The Main Street of America,
The Mother Road,
U.S. Route 66

by Nico Scopelliti

Serving as inspiration both for the Interstate Highway System itself and numerous road-warrior songs, television series, and movies, Route 66 exemplifies the American spirit of freedom. It's even enshrined in our literature:  in "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck wrote, "66 is the mother road, the road of flight."

We've all seen contemporary, multiple-lane highways whose massive junctions and interchanges are megaprojects unto themselves.  In the 1940s, the Hooker Cut was an example of a massive highway project.

Construction of Fort Leonard Wood outside of Rolla, Missouri started in earnest in 1941. When 32,000 construction workers descended on this rural area of the south-central Ozarks, accommodations were thin, forcing them to seek shelter from Lebanon to Rolla and beyond. Around the clock traffic accompanies around the clock construction, so traffic was particularly snarled around the entrance to the camp to the East and West.  The War Department determined a four-lane highway was the solution to move men and materiel to and from the fort.

A four-laned highway for several miles on each side of the entrance to Fort Leonard Wood was planned to expedite traffic.  The highway would cut through the high ridge at Hooker that the old road skirted around. This bypassed Devil's Elbow and the narrow bridge with the dog leg-approach over the Big Piney River. 

The engineers used a new technique for road cuts where they terraced the walls on each side, set back from the road so that falling rocks would hit a terrace or the shoulder and not the highway.  This technique is still used today in highway construction.

The  Hooker Cut was groundbreaking highway engineering. The deepest road cut in the U. S. at the time, a median strip divided the lanes, and the lanes were three feet wider than the roads of the era. Gutters diverted water into culverts for efficient run-off. It certainly moved traffic faster - and bypassed the old community of Hooker and the businesses that had been there since the early days of Route 66. This was the first four-lane stretch opened on Route 66 in Missouri and the last closed.

But let's take a quick jaunt down the original path that connected the Midwest to California:  dropping south from Chicago to St. Louis, then through Springfield, (Missouri) Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup (New Mexico), Flagstaff, and then through Barstow and San Bernardino, and finally to Los Angeles.

It was a marvel in its day — two lanes in each direction; 2,448 miles of freedom.

You can also check out "A Brief History of Route 66," a Time article by Christina Crapanzano.

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