The first in a series of articles about the forgotten original path of U.S. 66 in California.
A song from my 2001 album with Cockeyed Ghost, LUDLOW 6:18, about this mysterious old road.
U.S. Route 66, commissioned in 1926, is perhaps the most famous highway in the United States if not the world; even here in Southeast Asia I regularly run across people sporting a “Route 66” T-shirt. It’s an iconic road that stands for freedom and the possibilities of the open road.
Old roads have always been a hobby of mine and given the number of books on the subject, I would have thought that there was nothing left to discover about this famous highway. The experience that formed the basis of the song “Old Trails” – where in 2000 while following an ancient alignment of Route 66 I stumbled across an undocumented, abandoned but still intact 1913 bridge in the Arizona desert that led across a canyon (and saved my ass, since I was out of gas and couldn’t turn back) – taught me that wasn’t true.
That bridge, the Padre Canyon Bridge in Arizona, has since been added to Route 66 lore but there’s another part of the road that’s still virtually unknown.
No pilgrimage on U.S. 66 would be complete without taking the 70-mile two lane journey odyssey the Mojave Desert where the old road takes its own unique path from Interstate 40, heading through the fascinating abandoned towns of Ludlow, Amboy, Chambless, Essex and others. What few realize when they are making this drive, however, is that this is not the original alignment of Route 66. Constructed around 1933, the road that exists for tourists to drive today replaced a lonely, blacktopped path that spearheaded its way through the lonely desert – the first U.S. 66, and the last iteration of one of the first transcontinental auto routes – The National Old Trails Highway.
The story doesn’t end there, though…through the California desert and beyond, there were actually three pre-Route 66 iterations of the same road, each one winding its own fascinating way through the desert, each one left more or less as it was to decay into dust in the intervening century.
Starting around 2003, when I first discovered the existence of these proto-66s, I made repeated trips to the desert, often with my bandmate Teresa Cowles and her trusty RAV-4, to research, relocate and when possible drive sections of this fascinating abandoned highway – a thrilling and occasionally dangerous hobby. In one case we even reopened a long washed out stretch, reopening a miles-long cul de sac which was later accepted into the BLM system of roads. Poring through old maps we were able to reconstruct at least part of the history of the development of roads in California and found many interesting mysteries along the way. We also branched out to research the Midland Trail (now CA-14 and U.S. 395), the Arrowhead Trail (later the route of U.S. 91 and now I-15), and others. In most cases, when abandoned, these roads were left as they were, their previous functions forgotten, to decay into ATV trails, jeep roads, and sometimes into just lines through the brush or even washes.
The history of these roads is too long and complicated for one post but periodically I will try to highlight a section of road, with pictures, to give you a sense of the history and the vibe of these places. Eventually, hopefully, they will join up to form a complete path of travel, one you might have undertaken in a Model T had you lived 100 years ago.
For now, here’s a few pictures to whet your appetite…
The very first road across the California desert was bladed in 1910-11 by a local road builder named Seymour Alf. He once claimed his road would last a thousand years, and indeed, his primitive trail is still there to be found along the margins of later trails and occasionally blazing its own path, if you know where to look for it. Using old maps and aerial photos, we relocated a forgotten stretch of the road over the mountains near Goffs and actually drove over one section of it. Abandoned by 1914, it was amazingly unspoiled when we relocated it in November 2008.
In 1914 the National Old Trails Highway officially came into being and an attempt was made to upgrade the road across the desert. A new road distinct from Seymour Alf’s was bladed across the desert, and in some cases rerouted yet again before the wider, blacktopped version that was the original route 66 was put into place in the mid ’20s, only to be replaced again less than a decade later. The first NOTH was just one lane wide but had grading and in some cases elaborate stone work to build the road bed into the desert landscape. This section near Newberry Springs is still in use, and is probably similar to how it would have looked back in 1914.
AAA map from around 1925 showing the (then) new [dark line] and old [lighter line] paths of National Old Trails Highway (with Seymour Alf’s original 1910 road already abandoned and not shown) through the Mojave Desert. Both are different from and predate the “old” U.S. 66 people drive today, and both still exist as dusty, remote jeep trails in the desert. Traveling in the desert was no joke in those days. Note that the road north from Bagdad is marked “practically impassable.”
The first route 66, and last National Old Trails Highway, near Minneola, CA, dating from the early 1920s. By the late 1920s, when the road was first signposted as Route 66, the National Old Trails Highway had evolved into something we might recognize as a highway – it even had primitive blacktopping still visible in spots today, along with a much wider roadbed.