(News came two days ago that Martin Millner, along with George Maharis, one of the two stars of the legendary television series Route 66, has died, at 83. As a young boy, my own introduction to the adventure of road travel and the romance of the route came from the series and the experience of new places and people each week of Milner’s Tod and Maharis’s Buz. It seems the right time, then, to offer this excerpt of my “Route 66: The American Road,” originally published, along with the photography of Julia Dean, in the final issue of the also legendary, documentary journalism magazine DoubleTake, and republished now in the inaugural issue of Footnote: A Literary Journal of History.)
When the beaver were depleted, and there was too little left to trap, many of the mountain men who wished to continue to live outside of civilization hired on as guides for the new wagon trains leaving from Missouri for unsettled land. The trappers had found the way, and now, from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Independence, not only individuals seeking fortune at gold strikes and elsewhere, but whole families seeking new lives were heading west. In the heyday of the Western wagon train, from 1840 to 1860, as many as 500,000 people migrated along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails.
These trails became permanent routes west, but as coordinates on maps and rutted wagon-wheel trails, they were paths for the most intrepid— of which the United States has never had shortage—but not for the ordinary lone individual or family. Phenomena like the Pony Express, and the telegraph that spelled the short-lived Express’ demise, provided the first sense of coast-to-coast communication, but they were not a means of travel.
Only with the driving of that last, golden spike connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads in 1869, had a means of transportation been established that enabled the free flow of people, without the daunting hardship and risk of wilderness travel, between the nation’s Eastern origins and its Western expansion. It had taken just short of 64 years from the date Lewis and Clark reached their destination across an uncharted wilderness until the completion of the first, fixed, permanent, regular, and safe means of transportation across it. Where once an overland journey would have taken months—it had taken Lewis and Clark twenty— or a journey by ship around Cape Horn weeks, on June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours and 39 minutes.
Before and after the railroad, there was also the stagecoach, for some decades a regular fixture of western commerce and travel. But companies such as the Butterfield Overland Express Company were primarily government- and private -mail haulers and, like Wells Fargo, movers of bank funds. For the nine people crammed into a semi-weekly Celerity coach for the typical twenty-five day, bone-jarring, cold and snowy, or hot, sweaty, and smelly journey from Missouri to California, the fare was around $200, or about $4,000 in today’s money, more or less the price of a one-way ticket on the Concorde SST over its lifespan. If you could afford it, you took the stagecoach before the transcontinental line was completed, or because it went places the railroad didn’t, not to celebrate your individual freedom as an American to travel where you wished.
The railroad, on the other hand, moved thousands, hundreds of thousands—millions. Along with the Homestead Act of 1862, it completed the settlement of the West.
The Homestead Act offered free title to 160 acres—after five years, if you worked the land and improved it. In contrast, the railroads sold the land along their right-of-way, the land they had been granted by the federal government as an incentive to undertake the transcontinental enterprise. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad lives on in the popular historical imagination as one of the great moments in the building of the American nation, and it is certainly that. An extraordinary technical feat and a permanent conquest of nature cannot be denied. But here again, as with every inroad to the West, that tension between the individual and the collective is visible.
An individual picks up from New York, or Philadelphia, or the Ohio River Valley, or even somewhere in Europe, and alone or with his family makes his way finally, by train, to Nebraska, Wyoming, California, or another state, to start afresh. The railroad is available for travel, however, because the government had its grander social and commercial goals, granted land—and its natural resources—to the enterprises commissioned to lay the track, and even subsidized the construction.
The railroad is there to be used because legislators succumbed to wholesale bribery from lobbyists in the form of cash and corporate bonds. It is there because the owners and operators of the Union Pacific Railroad established the shell company, Credit Mobilier—the Enron of its day, owned by the same majority shareholders as the Union Pacific—to which to award the construction contract and bill back the railroad, subsidized by the federal government (and risk-taking private investors), multiple times the actual cost of materials and labor.
Once the Transcontinental Railroad was established, the railroads also went into the business of luring settlers to migrate to the West. They offered reasonable prices for the land, good credit terms to enable purchase, showings of parcels, and even established European offices with representatives to attract additional emigration across the Atlantic. The settlers would populate the land the railroads traversed and help establish the railroad towns that would both service and feed off the railroad. Thus is the goal of a westward expansion fulfilled. Thus does the American mythos of individual initiative and self-determination run up against a contradiction. And that is how it remained for almost 60 more years.
But if our world is anything, it is a world of contradiction. However settlers may have arrived—by someone else’s wagon train, stage coach, or train, or by steamer from another part of the world—whatever corporate hucksterism or nationalistic boosterism had sold them an idea about the circumstances toward which they traveled that was not entirely in accordance with reality (disgruntled natives not entirely glad you’re coming, anyone?), they had made their own choices, determined their own wills, and endured hardships their neighbors would not undertake. They possessed the independence and strength to travel far from unhappy or unsatisfactory conditions that others less daringly abided, and they felt no less individual because they aimed to shape their destinies within a web of relation and influence they could not always see around them.
Perhaps that is why the lone cowboy on his horse, crossing the panhandle, passing among the mesas, a speck on a vast prairie beneath an enormous sky—what so few, in fact, ever were—became our resonant American myth. Nothing is ever how we portray it, but our symbols are what we feel, and we feel for a reason. The cowboy, as we see him, is singular and integrally himself within the natural world. His kindnesses are not mandated, but his own. His cooperation is given, not required. And if he’s of a mind, whenever he’s of a mind, he’ll go his own way. Just point his horse’s head like a compass, and move on.
Yet, how many could really live that dream?
Beginning November 11, 1926, anyone.
And with the affordability of Ford’s Model T—soon to be a fixture on the new Highway 66—the automobile was quickly developing into what it would not take very long to become, the singular and democratic mode of transportation of the 20th century and beyond. Route 66, the first transcontinental interstate highway, was created to serve it.
It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America—a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs—and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation—that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary—the frontier—is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.
For the remainder of my feature and all of the fine work by many authors at various stages of being given up to history, order your copy of Footnote: a Literary Journal of History.
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