Announcement of original US Highway Numbers and Mileage 1927
There has been a discussion recently on the Yahoo Route 66 eGroup
concerning the use of the words “highway” or “route” in reference to our US Highway system. The gist of the discussion is: when did these terms come into use; when did it become more prevalent to refer to “Route 66,” rather than “Highway 66.”
What we know is that the U.S. Highway system came about as an agreement between the states with some oversight from the Bureau of Public Roads, then a part of the Department of Agriculture. The original map of highways was approved in November 1926, but the public announcement did not occur until January 1927. A list of all of the newly designated highways, their mileage, and the cities and states they would serve, was printed in American Highways, the quarterly publication of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in the April 1927 issue. Click here or on the image above to see the article in its entirety.
From this article, which I find definitive since it comes from the official source that created the U.S. Highway system, we see that the official name of the new system was clear. The title of the article is “United States Numbered Highways.” All of the original highways are described with their number, their mileage, the states served, and within each state some of the municipalities served. For instance, for Highway 66, the title is “United States Highway No. 66. Total Mileage, 2448.”
However, from this very first article, it seems that in general usage the words “highway,” “road,” and “route” are used fairly interchangeably. The introductory paragraphs of the article use “road” seven times, “highway” three times, and “route” four times. The subtitle of the article is “For the Convenience of the Traveling Public a Limited System of State Roads Have Been Given Continuous Numbers Across the Country.” Highway is used as an official reference, “state highway departments,” “highway officials,” and “Federal Aid Highway System.” Route is used more colloquially: “there must be some diagonal routes joining these odd and even numbered routes;” “The total mileage involved in the routes selected is 96,626 miles;” “The following description of these routes have been prepared after careful observation and approval of the State offiicals.”
Thus, from the beginning, the terminology of highway, route, or road was loosely applied. Another example can be seen from the late 1930s, when John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath, was published. Steinbeck mainly referred to the “Mother Road,” a term he coined, as “Highway 66,” or simply “66.” The following is from Chapter 12 of the novel:
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66–the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map…over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
66 is the path of of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
I do not have a copy of Steinbeck’s novel in front of me, so I cannot go throughout the text to see if he uses “route 66″ elsewhere in the book. However, in a review of The Grapes of Wrath that appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature in the spring of 1939, we have this:
It is the particular story of one family, the Joads from a farm near Sallisaw. You have seen them going west through Texas and New Mexico on Route 66, or you have seen them in Resettlement Administration photographs: three generations in a second-hand truck piled high with everything they own.
One of the commenters on the Yahoo Route 66 eGroup noted that the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66″ was written by Bobby Troup, who was originally from Pennsylvania. His point is that it is possible that the popularity of that song might have led to prevalence of “route” over “highway.” I hope that the commentor will not object to this quote of his interesting post:
We never say “Highway 1″ out here – we say either “US 1″ or “Route 1″. If we’re talking about a state numbered highway, it’s either “Route 563″ or “PA 563″ (we Pennsylvanians often call our state “P-A”), or just simply “563″. We never call any highway (whether state, US or Interstate) “the 66″ as they do
in Canada and in California.
These regional differences in terminology are interesting–here in Chicago, if a road has a number and a name, we almost always call it by the name and not the number. If you ask a Chicagoan how to get to I-94, they likely would look at you as if you are a Martian; but if you ask about the Dan Ryan, Kennedy, or Edens Expressways, you will get detailed and knowledgeable directions.
There may well be some connection between Bobby Troup’s “P-A”-isms and why he decided to write about “route 66″ instead of “highway 66,” and it also may be true that the popularity of that song might have brought the use of “route” to more prominence over the more official term “highway.” It is also clear, however, that the terminology has been inexact in common usage from the beginning of the U.S. Highway System.