Adventure, new beginnings, memorable family vacations, iconic architecture, history, the open road. All of these have one thing in common — U.S. Route 66. Commissioned in 1926 as a federal highway stretching from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean 2,448 miles away in California, Route 66 almost immediately became an enduring part of American culture and lore.
During the Depression, thousands of displaced citizens from the middle of America fled the Dustbowl on Route 66 for the promise of a better life in California. John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath details the tribulations of a family making such a journey and gave the route its nickname, “The Mother Road.” It has also been referred to as the “Main Street of America.”
During the Second World War, Route 66 was a vital artery through Middle America, connecting numerous military installations with important rail, sea and river terminals, providing memories for the “Greatest Generation.” At war’s end, veterans took to the road en masse with their young families to explore the great west, including the Grand Canyon, Meramec Caverns, Meteor Crater and many other points of interest. A popular song and hit television series added to the mystique and allure of Route 66.
While Route 66 enjoyed extensive use through the 1950s and 1960s, the advent of the interstate system marked the beginning of the end for the route. The interstate system pushed west, bypassing many small Route 66 towns that depended on the road to support their economies and relegating the route to secondary status through major cities. The last portion of U.S. 66 was bypassed by interstate in 1984. Many lives were impacted and some towns ceased to exist. The Disney movie Cars portrays a fictional Route 66 town that thrived before being bypassed.
Today, the route and its roadside attractions are still out there for all to enjoy. It exists as a patchwork of county, state, federal and interstate highways marked by “Historic Route 66” signage. Many of the buildings, structures and even segments of the route itself are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and can be found on the National Park Service website www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/. In addition to Americans hitting the old road, thousands of foreign visitors drive Route 66 every year, some even shipping their own classic cars and motorcycles to do so.
With the 90th anniversary of the establishment of Route 66 in 2016, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee has twice recommended a series of half dollars to commemorate the event, in both its 2011 and 2012 annual reports. The series of eight copper-nickel clad half dollars, one each for the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California would bear a common reverse and a state specific obverse. Imagine the possibilities this series would provide to capture the unique history, architecture and landscapes along the route, on a coin the size of a half dollar: A sports car speeding through the California desert, the Marsh Rainbow Arch bridge in Kansas, the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, the Chain of Rocks bridge over the Mississippi, the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne commercial buildings of various states. These are just a few examples that come to mind.
The recommendation calls for not more than a total of 750,000 copper-nickel clad half dollars for the eight-coin series, making for a very unique, fun and collectible set that would celebrate the American spirit and experience as never before.
A design contest would almost certainly result in some fantastic proposals from artists who are very familiar with Route 66 and what is has to offer artistically. This commemorative series would introduce a new generation of young collectors to an American treasure and stimulate further exploration by American and foreign visitors alike.
At this point, commemoration of 90th anniversary of the establishment of Route 66 in 2016 remains only a recommendation of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. In order for this series of coins to become reality, Congress must pass a bill that is signed by the president. Those with an interest in seeing this series produced should contact their members of Congress.
Michael Olson is a collector and member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee who has also travelled extensively along Route 66.