Preserving Route 66 as a National Historic Trail

By Special Contributor posted 07-02-2018 15:28


By Morgan Vickers

During summer 2018 the National Trust for Historic Preservation, together with the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership and other Route 66 organizations, is conducting a major marketing campaign to support the permanent federal designation of Route 66 as a National Historic Trail (NHT). The campaign will also be a national celebration of Route 66—the places, the people, and the stories that make it an irreplaceable part of the American landscape. Route 66 was named to the National Trust’s 2018 list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and named a National Trust National Treasure in July 2018. If designated as an NHT, Route 66 will commemorate modern motorized traffic and the history of modern road development during its period of historical significance, 1926–85. The designation would include gas stations, motels, diners, pavement and more.

View of Route 66 in Oklahoma | Credit: Jonathan Sharp 

Established on November 11, 1926, Route 66—also known as “the Mother Road”—is more than 2,400 miles long, running through eight states and more than 300 communities from Chicago to Los Angeles. More than 250 sites along Route 66 are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and more than 5.5 million people live along the route. The route connects urban areas; panoramic scenery; Native American communities; small rural towns; and, of course, quirky roadside architecture to comprise a “living, evolving thoroughfare of American discovery.”

While Route 66 was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System on June 27, 1985, it has remained a nationally and internationally popular heritage tourism destination, providing an appealing alternative to interstate travel for recreational motorists seeking an authentic American experience.

National Trust senior field officer Jessie Lattig walks though a site along Route 66. | Credit: Alex Green

Designating National Historic Trails

Since the designation was established in 1978, 19 NHTs have been designated, ranging in length from the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail to the 5,665-mile California National Historic Trail. To qualify as NHTs, trails must meet three criteria under the National Trails System Act (NTSA). They must be travel routes that (1) were originally established by historic use; (2) have been determined to be of national significance because of that use; and (3) have significant potential for public recreational use or historic interest. Congress designates NHTs through amendments to the NTSA.

In addition to recognition, becoming an NHT provides trails with permanent federal designation as part of an established program. The designation authorizes the trail administration to “enter into cooperative agreements with States and political subdivisions, landowners, organizations, and individuals to operate, develop and maintain any portion of the trail.” It also allows partners to obtain technical and financial assistance from the National Park Service (NPS)—subject to the availability of funding—for preservation, interpretation, signage, promotion, research, and other efforts related to eligible historic resources.

Matthew Dickey, one of the Route 66 roadies, walks along the route in Albuquerque, New Mexico. | Credit: Alex Green


It is important to note that NHT designation does not affect private property rights and does not add any new burdens or requirements to state, local, or tribal governments. Trail designation does not give the NPS any authority over lands it does not own. Landowners along the route retain all legal authority to manage their property, and there are no restrictions placed on business owners. Property owners who want to participate in NHT programs can choose to sign a nonbinding agreement to work with the NPS and others toward the goals of the trail, but they retain the right to cancel that agreement at any time.

Stewarding Route 66

The National Trust has long been engaged in work along Route 66. In 2007 the “Motels of Route 66” were listed among the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. And in 2013, after renewing conversations with the NPS’ Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program about how to support historic preservation efforts along the route, the National Trust became engaged with what would become the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership. The new partnership provides a unified voice for all of Route 66 with representation from all states, and its working groups focus on areas such as tourism promotion, historic preservation, economic development, and education.

Historic neon signs like this one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, dot Route 66.| Credit: Alex Green

With the upcoming expiration of the Corridor Preservation Program in 2019, the Road Ahead Partnership carefully evaluated possible federal designations for the route. Stakeholders agreed that seeking permanent federal designation as an NHT had the greatest potential to help Route 66 and the best chance for success—and they have already made significant progress toward that goal. On February 1, 2017, Illinois Rep. Darin LaHood introduced legislation that would designate Route 66 as an NHT. Thanks to the bill’s sponsors and a collaborative effort between the National Trust’s government relations staff and grassroots partners, the bill achieved a successful hearing and markup, followed by unanimous approval and passage by the House of Representatives on June 5, 2018. Presently, efforts are underway advance this legislation in the Senate with the goal of securing the designation before the end of the year.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NTSA in 2018, securing the 20th NHT designation for Route 66 would affirm the inspiring story of what is arguably the most iconic American road of the 20th century.

Morgan Vickers is an intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Denver Field Office.