route 66 - not only because of its nature but also because of the old television series of the same name - has become particularly popular for Europeans.
“It might surprise a lot of people to know it’s a very well-known destination throughout Europe and Asia,” he says. “There’s a strong interest because it opened up our country. And some of these (new hotels and renovations) are a labor of love.”
One example is the Wild West Junction, which includes six Drover’s Hotel rooms that are all individually themed. Some feature a bordello re-creation, while others focus on movie memorabilia.
Owner Mike DuCharme says the complex, which includes restaurants, is about 80 percent complete.
“We bought about half a block about seven years ago and started restoring it,” he says. He says the project will also eventually have a dozen stores and a museum. He likens it to a “mini-Knott’s Berry Farm.”
The small city of Williams is a year-round tourist draw with many western-themed events. Nostalgia is obviously one of its major lures.
“We get a lot of people who remember the old television series ‘Route 66’, or maybe came through as kids and are now returning. Many tourists are also from Europe and they’ve heard about Route 66 from television or other sources,” DuCharme says.
Another recently remodeled hotel is the 106-room Route 66 Hotel & Conference Center in Springfield, Illinois, which advises guests to “come stay with us for a rare ‘trip back in time.’”
Both private individuals such as Talley and government agencies have been involved in restoration projects. Frank and Trudy Jugler not long ago opened the six-room Chelsea Motor inn in Oklahoma. In Albuquerque, the city government bought the historic De Anza Motor Lodge in 2003 and has since made some progress - albeit slowly - to restore the landmark as an upscale destination.
James Conkle is president of various boards trying to restore or revive Route 66. He estimates that Route 66 in its heyday had perhaps 5,000 hotels.
“Some hotels are new and others are being restored to make it look like they’re older with the ambiance of their original days,” he says.
He sees signs of restoration everywhere, although it is often slow going, but he describes Route 66 as worth preserving because it’s the most famous highway in the world.
“It’s a magnet. It has a unique mystique. It’s pie in the sky. It’s a dream and a fantasy….a 2,240 mile long corridor of people and their history,” he says.
Talley bemoans the fact that endeavors such as his own are very limited and that many of the old businesses such as attractions and hotels are admittedly “dying and drying up or burning down.”
But the road remains attractive to visitors, he says. ”Route 66 is still one of the best ways to see small town America: what things used to be like and where it all came from,” he says.
He adds that there’s a reason it’s called the “Mother Road.”
“Before her, there was no other modern major highway system in the world. From her sprang not only all the small independents but also the likes of chain hotels like Holiday Inn and Best Western,” he says.