The nation's first network of highways, built in the late 1920s and 1930s, created new opportunities for motorists and small business owners. It also created a perception that highways benefited ordinary Americans, enhancing their personal lives and giving them more freedom. These advantages contrasted with railroads, which benefited corporations and allowed them to control people's movements and the cost of their travels. In 2000, Oklahoma truckers moved 50 feet of concrete pavement from U.S. 66 to the collections of the National Museum of American History to mark the significance of U.S. numbered highways, and Route 66 as a prime example.
In 1926, almost 60 years after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, U. S. 66 was conceived as a public thoroughfare linking the Midwest, Southwest, and southern California. Its all-season route soon brought heavy traffic. Motorists and business owners adapted Route 66 for their needs and oriented their lives around it. Some earned a living by driving a truck or operating a roadside business, while others enjoyed leisure trips, advertised products, or moved to new homes. Clusters of roadside buildings made Route 66 the main street of a new community—one that was of, by, and for people on the move.
Route 66 also served as a conduit for mass migrations of workers, farmers, and their families who saw the highway as a path to a better life. During the Depression, Midwesterners saw it as a way out of hard times and failed farms, and they followed it to seek jobs in the Southwest and California. G.I.s traveled to defense camps during World War II, and after the war they settled in new homes nearby. Hordes of vacationers followed the advice of songwriters Bobby and Cynthia Troup: "Get your kicks on Route 66." Americans relied on Route 66 to change their circumstances for the better, and the highway earned a special place in American culture. Today, historians commemorate its importance.