PRESERVATION © www.rt66pix.com
Above: The Erie Canal made Buffalo NY into a major city. This building, now home to a preservation group, still proclaims that glorious past.
This page includes preservation successes and failures, original magazine articles, and historical musings. Many examples are taken from photographs in the 20+ city galleries. Material of wider interest appears in The Blog.
Permission is granted to link. Written material may be reproduced with appropriate credit.
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A TALE OF THREE CITIES
Walking downtown street grids with a camera gives me new optimism about American cities.
Three places linked by the Ohio River--Wheeling WV, Madison IN and Cairo IL--form a study in contrasts. They offer lessons in how to hold on, how to succeed, and how to fail. (All have separate city image galleries.)
Wheeling seems to be muddling through a very long downturn. The city peaked in importance between 1820-50, ancient history by American standards, and still retains some of its former charm.
There's gentrification in spots, and despite extensive gaps downtown many historic buildings remain in various stages of upkeep. Wheeling is definitely worn, but not worn out.
The waterfront includes a pleasant park, concert venue and walking path under an iconic suspension bridge. (It makes a cameo appearance above at left during Capitol Theatre repairs.) And I found relatively little graffiti or vandalism.
The location has always been picturesque, but troublesome. Downtown and other areas along the river are subject to flooding, while steep hills (mountains to some) constrain growth.
Wheeling was the original 1818 terminus of the National (Cumberland) Road. In 1849 the suspension bridge replaced ferries, and the National Road continued deep into the Midwest. Eventually, with improvements, it was turned into US 40.
A century later, I-70 plowed through downtown Wheeling, followed by I-470 on the south, with 13 local interchanges in total.
Yet with all these assets, the population is down more than 50% in a century to just 27,000. The once-big local industries of steel, iron, stogies (cigars) and chewing tobacco are mostly or entirely vanquished.
In a way, Wheeling has a number of Sister Cities downriver. When early National Road travelers reached Wheeling, frequently their next trip segment was by boat or raft, propelled by new steam technology or the Ohio River's current. Madison IN (halfway between Cincinnati OH and Louisville KY) was a frequent jumping-off point.
Established in 1809, Madison is seven-years older than the state of IN and was once its largest city. It peaked in the Steamboat Era of the mid-1800s with an industrial waterfront that included slaughterhouses and a glue factory. Since it's surrounded by hills, it must have been one stinky place!
A lengthy period of stagnation and flooding washed away Madison's unpleasant past, but preserved the old downtown built on higher ground. Going there today is like time-travel to a century ago. 133 contiguous blocks are on the National Register. There are scented soap purveyors, sidewalk cafes and an independent bookstore (cat included). But also typical downtown businesses like Subway and Dollar General.
Madison has built on its good luck. No parking meters exist, and the city has restored and enlarged a classic mid-century Main Street gas station for public restrooms. Wonderful ideas, both. They should be shamelessly copied elsewhere.
The population didn't suffer any serious declines. It's been stable around 12,000 for half-a-century.
Madison is 25 miles (40 km) from the nearest Interstate...but it was never bypassed. This is another piece of good luck. It was always a river town accessible first by water, then by rail, and finally by two lanes of blacktop. A modern steamboat still calls once a year (second image above).
And then there's the third Ohio River city, Cairo IL (pronounced KAY-row), done in by White racism and a Black boycott that produced no winners. (I simplify greatly but that's the bottom line.) Cairo's population has plunged by more than 80% in the past century. Periodic floods and getting bypassed by the Interstates didn't help either.
Of those who remain, 44% are below the poverty line. A few years ago, a local bank repossessed the Sheriff's patrol cars. Most of what I photographed along Commercial Street is gone now...including this:
Cairo is probably the worst-looking city I've seen in the USA, surpassing even Detroit and the place many Detroiters look down on: Flint MI.
Other places have been hit hard by other woes. The pottery-making city of East Liverpool OH, along the Lincoln Highway, looked significant on the map, but I was unprepared for the largely-vacant downtown. And then there's mournful Depew OK, which still hasn't recovered since Route 66 bypassed it...back in 1928.
I've been positively surprised by Pittsburgh, Nashville, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and a host of smaller places like Ligonier PA, Minerva OH, Casey IL, Woodbine IA, Kearney NE, Kaysville UT and Auburn CA. (They're all here in various galleries.)
It seems to be a universal law: Get a good mix of people enjoying downtown and many urban problems will solve themselves.
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TRAILS AND TRIBULATIONS
"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 is the first to look at the western migratory experience through an eastern lens.
A new nation of just seven-million people built the National (Cumberland) Road to reach and populate the Midwest. 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.
Once early settlers reached the Ohio River 131 miles (210 km) away, their trip got even easier. Many floated downstream on rafts or took steamboats, landing at frontier towns like Cincinnati OH, Madison IN (profiled above) or Louisville KY and then heading inland. 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.
America was doing great things, making it possible for its people to succeed by constructing a superhighway for the era. 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. 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 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 (above), searching for a pass through mountains, or hacking their way through canyons. The "Hastings Cutoff" looked good on paper...and that was good enough for the huckster-turned-author.
Lansford Hastings had not traveled his own wretched shortcut! 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 the cutoff was abandoned.)
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.
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 early flat parts. (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.
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.
"Hundreds will toil on this far and then leave their bones to bleach on the Great American Desert, and the worst of it all now is to see, every few hundred yards, the grave of some kind brother, father or mother, and even some who have not been buried but have probably been foresaken when sick or faint, and left to die and waste away in the winds and rains of heaven." --emigrant John Wood, 1850
The notorious stretch of western NV that claimed so many people and animals was a simple logistics 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 a US 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...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 47 starvation and exposure-related deaths.
Up to 500,000 Americans made the western trek and perhaps 50,000 perished en route. Main causes include waterborne diseases like cholera, drownings, accidents involving guns, animals or wagons, and Indian confrontations.
Some deaths were needless and preventable, including all those from starvation and dehydration. I cannot find casualty estimates for this sub-group, so let me toss out a couple of made-up lowball numbers. Perhaps 2,403 or 2,977...out of a nation with 23 million people in 1850.
2,403 is the official US death toll from Pearl Harbor 91-years later. (In 1941 we had a population nearly six-times as large: 132 million.)
2,977 is the official US death toll from the 9/11 attacks 151-years later. (In 2001 we had a population more than 12-times as large: 282 million.)
All three debacles were avoidable. They are what happens when the US government fails to properly do its job: Americans Die.
Jefferson and Gallatin got it just about right with the National Road. Subsequent administrations ignored their lesson and got it precisely wrong with the Oregon and California Trails.
George R. Stewart summed it up as "so many years of neglect...." and I agree.
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. I have quoted only two of his many passages on unnecessary difficulties. This article builds on his 1962 book by treating the National Road as a benchmark and making the contrast explicit.
. 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 work on the Natchez Trace and Santa Fe Trail.
. The Natchez Trace wasn't primarily an emigrant route, yet the 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 enabled Americans to reach New Orleans and defeat Britain in the War of 1812.
. The Santa Fe Trail, used mainly by merchants making regular round trips, 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 during the Mexican-American War.
. Hundreds of diaries and letters etc. describing trail difficulties are on-line at octa-journals.org (diaries and publications). Generally these accounts, including gauzy reminiscences, result in survivorship bias. The dying tended not to record their ordeals, the dead couldn't. Tamsen Donner, matriarch of the Donner Party, wrote her last 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.
. 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 miserably slow 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! The 1813 bridge at top was in active service for 120 years, well into the numbered highway era. And paved-over segments of original roadway with 200 years of use are still main streets in hamlets from MD to the Midwest.
. 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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Republished in The Marker by Trails West. Fact sourcing is available on request. 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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ROUTE 66: OPPORTUNITY LOST
I recently revisited a stretch of Route 66 I first photographed years ago. Current conditions are alarming. The problem can only grow and spread in the years ahead. It has no solution.
Route 66 across TX and eastern NM straddles the road's mid-point and includes attractions like the Cadillac Ranch. This had long been my favorite segment of the Mother Road. You could drive original narrow concrete, scrawl then photograph birthday greetings on a half-buried 1959 Caddy, explore and photograph ruins, sample Dust Bowl scenery (with real Dirt 66 dust!), then enjoy a Tex-Mex dinner and comfortable motel room. It was American history close-up and interactive, a blend of serious and stupid, artifact and artifice.
But outside the towns this section has now become seriously degraded. The Fun Family Roadtrip travelers have been led to expect no longer exists. This may foretell the fate of other segments in the not-so-distant future. Out here, what isn't economically viable and hasn't been saved in the little towns is being lost.
The decommissioning of US Highway 66 was more than a third of a century ago. If you're being generous, the Mother Road Era lasted from 1926-1985. In many locations the real ending was in the 1970s, 60s or 50s, when a new bypass took the traffic away and business vanished.
If time and the elements are not enough to doom something, just add in the wrong type of tourist, packing spray paint or other weapons. Thanks to opposable thumbs and trigger fingers, the human touch is now ruining many ordinary but historic and increasingly rare structures well before their time.
The graffiti and vandalism crowd has discovered these isolated and abandoned buildings, seriously degrading the trip for others. Crude markings and damage are scattered all along this stretch.
Where Route 66 is not a mere I-40 frontage road across this open vastness, it frequently cuts through areas with little economic value and even less habitation. They call this the "High Plains" but "desert" applies too--many desert plants grow here--and the elements alone are substantial foes. It's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, flat and windy year-round. Only hailstorms, tornadoes and blizzards break the monotony.
In the lonely 285 mile (460 km) stretch between Amarillo TX and Albuquerque (or Santa Fe) NM, the biggest place is Tucumcari NM, population 5,000. Many towns have fewer people than they did in Route 66 days, and some have none at all. This is one of the most unpopulated sections of the entire road, and it has a substantial number of abandoned buildings.
The near-ghost town of Glenrio TX/NM, bypassed in 1975, deserves a detailed look since there's so much degradation. Glenrio already had two abandoned late Route 66-era gas stations along the I-40 westbound exit ramp. And now the blight is spreading.
The former Texaco and Chevron buildings have simply been trashed. Bullet holes pockmark the Texaco's white porcelain-steel panels. Vandals have knocked out (or shot out) heavy plate glass, and shards litter the concrete pad and dirt outside. The former Chevron station next door has been turned into an illegal dumping ground. After you step around worn-out tires and cattle truck waste, dagger-sharp glass fragments lurk in the window frames. You almost overlook the strident graffiti.
These two Gas-n-Goners might be a first impression for a casual westbound tourist who enjoyed the Cadillac Ranch less than an hour before, picked up a friendly vibe about Route 66, and wanted to explore a bit.
Across the Interstate is the famous First/Last Phillips 66 station and cafe with adjacent motel. The station has been hit with graffiti in several places, now painted over by a Good Guy armed with white paint. But still.
The building went up in 1953 and had 22 profitable years before I-40 opened 0.2 miles north. Even with a Glenrio exit, the owner said traffic "just stopped." His building became almost worthless, maintaining it made no sense, and so it was abandoned. The roof is crumbling, the glass is broken out, and now other vandalism has started.
Out front, his huge First/Last Stop in Texas sign is coming down in the constant wind. It had backlit plastic panels with 31 letters on both sides combined. Only four letters remain now, 12% of the total, not enough for a casual traveler to figure out the message that was so important from so long ago.
Actually, 12% isn't a bad guess at how much remains of the entire town from its Rt 66 peak, based on historic photos, books and postcards. The finned car above, presumably new, is a 1961 Chrysler New Yorker.
Across the pavement from the First/Last structure, a photogenic rusty steel post that once marked the NM/TX line has vanished. It was likely installed by the defunct Rock Island Railroad which had a depot and passenger service in Glenrio. It was unique and old, and it's a shame to lose it.
In a better world, this near-ghost town would have been preserved, provided with 24/7/365 security, interpretive signage, and perhaps a Visitor Center. Glenrio is on the National Register of Historic Places...not that it matters to the vandals, gun nuts, metal thieves, souvenir hunters or cattle truck drivers.
All along this lonely stretch of Route 66, remote, abandoned and unprotected buildings are falling victim.
The "Cold Beer" ruin at Montoya NM (a personal favorite) has been tagged with graffiti on the front and side. Stone back walls have been knocked down to provide a "vista" from I-40.
The collapsing adobe of Wilkerson's gas station at Newkirk NM has received fresh blue spray-paint on the front, apparently from local lovers. In the near-ghost town of Cuervo NM, abandoned buildings have been hit by spray-paint and other vandalism. A building cluster outside Santa Rosa NM near the Frontier Bar-Museum has suffered the same fate. All these locations appear in the EZ66 Guide and are frequently visited by tourists.
Graffiti and vandalism tend to attract more--they're social proof for lowlifes. There's generally nobody around to see anybody doing anything out here, so the outlook is not good.
Some vandalism is outright destruction. The quirky VW Bug Ranch near Conway TX is along an I-40 ramp. Adjoining it are three abandoned Interstate-era buildings that have hosted either a party or a war. Beside the usual broken glass and spray-painting, ceiling tiles and insulation have been yanked down. What fun! The site also appears in the EZ66 Guide and might be someone's first impression as they pull off the Interstate.
And it's not just the buildings. A 90-year-old bridge on Dirt 66 has recently been vandalized by two blotches of graffiti. This historic reinforced concrete structure spans a gully on private property between Adrian and Vega TX. It is clearly visible at 75 MPH (120 km/h) near the westbound I-40 Picnic Area. Vandals thought painting it with their initials or gang logos would be an improvement. It may remain defaced now for decades.
Route 66 sites along this stretch are being ruined in legal ways too:
. NO TRESPASSING and KEEP OUT signs have been mounted right on the front of the 1952 Little Juarez Diner at Glenrio, spoiling a photo-op for responsible tourists.
. A high chain-link fence has been installed around another former photo-op: the Richardson Store ruin at Newkirk.
. More original 1930s Route 66 concrete pavement has disappeared under a rough and noisy Chipseal coating, making it into just another I-40 frontage road.
Most of this damage is recent, but an exact timeline misses the point. The effect is cumulative--things are worse with every visit.
With the exception of what remains in the towns, the Conway-Santa Rosa stretch is far inferior to what I photographed between 2000-2015. This key section of the Mother Road is decaying rapidly.
There are also significant recent losses outside this zone, already reported. You can't see or photograph what isn't there anymore, and notable entries in this dismal category include:
. John's Modern Cabins near Arlington MO. Just one cabin remains. Neglect, rot and termites got the others.
. The Ludlow Cafe in Ludlow CA. Hit by squatters, vandals and arsonists, then demolished.
. The Sidewalk Highway in OK. Crude grading destroyed some original narrow asphalt around the time a commemorative marker was installed.
. The Henning Motel in Newberry Springs CA. An appearance in the movie Bagdad Cafe wasn't enough to save it. Metal thieves got the roof and pipes, a demolition crew took care of the rest.
The problem can only get worse as vandalism combines with time and the elements. It's already extensive and visible now, even from the Interstates.
And coating Ugly with sugar-frosting isn't likely to work. It's been tried.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently listed Route 66 among "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places." To help get the road designated as a National Historic Trail, the group staged an Epic Road Trip in 2018. Five weeks on Route 66!
A five-member team including a photographer made 232 stops across all eight road states...without describing or showing any of this!
Feel-good stories and images available on-line from this project at https://savingplaces.org/preserve-route-66 do not include vandalism anywhere on the road. There's only one distant example of loopy non-urban graffiti, and it's described as "an art statement."
This shameful deception is especially blatant at the Twin Arrows site east of Flagstaff AZ. A stock image posted by the National Trust shows the twin arrows--but not the historic former trading post. The building's front is now coated top-to-bottom with strident graffiti. This is highly visible from I-40, you don't even need to stop--although I did.
Showing the road as it really is, flaws and all, would strongly bolster the "Most Endangered" case. The National Trust undercuts its own entirely truthful claim. (The group did not respond to requests for comment, and I did not respond to their Membership Renewal Notice. So there!)
The Mother Road is now entering a new phase. In the harsh four-season climate of TX and NM especially, vandals are accelerating a process that is natural, well underway...and inevitable. What has been saved is largely in the towns and cities, in the hands of good owners, and both structurally and financially viable.
All this is far from the impression a prospective traveler would glean from books and photographs (including my own) produced years ago.
New Route 66 attractions and spruced-up older ones get plenty of attention, which they fully deserve. It's tough out there--the road business is highly seasonal and tourism is entirely discretionary.
Although new things attract visitors and flesh out the road experience, they cannot compensate for old things that are being lost. Eventually the word gets out. Travelers, including foreigners who have paid big money for The Trip of a Lifetime, will discover they're years too late and much of the good stuff has been destroyed.
Will tourists still come to look at graffiti, broken glass, fences and KEEP OUT signs? Can the Mother Road be experienced through re-creations and museums? Will travelers be satisfied visiting new attractions based loosely on old things that are no longer there? Can anyone Get Their Kicks on a Chipseal frontage road?
We're about to find out.
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Republished in the Federation News by the National Historic Route 66 Federation in 2019 and updated. Images are from the gallery "Route 66: Going Going GONE."
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REMEMBER THE ALAMO?
Preservation can be a long and lonely effort.
San Antonio, where I photographed during Christmas weekend 2016, offers inspiration from a long-delayed preservation story, The Alamo, and a flood-control project, the River Walk. Both now seem so...obvious. But they took decades to catch on.
"Remember the Alamo!" was used as a battle cry just six-weeks after the old mission fell to Mexican troops in 1836. But physical preservation of the shrine to Texas independence took six-decades. Meantime the scarred ruins served as an Army depot and wholesale grocery warehouse. (The famous building above is the chapel, the entire Alamo complex included what is now this plaza and street--an irregular city block.)
Today, more than 180 years after the famous battle, the site remains a work in progress. There's tacky stuff right behind this vantage point and a bright sign desecrates the nighttime scene.
A couple blocks away is San Antonio's River Walk (Paseo del Rio), begun as a downtown flood control project after a deadly 1921 storm. The original plan was for a paved sewer! While that tragically awful idea was flushed, the river still languished until much later. It became a success story of development, not preservation, proving that the two can be complementary.
The first riverfront restaurant, one floor below street level, opened in 1946. But it wasn't until the 1960s that paved walking paths, lighting, landscaping and other elements of The Good Life (like Tex-Mex food) really began attracting locals, and then tourists, to enjoy the river.
These two legendary sites came about from determined efforts by lone individuals with vision. The Alamo can be traced back to Clara Driscoll and the River Walk to H. H. Hugman. (Their stories are readily available on-line.) The causes they fought for are today among the nation's top tourist attractions with millions of visitors a year. San Antonio is lucky, because the rest of downtown is nothing special.
We can't save everything. But I'm broadly sympathetic to preserving the best. The River Walk, especially, shows that new construction can improve, redefine and reinvigorate the past. I hope images in the San Antonio and other city galleries will help inspire local causes.
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Over the years, several groups tried but failed to preserve privately-owned John's Modern Cabins along Rt 66 in MO. In early 2014, well aware of these efforts, I joined the list.
By then the site had become hopeless from neglect, but one idea still had not been explored: off-site preservation of some key elements. While less than ideal, "some" beats "none" by precisely 100%.
And so I offered the absentee owner cash for the two signs and a cabin...for display elsewhere along Route 66. He would receive an immediate payment for the signed contract (I even enclosed a stamped envelope)...or no payment if he continued to let things rust and fall down. He chose the latter.
I'm out $2 or so for phone calls, postage, paper and envelopes, but if all life's failures had a guaranteed maximum $2 downside I'd gladly fail more often.
Interestingly, digital cameras offer a similar risk-reward profile if you take enough shots. The cost-per-failure eventually approaches zero, and a success occasionally appears when you...push the envelope.
This image from John's is a successful failure. Shot into the sun as a vertical, it originally included unnecessary flare, sky, trees, and foreground debris. It was such an ugly and confusing mess that I went on to other images. Months later I had another look. Extensive cropping at top and bottom brought out this evocative shot, my favorite in the gallery.
50 images of John's Modern Cabins may be overkill, but this place is vanishing. Soon failure will be a complete success.
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That's not a bad ending, so I'll just add this postscript. Volunteers shored up one crude building, the others were lost--so the site technically is John's Modern Cabin. It and the signs remain exposed to the elements including huge overhanging tree limbs. Normally, I'd strongly prefer leaving things in place rather than installing them in a museum...John's is an exception.
Still, "some" preservation beats "none" by precisely 100%.
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THE FIRST BYPASSED TOWN ON ROUTE 66
"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 more than 90 years.
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's the first Route 66 town or city to be entirely bypassed.
It was the roaring mid-20s 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 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 1100 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 382 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 teenaged 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
Both UKDeb and SusanEllen were lucky to come through when they did. Spangler's is gone now, the building is filled with clutter. There is no grocery or general store in Depew anymore, only a little Phillips 66 convenience store out of sight along the infamous bypass.
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.
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 city or town 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 flies.
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 got 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 cut off from life-giving traffic by a fence 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 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 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 little 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 republished in two magazines. Images are from the Depew gallery. Documentation is available on request.
I returned in 2021 after an eight-year absence. Miss Teenage Big Hair is gone but other murals attempt to hide 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 closed in 2012 and owner Jimmy Dean Spangler died in 2019. The drug store shell that framed the motorcycle 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.
The "No U Turn" image is from the 2021 trip and shows two vehicles including my car. A decade earlier SusanEllen noted 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.
One constant remains: along former Route 66 downtown you still can't buy a Coke.
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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 (1,600 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 actually 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 ft (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!
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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GROUPS AND LINKS
These associations help preserve and promote much of what appears on the site and I belong to them. Membership typically includes a printed or on-line magazine, events calendar, and access to travel information etc.
ROUTE 66: National Historic Route 66 Federation http://national66.org
LINCOLN HIGHWAY: Lincoln Highway Association http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org
PONY EXPRESS: National Pony Express Association http://www.nationalponyexpress.org
Santa Fe Trail Association http://www.santafetrail.org
DONNER PASS: Donner Summit Historical Society http://donnersummithistoricalsociety.org
NATCHEZ TRACE: Natchez Trace Parkway Association http://natcheztrace.org
Some of these groups also have Facebook pages.
The National (Cumberland) Road currently has no national organization, but there are several state groups.
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