HISTORY © www.rt66pix.com
American history is not all Pony Express rides and Moon Landings. This page delves into a few lesser-known, and not so grand, aspects. It includes original magazine articles, on-scene observations and random thoughts from the comfort of my armchair. Other related material appears on the PRESERVATION and ROADS pages. The Statue of Liberty replica above is in the Lincoln Highway city of Woodbine IA.
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THE MONUMENT TO "FAIL"
There's an official story behind the statue. Also a better--and far more accurate--story I made up from the photograph.
Officially, the 1929 bronze shows the warrior "Youth" holding the winged goddess of victory "Nike" (like the shoes) in his outstretched palm. It's a classical cliche on a pedestal, surrounded by tons and tons of repetitive cut stone, part of the grandiose and overbearing War Memorial taking up valuable space in downtown Nashville TN.
For those who don't remember history, and are thus doomed to repeat it, a quick recap is in order. "War Memorial" means World War I which caused 17,000,000 to 20,000,000 deaths--numbers that deserve to be fully written out with all their zeroes and commas. Nearly half of the victims were civilians, and fighting devastated much of Europe between 1914-18. They called it "The Great War" and "The War To End All Wars." HA!
The victorious US and its allies (Britain, France etc.) foolishly imposed crushing reparations on Germany, which left the battlefield with a silver medal and a grudge that would last more than 20-years.
This unpayable debt and accompanying social ills led to German hyperinflation, unrest, and the rise of a failed artist turned nationalist politician: Adolf Hitler. The German people, who gave the world Beethoven etc. etc. etc. and etc., were looking for a way out, and Hitler supplied it. Roughly translated it was "Make Germany Great Again" (MGGA). The Allied victory in World War I spawned World War II beginning in 1939, and far more people died. Estimates start at 75,000,000.
It is with that knowledge that I photographed Youth, Nike and the flabby middle-aged Everyman, apparently a conventioneer or tourist. Our pudgy protagonist is the real hero in this impromptu diorama--a foil for the glorification of war and hollow victory behind him: The Monument to FAIL. In my story, he's not buying the lies of victory, the claim that God was (or ever is) on anyone's side, or that World War I was great in any way.
There are no statues explicitly for stupidity, toxic alpha males, entitled frat boys, and politicians with all-too-easy answers: Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, etc. etc. etc. and etc., plus all the long-forgotten clowns of World War I. This photograph is for them. (Trump wanted to be on Mt. Rushmore...here's his consolation prize.)
It's also a reminder of a timeless truth from the big business of War Inc.: When old men fail, young men die.
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"We learn from history that we do not learn from history." --Georg Hegel
We assume primitive and sometimes-brutal Oregon and California Trail conditions came with the territory. Pioneers suffered because....that's what pioneers DID!
But in fact much of their ordeal was needless, the result of government backsliding and neglect. Earlier American pioneers had more government support, and therefore a much easier journey to new lands we now call the Midwest.
This article frames the western migratory experience through an eastern lens, adding a long-overlooked element to the traditional story of American expansion. It begins on what was then the frontier, around Cumberland (above) in western MD, some 150 miles (250 km) inland.
A new nation of seven-million people built the National (Cumberland) Road to reach and populate the interior. The key eastern section was a first-class project for its time (1811-18), engineered and graded with a packed stone-covered surface and ditches.
Some bridges survive to this day--the one above in MD is from 1813. Every mile had a cast iron or stone marker with directions.
The land was mostly rolling and lush with gentle hills. Water was abundant in rivers and streams. Crops and game were plentiful in surrounding fields and woods. Privately-owned inns provided food and lodging for travelers, and a stable or pasture for their animals.
Conditions actually improved as settlers got closer to the frontier! Primitive eastern roads led to the engineered, graded and bridged National Road, which led to the superhighways of that era: flowing water.
Once early settlers reached the Ohio River 131 miles (210 km) away at Wheeling VA (now WV), many floated downstream on rafts or took steamboats, landing at frontier towns like Cincinnati OH, Madison IN or Louisville KY and then heading inland to settle the Midwest. For both speed and comfort it couldn't have been better, given the technology of the era.
The National Road not only populated the Midwest. It boosted trade and communications. It created jobs, investments and markets, solidifying frontier ties to the young states on the eastern seaboard. A Win-Win-Win-Win-WIN!
Credit goes largely to President Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin who pushed for enabling legislation in 1806. They realized a toll-free National Road would indirectly pay for itself in commerce (and thus taxes) within a few years.
Two other travel corridors on the shifting frontier were improved by the US government early in our history and deserve summary mentions. (A map appears on the ROADS page.)
. The Natchez Trace from Natchez MS to Nashville TN wasn't primarily an emigrant route, yet the US Army upgraded it from 1801-07. Troops built simple pole bridges, established ferries, bypassed or filled in swamps and widened the old footpath enough for wagons. This sped the return trips of Ohio Valley settlers, walking home after floating rafts of farm products down the Mississippi River. It also let American troops reach New Orleans and defeat Britain in the War of 1812.
. The Santa Fe Trail, used beginning in 1821 by wagon-based merchants making round trips between MO and NM, was surveyed and marked by the US government in 1825-27. A detailed map was printed. In 1846, the US Army used the trail to seize NM in the Mexican-American War. CA and what is now the Southwestern US then came under US control.
America was doing great things, making it possible for its people to succeed by constructing a superhighway--the National Road--and improving frontier trails. A high benchmark had been established and more greatness would certainly follow.
Or at least that's how it seemed at the time.
Now fast-forward to the Oregon and California Trails of the early 1840s through the 1860s. Compared to the early National Road era, the nation has three-times the population plus more and better technology. Again, settlers are heading west, carrying out expansionist goals of the US government.
Leaving frontier towns like Independence MO or Council Bluffs IA, pioneers faced 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of open prairies, deserts and mountains. But instead of finding a government-built stone road with bridges and official markers every mile, there was only a crude unmarked trail.
This was (or would soon be) entirely American territory, being crossed by American citizens, furthering American goals...but without American government support! Some early parties had to hire trappers or Indians as guides. And even they were in the dark about the least-awful mountain pass into CA.
Making things worse, bad directions and bogus shortcuts caused needless suffering and death.
Peter Lassen steered thousands of innocents on a roundabout route past his CA wilderness trading post, adding 200 desolate miles (320 km) to their ordeal. Lassen prospered, but some who might have survived a direct trip perished on the Lassen Trail.
CA land promoter Lansford Hastings pitched a theoretical shortcut in his 1845 guidebook that was widely (but briefly) used. Unlucky readers included men of the Donner Party who blindly followed this Sentence That Will Live In Infamy:
"The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall, thence bearing West Southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the Bay of San Francisco, by the route just described."
Nothing about wandering through a desert wilderness, searching for a pass through mountains, or hacking their way through canyons. The "Hastings Cutoff" looked good on paper...and that was enough for the huckster-turned-author.
Lansford Hastings had not traveled any portion of his wretched straight-line route when he recommended it! He added a full month of incredible UT and NV desert suffering to an already-difficult journey. His route took longer and was much harder, dooming the Donner Party to starvation and cannibalism. (Word of the tragedy spread and wagons abandoned the cutoff.)
Other pioneers climbed a horrible mountain pass into CA because they were ignorant of newer options, including the higher but easier Carson Route discovered in 1848. There had only been scattered explorations, not surveys and scientific comparisons, leaving travelers at the mercy of scuttlebutt, pseudo-experts, promotional scams and con men.
The crux of the problem was this: nobody really knew what was ahead. Misinformation added bad options and uncertainty, making good decisions less likely. The Carson Route might be an improvement, but it might also be a Lassen Trail or (worse) a Hastings Cutoff. Make the wrong choice based on the faulty knowledge or bad intentions of others, and your family might die.
CA became a state in 1850, but six-years later 24% of its adult population signed a petition practically begging Congress for a decent overland road.
"We ask you merely to make roads through your own territory and we will take care to connect....Is there anything unreasonable in this?" --CA Senator John B. Weller, 1856 Senate address about petition, Washington DC
The Oregon and California Trails got almost no government support until the late-1850s. And what money was parceled out then was way too little, considering the tremendous distances, topography, logistical problems and lack of supplies.
While National Road travelers took stone bridges and mile markers for granted, those on the trails were forced to do their own roadbuilding and navigating. Even after the main trails had been used for years, simply crossing a stream could be an ordeal for lack of basic infrastructure.
Pioneers, their animals and wagons all got worn out by the day-to-day grind of fording small waterways in the gentle early landscape. (The image above from a NE park shows wheel rims at the crossing point.) And the tough sections were still ahead.
"Each company did just enough work to get its own wagons across, and the next company frequently had to do the work all over again. Here was one of the breakdowns of free enterprise. The only agency to do such work would have been the Federal government, but no one had thought so far ahead. As one of the emigrants pointed out, a few companies of troops under engineering officers, working for a few weeks, would have made a world of difference." --George R. Stewart, The California Trail
Federal aid was generally limited to sending out roving Army patrols after Indian confrontations. It wasn't until 1857 that the first major shortcut was established. Army troops blazed the Lander Cutoff in WY and put up bridges, cutting 100 miles (160 km) or five-percent.
Here's what was needed on the trails beginning in the early 1840s, when migration became a major seasonal event:
. Basic pick-and-shovel work to cut down banks of small rivers and streams, allowing wagon access.
. Wooden bridges or rafts on larger waterways where fording was dangerous. Rafts might be attached to a rope or chain.
. Army support bases patrolling trail sections and providing emergency wagon repairs, blacksmithing etc. at cost.
. Survey work to debunk, publicize, and thus eliminate use of bad options (Lassen Trail and others) and bogus shortcuts (Hastings Cutoff).
. An official guidebook, government printed, widely distributed and sold at cost.
. Official trail markers at major points.
Both trails passed entirely through US territory by the spring of 1848. Benefits to the Army and US Mail alone would have justified improvements.
Difficulties on both trails were heavily back-end loaded, and some were completely needless. Those CA-bound endured a brutal 40-mile (65 km) desert stretch that should have been stocked midway with hauled-in water, cut grass and other necessities. Deploying a seasonal detachment of soldiers, animals and wagons would have saved lives of many Americans, and their livestock. Emigrant John Wood, who kept a diary of his 1850 trip, was especially eloquent:
This notorious stretch of western NV that claimed so many people and animals was a simple logistical problem. Water and animal feed were readily available a day's travel ahead, supplies just had to be hauled back to where the need was.
All the improvements above would have been extremely cost-effective, and some eventually were made. Mormons, other pioneers, and Indians saw opportunities and went into the ferry business. Wells and water impoundment by the Army eventually helped blunt the awful NV desert. A privately-published guidebook by an Army Captain with frontier experience became a best-seller in 1859:
"I have waited for several years, with the confident expectation that someone more competent than myself would assume the task, and give the public the desired information; but it seems no one has taken sufficient interest in the subject...." --Captain Randolph Marcy, preface to The Prairie Traveler
Compared to the need, the improvements amounted to very little and, like Capt. Marcy's guidebook, most were very late. Settlers, adventurers, gold seekers and their animals "constructed" the Oregon and California Trails with each weary step. Government did not lead. It straggled way behind and brought up the rear.
The disparity between eras is even more striking when the Transcontinental Railroad is factored in. Rail technology was proven by the 1830s and linking the continent had been seriously talked about since the 1840s. To build this, many possible routes would first have to be surveyed, compared, and the best one chosen. Then would logically come a single improved wagon road from the east for pioneers, the Army, US Mail, and railroad construction crews. It would split at some point for OR or CA.
But construction never happened. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads had to create their own access late in the 1860s, mainly following the footpaths of pioneers and their animals.
The only term that adequately describes the US government's role on the Oregon and California Trails during the all-important first half of their use is "abdication." Yes, other things got in the way: the dispute between North and South, and War with Mexico. But slavery was an issue during National Road construction, and we fought the War of 1812 against a far more potent adversary...while still managing to build something that endures to this day.
The tragedy on the trails is that so much could have been done for so many--at so little expense. Shaving just a few days off the trip would have saved the Donner Party. An official guidebook warning against untried shortcuts (like the Hastings Cutoff) could have prevented the group's 31 starvation and exposure deaths.
Between 300,000 and 650,000 Americans made the western trek according to various authors. Death estimates range from 20,000 to 65,000. Main causes include waterborne diseases like cholera, drownings, accidents involving guns, animals or wagons, and Indian confrontations.
Some trail deaths were needless and preventable, including all those from decades of bad directions, starvation and dehydration. To this must be added a high proportion of drownings, mentioned frequently in trail diaries. Typically, victims were swept away for lack of simple rafts, often in woodless areas. Emigrants could not have brought trees--this was a failure of government.
Many victims were buried hurriedly, their shallow graves run over by wagons to guard against wolves and other predators. Diary entries, letters and other recollections provide the only record--highly incomplete, but enough for comparisons to later preventable tragedies.
. Slightly more than 400 needless and preventable trail deaths over the decades equal the 2,403 US deaths at Pearl Harbor. In 1941 our population was nearly six-times as large as in 1850.
. Fewer than 250 needless and preventable trail deaths over the decades equal the 2,977 US deaths in the 9/11 attacks. In 2001 our population was more than 12-times as large as in 1850.
Using the mid-point of death estimates (42,500) if just over 1.5% were needless and preventable, adjusted for population it would equal Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. I believe this test is easily met, and the actual loss was much greater.
All these debacles were avoidable. They are what happens when the US government fails to properly do its job: Americans Die. (History shows the Navy failed to adequately guard Pearl Harbor, and the FBI ignored flight school warnings about highly suspicious behavior of Saudi pilot trainees.)
Jefferson and Gallatin got it just about right on the National Road. Subsequent administrations ignored their lesson and got it precisely wrong on the western frontier.
The Oregon-California Trails Association calls the trails "this nation's longest graveyard." George R. Stewart summed up the era as "so many years of neglect...." and I agree.
Our well-fed congressmen, senators, and other dead weight in Washington D.C. are ultimately responsible for this void of knowledge and lack of trail improvements. The "distinguished representative from the state of Apathy" and the "esteemed senator from the state of Neglect" through their inertia over many years created conditions for the unscrupulous and ignorant to fill, with deadly results.
If western pioneers had received just 10% of the government support lavished on the National Road, we'd have to rewrite one of the toughest chapters in American history.
. Some experts know the frontier trails, others the National Road. Decades apart, George R. Stewart and I studied, explored and photographed both. Stewart's popular history The California Trail: An Epic With Many Heroes is widely available and recommended. This article builds on his 1962 book by treating the National Road as a benchmark and making the contrast explicit. Stewart's National Road work appears in his photo-essay book US 40 Cross Section of the United States of America. It captures the entire NJ-CA route around 1950, just before the Interstate era.
. Improving trails to 10% of the National Road standard is my (admittedly imprecise) estimate of the optimal cost-benefit. This would have roughly matched earlier US government work on the Natchez Trace and Santa Fe Trail.
. Hundreds of diaries and letters etc. describing Oregon and California Trail difficulties are on-line at octa-journals.org (diaries and publications). Survivor accounts, including gauzy reminiscences, lead to survivorship bias. The dying tended not to record their ordeals, the dead couldn't. Tamsen Donner, matriarch of the Donner Party, penned her last surviving letter in spring: "Our journey so far, has been pleasant...We had this evening buffalo steaks...." She didn't write down what happened later.
. Government neglect of roads persisted into the Lincoln Highway era of 1913-26. It took goading by early automobile interests including the Lincoln Highway Association, AAA and other groups for some states to even set up road departments and take responsibility for something only government can provide. Eventually, this became a condition for receiving Federal highway funds.
. If the Tea Party and other small-government groups had been around a century ago, we might never have imposed adequate road taxes. We would now be making slow and miserable trips through mud or dust in expensive high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles, spending far more overall.
. We're getting our money's worth from the National Road! Main streets in hamlets from MD to the Midwest are paved-over segments of original roadway. The 1813 bridge at top was in active service for 120 years, well into the numbered highway era. And an 1817 stone arch bridge still carries US 40 into downtown Wheeling more than 200 years later. Not bad for government work.
. Herein, a lesson for our day as well. Roads are vital, and maintenance equally so, but we keep forgetting that pesky second part. We must pay adequate fuel and other taxes to promptly fill holes and patch cracks. Many miles of older Interstates and other highways are jarring reminders of a lesson we should have learned--just once--centuries ago.
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Published in The Marker by Trails West, and in expanded form in the Overland Journal by OCTA. Images are from the "National (Cumberland) Road" "Golden Spike" and "Frontier Trails" galleries. Reasons for the Federal backsliding are beyond the article's scope and remain unexamined.
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RT 66 LOST & FOUND: THE FIRST BYPASSED TOWN
"The place is deserted, a real-life Radiator Springs." --UKDeb, July 2010
Halfway between two of the Mother Road's brightest attractions, a piece of its early history has been crumbling, fading and peeling away--ignored for almost a century.
Pops in Arcadia OK is an hour west, the Blue Whale in Catoosa OK is an hour east. And in the deep shadow of all that colorful fun on the road is a hard lesson in life off the road: Depew Oklahoma. It is the first Route 66 town or city to be entirely bypassed.
It was the roaring mid-1920s when the farm and oilfield settlement put in a loop of newfangled concrete pavement downtown to eliminate dust and mud for businesses and customers. Folks in Depew figured the highway department would use it as part of new US 66--despite the ridiculous U-shape, sharp turns, and railroad crossings. And they were right.
It was a Win-Win-Win. Drivers got a convenient stop about half-way between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Depew got business from the new highway. And the rump highway department got a stretch of brand-new pavement already in place. It was wonderful for all involved--while it lasted.
But even by the standards of those days it was slapped-together like a construction detour. Then as now, a straight line wins. The bypass let Route 66 plow almost straight ahead. It cut the distance, eliminated four sharp turns, two at-grade railroad crossings, and the up and down slopes of a hill. It happened so early--October 1928--because it was so obvious and so easy.
Route 66 through western Oklahoma wouldn't be completely paved until the early 1930s. Even the primitive "sidewalk highway" near Afton wasn't bypassed with two lanes of pavement until 1937. But Depew was taken off the Mother Road quickly because crews were already nearby paving other sections using Federal aid money.
The town of 1,100 then found itself literally on "the wrong side of the tracks" pretty-much invisible because of heavy foliage and a hillside.
You've got to pull off Route 66 now to reach Depew, and the signage isn't much help. It's a hard turn onto narrow pavement covered in asphalt. Cross the railroad tracks, go up the little hill, around a 90-degree bend, and suddenly you're on Main Street cruising original 1920s concrete, the "ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump" kind. There, on the crest of a gentle rise, is downtown Depew, population barely 400 and falling:
"There were three cars on the entire main street and mine was one of them. I'll bet one of the two cars parked in front of Spangler's store belonged to Mr. Spangler. He was a man about 75...the building was mostly empty...I was prepared to buy a box of cereal and some cans of soup but there weren't any...I said there must have been a lot of people during the boom days. He said enough people to need six grocery stores." --SusanEllen, September 2011
There was also the Depew movie theater which exists now only in local memory--and in floor tiles that survived demolition. In the resulting vacant lot, someone has set up a weathered church pew. "De Pew"--get it?! It would be funny except for the sadness all around.
Cosmetic work done years ago to cover Main Street's empty window-frames with wooden murals now adds to the decay and debris. Only photographers benefit because we can pick out telling details.
On one building, artistry turned plywood into faux stained glass--for several years anyhow. Now it's peeling and warping badly, becoming plywood again. Other murals, painted by local children, have fallen off. The only thing new and bright is a "For Sale By Owner" sign on a building shell.
On a 1912 building, a painted chipboard mural shows a teenage girl trapped in The Era of Big Hair. She was a redhead when I first photographed her years ago, now she's faded to a light brunette. In real life she'd be middle-aged.
On a piece of glass, a painted butterfly-and-flower fantasy is peeling away so you can see through it. There's a whole bunch of Ugly back there: a weedy lot where, a century ago, display windows used to gleam. You peer through cracks and see daylight, weeds and scrap lumber.
Much of Depew is in ruin, and many of the structurally sound buildings are vacant or abandoned. Just like Glenrio NM/TX...or Detroit.
"We take a languid stroll up one side of the street and back down the other, all the while pondering the tale of this pitiable little town. The only business open today is Spangler's, the general store. The bank has closed permanently and much of the prairie commercial architecture has perished. We puzzle over...the fate of Me Me's Fine Foods and Desserts, a delightful little cafe with outdoor seating which looks as though it has undergone a fairly recent refit but is clearly no longer trading." --UKDeb, July 2010
UKDeb and SusanEllen were lucky to come through when they did. Spangler's is gone now, the building is filled with clutter. After Me Me's Fine Foods and Desserts came another restaurant, McKinzie's, that lasted five months.
Downtown has just one eating place remaining, with limited hours Monday-Friday only. There is no grocery or general store in downtown Depew anymore, only a little Phillips 66 convenience store and chain Dollar General store out of sight along the infamous bypass.
At noon on a beautiful Saturday in mid-summer, not a single business is open along Depew's historic downtown pavement. Even the self-service car wash is down for repairs.
This is how it is now in the place where it all started. Depew OK is the first town or city entirely bypassed along the Mother Road. Transportation Departments in six states have confirmed it in writing. In MO and NM, my research of official state maps and documents ruled out all other early contenders.
Depew's bypass, outside the town limits, was paved in October 1928, less than two years after the numbered US highway system was created. It still exists as an asphalt-resurfaced dead-end used for truck parking. (Today's Rt 66 parallels it nearby on wider pavement.)
The bypass date was duly recorded as a dry fact, then ignored. While writing photo captions I questioned and verified it, but remained puzzled.
I had never seen anything about the first bypassing along Route 66--only the last at Williams AZ. I finally came to believe no one had ever posed the question. I had stumbled on the answer and worked backward.
The sad thing is, it had to happen. Not as early as it did--1928 is awfully, awfully early for Route 66. But this section was comical. And later might have been harder because even more businesses would have failed. Or moved, to stay on the life-giving highway.
Oklahoma's relationship with Route 66 is unique. The two are intertwined, inseparable. The Depression and Dust Bowl were local news, year after year after miserable year. The Grapes of Wrath opens just 100 miles (162 km) from Depew...as the dust files.
Many of those buildings of deep red Oklahoma brick were put up near a triple top: The Roaring Twenties, the Tulsa Oil Boom, and Route 66. But lurking just ahead were the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and Awful Bypass.
Depew had three places selling gasoline during its time on the Mother Road. A 1920s station is unusual enough these days and Depew's former Sinclair Station is unique--the lone survivor of that first bypassing. It had two tall pumps on the inside island and a single one on the outside, plus an enclosed service area. It must have been a busy place.
It was the first of all the thousands that were cut off, leaving behind countless signs for Skelly, D-X, Gargoyle Mobiloil, Marfak Lubrication, and friendly Philcheck Service.
Depew began the historic process that almost claimed "The Mother of the Mother Road" Lucille Hamons. Her pitiful gas station and motel near Hydro OK, 135 miles (215 km) west, got fenced off from life-giving traffic in the 1960s. The opening chapter of Lucille's story was written in Depew.
And Seligman AZ...an entire town that was bypassed and fought back just like Radiator Springs did in the "Cars" movies. Another chapter of the same Route 66 story. It began in Depew in 1928 and ended in Williams AZ in 1984.
The uncomfortable fact is, however, that it had to happen to Depew, Lucille's, Seligman, Williams...and Radiator Springs.
People demand speed and safety. You can't have them making hard right turns into Lucille's gas station while everybody else is going 70 MPH (113 km/h). And you couldn't possibly squeeze the Turner Turnpike, I-44, through downtown Depew. Instead, the nearest access is seven miles (11.3 km) away. But it's still sad, and still tragic.
While other nearby places like Stroud and Bristow OK have obviously taken their lumps over the years, they remain alive. Depew basically died by the road. It was bypassed, it shriveled up, and it became a footnote: "Bypassed 1928."
During this Saturday noon-hour, two Route 66 tourists pass through. One is eastbound pulling an Airstream trailer with Ontario plates. He idles momentarily to take a snapshot. The other is a westbound motorcyclist who keeps right on going.
Nearing 1 PM, three stray dogs chase a familiar car down Main Street. The driver stops and unlocks her business, a thrift store. With the door propped open, she sits outside facing former Route 66. There is no traffic. The dogs are her only customers.
There' s a price you pay for progress. You lose a little gas station, or maybe an entire town. Some places get left behind. Depew is where it happened first. And now along Main Street, the former Route 66, on a mid-summer weekend afternoon you can't even buy a Coke.
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Updated from a 2013 article published in two magazines. Images are from the Depew gallery.
I returned in 2021 after an eight-year absence. Miss Teenage Big Hair is gone but other murals attempt, unsuccessfully, to conceal building shells. One hollow relic has become the faux "Cafe 66" with posted "hours" and plywood "windows" but a locked door. Spangler's Grocery Store owner Jimmy Dean Spangler died in 2019. The drug store shell that framed the motorcycle and water tower has been demolished, only floor tiles remain. The pew in the De Pew gag is gone, along with the thrift store and stray dogs. The bypass gas station is no longer a Phillips 66.
In 2023 came another bypassing. Dollar General passed up all the vacant space downtown and built a store out along Route 66.
The "No U Turn" image is from the 2021 trip and shows two vehicles including my car. A decade earlier SusanEllen noticed three including hers. Although homes blocks away are occupied and maintained, the business district was deserted: I didn't see a single person during an hour photographing, walking and driving around.
The bypass has plenty of casual Route 66 tourists plowing almost straight ahead because they see no reason to turn. There is only a small green Depew sign with an arrow, and an even smaller sign below. It notes the old routing--but not the significance--and is almost unreadable at 65 MPH (105 km/h), a wasted effort.
The original article offered promotional recommendations including signs for the "Real-Life Radiator Springs" and a "Cars Corridor" to create attractions and generate business. But as of 2021 nothing had been done.
UKDeb and SusanEllen were lucky to come through when they did. Along former Route 66 downtown you can't buy a Coke, cereal or soup.
Some places get left behind.
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I did things in reverse. I traveled and photographed Route 66 before reading The Grapes of Wrath or seeing the film.
I had assumed John Steinbeck's 1939 novel was largely about Dust Bowl refugees, since those images are so dramatic and so closely linked to Rt 66. Instead to my surprise the story opens in extreme eastern OK around Sallisaw, where the average annual rainfall is 47 inches (120 cm), equal to central IN or OH. A public art mural there captures hard times in a town of 1,800 a long way from dust storms:
Sallisaw is on the Ozark Plateau and promoted today as part of the "Green Country." By starting here, Steinbeck tells a far more difficult tale. The Joads were not victims of the Dust Bowl raging 400 miles (650 km) west. Overall, the nation's mid-section was affected by drought during the 1930s, but most land was still producing, at least marginally.
The Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of History and Culture notes the geographical discrepancy. Actually, by beginning the book just 20 miles (32 km) from Arkansas, Steinbeck was using literary license to tell a much larger story.
The Joads were struggling cotton farmers evicted during the Great Depression from what they considered to be "their" land. It was actually mortgaged and owned by a bank.
In the expression of the era, they were "tractored out." This is a far more accurate summary of what happened in the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was an area of the Great Plains, but low low prices were nationwide.
Farm incomes collapsed along with everything else, and farms had to become more efficient to survive. The Roosevelt Administration paid land owners to modernize with tractors, and that well-meaning but misguided policy led to many tenant farmers being evicted. The better-off ones owned a battered car--a jalopy. Some headed west on Rt 66 toward a promised land. Or at least a chance to survive and start over.
For land owners the math behind tractors was simple. Tenant farmers (or even-poorer sharecroppers) and animals were inefficient. They consumed some of the crop, needed shelter and wasted land.
A single horse required five acres a year for its own food--more on marginal land. Horses worked hard in peak seasons, but ate every single day. (Mules consumed less but had inferior pulling power and frequently had to be teamed.) By one measure, a tractor was 18-TIMES more efficient than a horse.
Tractors could operate day and night during peak seasons, and didn't require anything but simple maintenance, fuel and a shed. The farm owner (or a hired hand) could sit at the wheel, completely replacing tenant families and animal-power.
Once tenants were evicted, their shacks could be knocked down and that land put into production. Every little bit counts. The Grapes of Wrath movie includes dramatic footage of a bulldozer pushing over the Joad family home.
Tractors were adaptable. They could pull equipment to plow, spray and fertilize. Specific attachments were developed for various crops--the major exception was the Southern staple of cotton which required hand-picking into the 1940s and beyond.
Cotton was a big part of the problem, along with primitive farming practices. Dry submarginal land that never should have been broken by a plow was planted with crops. Then came a natural drought cycle.
Twenty counties in CO KS NM OK and TX were hardest-hit by the resulting erosion and dust storms during the peak years of 1935-38. Morton County KS suffered the worst population loss: 47%. Looks dramatic...but that was only 1,906 people. In all, this dark brown zone had 152,000 people in 1930 and lost 31,000 during the decade. (Sallisaw is way beyond the map's eastern edge.)
We were a nation of 123,000,000 back then. So even if all the Dust Bowl victims left for CA, they would not have been the primary factor in the Route 66 Exodus.
While Dust Bowl photographs and stories stick in the mind, the numbers don't lie: very few people were very hard hit. Many struggled, stuck it out, moved to cities, or doubled-up with family nearby. Federal programs helped too, keeping families on their land, or providing construction jobs for men who sent money back home. Some of that work improved Route 66--the bridge above is near Montoya NM.
Conservation programs, including tree planting, helped immensely. So did programs that paid farmers for not growing crops on submarginal land, thus restoring grasslands and raising farm prices.
The US Census shows for the decade OK lost only 3% of its population, KS 5%. TX gained 10%, CO 12% and NM 24%. The fictional Joads and many thousands of real "Okies" took to Rt 66. But OK did not "empty out" during the 1930s, not even close.*
There is no more dramatic human scene from the OK Dust Bowl than this one from Cimarron County in 1936. It has illustrated American History textbooks for generations--but leaves these people stranded in time and perhaps leaves the wrong impression.
They were the Coble family, and they did not join the Joad family on Rt 66.** The farmer, Arthur Coble, had wealthy relatives in CA who offered to pay for his family's move there! Instead, he relocated just 12-miles (19 km) away to somewhat better land, continued farming with his wife and four children, died in 1956, and is buried in Cimarron County.
The little boy at far right, Darrel, is not quite three years old in the photograph. He too lived out his life in the county as a farmer and is buried in its fragile sunbaked soil, a few feet from his Dad.
Darrel's son also stayed, as a highway department supervisor, and is buried there. Cobles live in Cimarron County to this day...and the land has recovered.
The drought of the 1930s was, in a way, routine. The real problem in the Dust Bowl was improper land management. Extended drought cycles before and after did not produce such disastrous results.
The OK Panhandle was the epicenter of misery during the Great Depression. But the Cobles and others gritted their teeth on OK dust and remained. Fortunately not many people lived in the hardest-hit area. Depressed farm prices and the rise of mechanized agriculture were much bigger factors spread over a larger area with a far greater population.
Hard times were widely shared, but some folks got a bigger slice. Add in the tale told by the stock market and you have one brutal decade. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 89% from its late-1929 high. Even the rich were hurting, their lavish spending no longer "trickled down" to the masses. And there was no real safety net. Social Security's monthly payments would not start until 1940.
The decade was capped by the ominous rise of Nazi Germany and start of World War II in Europe. The US was woefully unprepared, and massive economic stimulus led to industrialization and full employment. Within months, CA farm owners were complaining they couldn't find seasonal laborers--they were all working in defense plants around San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles. The economy began to roar. The Great Depression was over.
The drought also eventually eased. By abandoning the worst land, as the Cobles did, ending destructive plowing, and beginning conservation programs, the Dust Bowl would end too. With occasional rain and snow, the region improved to what it was before--and remains today--land suitable for controlled cattle grazing and, in spots, irrigated farming. (Nearby states have even worse land, but it was never plowed.)
Cimarron County receives less than half the average US rainfall. This gully is fed by an occasional spring and compared to its surroundings is downright lush. Still, traveling here today, it's hard to believe this place produced so many black-and-white images of suffering.
The Dust Bowl disaster was created by humans and it was remedied by humans. We face other environmental challenges today. Sometimes the solution is only too obvious, as it was in the 1930s: stop doing harm.
(Other images are in the Santa Fe Trail gallery. Religious imagery in The Grapes of Wrath is explored in The Blog.)
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* During the 1930s, Oklahoma City gained more than 19,000 people, twice what the OK Panhandle lost. Population increases in CO, NM and TX were well outside the Dust Bowl area, resulting from urbanization, industrialization, energy and mining, plus other factors.
** Stories and follow-up images of the Cobles and other Dust Bowl icons including "Migrant Mother" are in Dust Bowl Descent by Bill Ganzel (University of Nebraska Press, 1984).
Both historic images: Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, public domain. Rothstein later told of staging and choreographing the iconic Cimarron County image, much as in a movie. He went on to head the photography department of "Look" magazine.
Published in the "Federation News" by the National Historic Route 66 Federation.
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AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM (void in Florida)
The fiberglass statue advertises a truck stop in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. The photograph appears silly at first glance because of the incredulous expression. But it can have a serious meaning, summarizing centuries of ugly, brutal history.
Many tribes were forced here when Anglo settlers seized their land in the 1800s. Indian lifestyles were doomed by the onrush of a new civilization with numerical and technological superiority, but coexistence and a peaceful transition were entirely possible. Instead, Federal might pushed Native Americans into a wilderness at gunpoint and threat of starvation.
I saw the truck before it turned, and thought the blood-red FedEx lettering with motion blur in front of the nearly 50-foot (15 m) statue might create a memorable image: "Federal Expulsion." I was on to something. From Webster's New Collegiate:
Extermination, Expropriation, Exile, Extinct, Ex (former, not current), Exclude/Exclusion, Excrement, Exculpate (clearing US and Anglos of blame), Excuse, Execution/Executioner, Exit, Exodus, Expand/Expansion (Federal), Expatriate (to leave one's land), Expedition, Expel, Expendable, Expiation (seeking atonement for Anglo actions), Expletive, Exploit, Express, Expunge, Expurgate, Extenuate/Extenuating, Extort (treaties etc.), Extrude (push out).
In the blatantly Anglocentric America of a century ago, a guide for motorists offered this helpful advice:
This is how Anglos triumphed over Native Americans and forced them into concentration camps: bad-faith bargaining, bribery, buffalo slaughter, barbed wire, incomprehensible treaties, smallpox, firewater, numerical force and superior weaponry. Plundering palefaces grabbed land, and their offspring reap the benefits to this day. General Andrew Jackson rode his Indian policy of "Leave or Die" to the White House and the front of the $20 bill.
Although you'll likely never see this photograph in an American History textbook (especially in FL, MS, OK, TX etc.), it is historically accurate and loaded with symbolism.
American Indians got run over by a truck.
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TRACKING PROGRESS (A FUN QUIZ)
She's posing for a snapshot over the exact spot of the Golden Spike Ceremony in UT some 150 years earlier. This is now a National Park Service site, the locomotives, tracks and ties are modern replacements.
1) The locomotive on our right is a replica of Union Pacific's 119 which traveled west over newly-laid tracks from Omaha NE. The locomotive on our left is a replica of Central Pacific's Jupiter which steamed east over newly-laid tracks from Sacramento CA. But the original Jupiter was built in Schenectady NY before the tracks (or roads) existed...how did it get from NY to CA?
2) The single set of tracks replicated above was the country's only rail link for 12 years, but trains ran in both directions...how was that done?
3) The locomotives, especially Jupiter, are painted bright colors and the brass is polished...is this accurate?
4) Jupiter has a much wider smokestack than 119...why?
5) What happened to the original Jupiter and 119?
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Answer 1: Jupiter and other locomotives were put on a ship in NY, taken around the tip of South America (the Panama Canal wouldn't open until 1914) then up to CA. Iron tracks and spikes etc. to build the railroad eastward from CA came the same way. A lot of mail, freight and some CA-bound settlers also came around South America before the tracks were joined here in 1869, changing everything. The ocean voyage was some 13,000 miles (21,000 km), but tracks cut the distance to 2,500 miles (4,100 km), an 80% improvement.
Answer 2: At first traffic across this largely uninhabited area was very light. Trains ran daily but at long intervals. They were controlled by timetables and written orders. One train went onto a predetermined "siding" or "side track" and waited for the other to pass.
Answer 3: Yes. The practice gradually ended, because locomotives were difficult to keep clean, especially with coal and oil-power. And it added no value for anyone. (Photographs would all be black-and-white into the early 1900s.)
Answer 4: Jupiter burned wood, requiring the wider smokestack covered with a grate to trap sparks. 119 burned coal. Later steam locomotives generally used coal or oil which pack more energy than wood.
Answer 5: Both continued hauling trains, aging and becoming obsolete. They were scrapped without ceremony after 1900.
(The ROADS page has more on the Transcontinental Railroad and Golden Spike National Historical Park.)
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MISSISSIPPI RIVER US 80 BLUES
No veteran driver ever gets nostalgic for this!
Today, crossing the Mississippi River is safe and uneventful. Drivers on I-20 at Vicksburg MS use a wide 1973 bridge with dual 12-foot (3.66 m) lanes in both directions. That's the Interstate standard.
But the Old Vicksburg Bridge (above), now closed to traffic, was the stuff of nightmares. It opened in 1930 and carried US 80, the Interstate's predecessor. The span is one-point-six miles long (2.6 km) with three extremely narrow lanes: westbound US 80, eastbound US 80...and trains! This was the only Mississippi River bridge for 400 miles (640 km) until 1940. Other crossings merely had ferries, with frequent backups.
Vehicle lanes are only nine-feet (2.75 m) wide. By the 1970s, Buicks, Chryslers and Cadillacs were approaching seven-feet (2.1 m) with mirrors jutting beyond. Trucks and buses were up to eight-feet (2.4 m) wide, so their clearance on either side was just six-inches (15 cm).
All traffic had to stop for a toll booth. Truckers and bus drivers pulled in their sideview mirrors, or risked getting them torn off. Curving onto the bridge, they kept their right wheels rubbing against a rail, and with luck would just avoid sideswiping each other...or perhaps a train.
Some car drivers likely got onto the bridge unaware. Then a train came rumbling up from behind or, perhaps worse, a locomotive came roaring at them.
Eastbound drivers had exactly this viewpoint. The unluckiest were hauling their families in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, trapped between an oncoming line of trucks and a coal-fired steam locomotive belching dense black clouds.
An image survives from that period, a reverse-angle shot looking west from the MS shoreline toward LA.
The locomotive is perhaps a mile (1.6 km) away. Imagine experiencing this up-close as you squeeze through in your narrow lane, with choking coal smoke filling your windshield. The bridge shakes as the oncoming train rumbles and sways. Suddenly there's a total blackout as erratic river winds blow hot soot and ash in your face through open car windows. Then the locomotive's automatic pressure-relief valve opens, blasting excess steam sideways into your car with a sinister hiss.
Your hysterical spouse wakes up screaming next to you, while unrestrained young kids cower and whimper in back. And your little dog too.
Now imagine realistic variations on this theme. Heavy storms...or squinting at sunrise...or deceptive shadows at sunset...or blinding truck, bus and locomotive lights at 3 AM. Then add snow and ice (this is a bridge, after all).
For all my carping about monotonous Interstates (see the ROADS page), sometimes a reality check is helpful.
Boring can be good. Have an unmemorable day.
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Today's diesel-electric locomotives can't match coal-fired steam for visual pollution! Trains have the bridge all to themselves now, vehicles and pedestrians are banned. Warren County MS owns it and is considering better fencing to create a hike-and-bike trail...a good plan.
The 2019 screenshot above is from www.pedestrians.org which offers a 28-minute video on this bridge (#267) and a wealth of information on pedestrian trails, safety etc. Screenshot Copyright © John Z Wetmore.
Vicksburg is near the Natchez Trace and city images, including several taken on the bridge during a festival, appear in that gallery.
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This is an accurate map of the continental United States...it's just backwards.
But let's assume for a moment that it's correct, and the year is 1600. Jamestown will soon be founded. A few years later, the Pilgrims will land. Both on the right side of this map.
Europeans will find a strip of largely fertile land and gentle climate--what is now coastal WA, OR and CA. But beginning just 50-150 miles (80-240 km) inland are towering mountains with incredible snowfalls: the Cascades and Sierras. Donner Pass in CA (assuming explorers can even locate it) is above 7,000 feet (2,100 m).
And then it gets worse. The Cascades and Sierras block more than people. They also trap moisture, letting almost nothing reach the interior. The result is a huge desert.
In time more explorers will go out, but the next 1,000 miles (1600 km) will be largely more of the same. Desert, mountains, desert, mountains, until they reach even higher peaks, the Rockies...and turn back in dismay.
Instead, here's what happened. On the real (non-flipped) US map, Europeans encountered both good and bad when they landed on the real right side. The combination of (1) poor rocky soil and harsh winters in New England, (2) relatively low and gentle eastern mountains and (3) great land for the taking immediately to the west, established the conditions for American expansion. Other things played a part too, like luck (Louisiana Purchase), development (National Road, Erie Canal) and technology (railroads, telegraph).
The National Road eventually got through the eastern mountains at just 620 feet (190 m) elevation using a river valley at Cumberland MD. A southern trail crossed the Cumberland Gap between VA and KY at 1,600 ft (490 m). And the Erie Canal in NY surmounted its major challenge, an abrupt 60 ft (18 m) elevation change with a series of locks.
By contrast, when the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the west in the 1860s it not only had to ascend Donner Pass, it had to come back down and then climb above 8,000 feet (2,400 m) in WY.
American history might have been very different if the map had been what you see above. Original Anglo settlers might have been confined to just three eventual states. They might not have had the motivation--or ability--to penetrate the Cascades and Sierras, and then survive in the harsh conditions beyond, with the lack of technology and infrastructure in 1600, 1700 or even 1800.
Native American groups might have held on much longer. Britain, France and Spain might have remained major players on the continent. Russia too...it once claimed not only AK (Alaska) but had a heavily-fortified CA trading post within 70 miles (110 km) of San Francisco! (Images of Fort Ross are in the California state gallery.)
Instead, because of geography, luck, development, and technology, Britain, Spain and Russia were entirely vanquished from North America, and France ended up with a couple of dinky islands that are hard to find on any map.
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