Our Story of Route 6The Roosevelt Highway
The first numbered segment of Route 6, extending from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Brewster, New York, was designated in 1925. Soon thereafter Route 6 was extended to Erie, Pa, the Pennsylvania segment routed along the "Roosevelt Highway," a name that would soon apply to the entire transcontinental Route 6. In 1931, Route 6 was further extended to Greeley, Colorado along a path that combined quite a number of separate numbered and unnumbered segments, including U. S. 32 across part of Illinois and all of Iowa, and U. S. 38 across part of Nebraska. Finally, in 1937, the route was extended westward to Bishop, California and south to Long Beach. Then in 1965, the segment south of Bishop was decommissioned. The name "Roosevelt Highway" seems to have stuck for a while, but had faded by the 1950s. Throughout its history, before and after the magic moment in 1937 when Route 6 gained its transcontinentality, numerous route modifications were made, most of them at a local scale.
Other Names and Interesting Segments
In 1953 Route 6 was designated the "Grand Army of the Republic [GAR] Highway" and signed as such in all fourteen states through which it ran. Through the sixties and seventies, the signs--along with the memory--of the GAR Highway gradually disappeared. Then, probably in the early 1990s, this name was revived and it appears on signs in all fourteen Route 6 states (numerically ranging from four in California, to nearly 100 signs in Indiana).
Dozens of Route 6 segments have interesting histories. The stretch from Los Angeles north to the Owens Valley was once known as "El Camino Sierra," and parts of it are still called "Sierra Highway." The stretch across the basin and range country from Tonopah to Ely, Nevada was part of the Midland Trail (also called the "Midland Roosevelt Trail"). Promoted by the Automobile Club of Southern California, in Los Angeles, the Midland trail connected that rapidly growing urban place (which grew past 1 million population in the early 1920s) to the Lincoln Highway. Perhaps this attempt to link with the Lincoln Highway, the most famous of the named highways of the time, was one effort by Los Angeles to connect to the rest of the nation in the rapidly emerging automobile era in which it was playing a central role. This route, however, had to take a back seat to Route 66, which became the prime link eastward from Los Angeles from the 1920s, through the Dust Bowl migration years, and until the 1950s. "...Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino...."
Iowa presents another interesting case. Significant parts of the "River to River Road," which was built in a day across Iowa in 1910, became Route 6. Its construction consisted of a massive coordinated effort in which people in every township along the way improved and signed the road. In the 1920s, the path that Route 6 would later take was signified by utility poles that were painted white, creating the "White Pole Road," or "White Way Highway." All such designations had disappeared a long time ago-until the Spring of 1999 when a series of "White Pole Road" signs appeared along Route 6 in Cass County, Iowa. In Nebraska, signs still exist that indicate former name of the road, "Detroit-Lincoln-Denver" (DLD), or "Omaha-Lincoln-Denver" (OLD) highway.
Even though much of its path is quite independent of railroads (e.g., through all of Nevada, western Utah, and parts of all states east of Illinois) Route 6 does follow the paths of some major railroads, most of which were in place decades before paved highways. It followed the Denver and Rio Grande Western from Spanish Fork, Utah to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, passing through Helper, Utah, a town named after the extra engine(s) needed to pull trains up the steep grade north to Soldiers Summit. Route 6 followed the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy through a good part of Nebraska.
Probably the most important rail route, however, was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific line, which paralleled Route 6 from Omaha, Nebraska, to Joliet, Illinois. Indeed, Route 6 originally shared the Mississippi River crossing with the Rock Island Railroad on "the Government Bridge" that connects both Iowa and Illinois to the U. S. Government Arsenal on Rock Island. By the time Route 6 became transcontinental in 1937, the Father of Waters was crossed via the new suspension bridge connecting Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois (one of the five Quad Cities). In 1960, the Bettendorf Bridge was made distinctive, if not unique, with the addition of an identical second span.
With the exception of some important stretches in Colorado and Pennsylvania, Route 6 generally does not follow rivers or streams; it crosses them. Many great bridges remain. However, it has interesting relationships with at least two significant waterways that were human creations. It parallels the Owens Valley Aqueduct, completed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in 1913 under the direction of William Mulholland to transport water to the City of Angels from the Owens Valley some three hundred miles north. Owens Lake quickly became dry. Route 6 also parallels the Hennepin Canal that connected the Mississippi River at Rock Island to the Illinois River at Bureau. The canal was completed in 1908, too late in the canal era to generate sufficient business, and closed in 1949.
Local Signage and Centrality
Besides the GAR designation, "Route 6" currently is signed in fourteen states. In only one place--Omaha, Nebraska--did we find a standard U. S. highway shield containing the name of the state in addition to the number 6 (although we also found one in Ohio posted on the side of shed). In Pennsylvania, some segments of Route 6 retain the "Roosevelt" label and on Cape Cod old U. S. 6 is still the "Kings Highway."
In some states, notably Utah and Colorado, "6" signs are missing from the segments of the highway that duplex with current interstate highways. In some state and local jurisdictions, Route 6 mileage markers are found every mile, and in many places the current 6 is given such names as "6 Hwy" (Ohio) or "Hwy 6 Trail" (Iowa). Most old segments, which have been bypassed either by a newer Route 6 or by placement of 6 on an interstate highway, are not marked in the western states. In the Midwest and East, however, they are most commonly given new names or numbers, sometimes as part of the policy of giving street numbers to every road in the county. Isn't it annoying to arrive at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, to find a sign: "224th Street West and 345th Avenue South"?
But here and there an old segment retains a Route 6 designation. This is especially true in Iowa, where several segments carry names such as "Old Route 6 Road." Perhaps Route 6 means more to Iowans, because it was an important connection to the coasts. A woman in an antique shop in Casey, Iowa told us that she remembered as a child hearing talk of a "coast to coast" highway. Her image was not of oceans or beaches, but instead of cars "coasting" down the rolling Iowa hills on this new-fangled highway. Others, in the same antique shop, reminded us of the "White Pole Road" which had extended eastward from Casey "at least to Des Moines, maybe all the way to the Mississippi." It did.
In the middle of the country, people embrace "centrality" in reference to Route 6 (and probably other highways, notably Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, and Route 20, now the longest of transcontinentals). On Route 6, Atlantic, Iowa, was named out of this very feeling according to The American Guide (Alsberg, 1949). Thinking that their town was near the center of the continent, they flipped a coin to decide whether to name it "Atlantic" or "Pacific." "Pacific" won the toss. When it was discovered that other nearby states had towns named Pacific (e. g., in Missouri), they opted for uniqueness and named the town "Atlantic." The notion of centrality along Route 6 was not limited to the center of the country. In Linesville, Pennsylvania [home of the tackiest tourist trap in the world which features humans feeding bread to carp in a place where "the ducks walk on the fish"!] is a sign proclaiming that town's location exactly 500 miles from both Chicago and New York. Unfortunately, Route 6 goes to neither of those fine cities.
The "Old Road"
Highway geographers have long been interested in finding the "old road," a segment of the former highway of interest, and many times they actually get out of their cars and tramp through the woods to find these treasures. Such segments can be found in every state along Route 6. A most interesting old road is just to the east of McCook, Nebraska. Its entrance from the east is marked "Road Closed" which, of course, we ignored. It gently curves south of a rest area on the current Route 6, and then goes behind a state highway department facility where employees practice using the line-painting machine. What better use of the "old road" than to use it for the application of new paint?
One of the best old road segments is the stretch from Cisco, Utah to Mack, Colorado, a lonely, bumpy, dusty stretch of Old 6 and 50. Nothing can be found on this bumpy road, except for several interesting old markers, the most distinctive of which is a large stone monument at the Utah/Colorado border.
For years, the state of Connecticut has been trying to make an "old road" out of narrow and winding segments of highway 6 east of Hartford, which currently experience heavy traffic. Attempts to create a wider, limited-access, version of 6 to link Hartford with Providence have met strong resistance from groups on environmental and aesthetic grounds.
We found it difficult not to photograph the several hundred interesting gas stations that we have encountered on Route 6 from Long Beach to Cape Cod. Especially west of Joliet, many old gas stations are sitting unused in various states of disrepair. But they are there and they represent all manner of style and era. However, the gas station book has already been written by one of the great highway geographers, John Jakle (Jakle and Sculle, 1994).
Motels and Hotels
Since motels have been studied (Jakle, Sculle, and Rogers 1994), we have concentrated on hotels along Route 6 and photographed nearly every one of them. Indeed, we found some great old hotels, sometimes located on the main downtown drag and sometimes somewhat peripheral to the CBD. The Rosemans have stayed in the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah (which closed in 2001) and the Nevada Hotel [in the Hoot Gibson room, no less] in Ely. They are two of several that stand as major visual landmarks along Route 6, some of which are still hotels, others having other (usually residential) uses such has the fifteen story Le Claire in Moline, Illinois. Many downtown hotels, beginning in the 1920s, catered to motor travelers, such as the old Clarke Hotel in Hastings, Nebraska, which still has a sign on its back wall whose purpose was to lure Route 6 travelers.
World War II
Among the many remaining landscape features from the 1940s are several that remind us of World War II. Route 6 passes several military facilities, some still operating and some long closed. They include the Navy Munitions Depot just west of Hastings, Nebraska and the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. It also passes at least three sites that remind us more directly of the human suffering that occurs during wartime. Along Route 6 are two internment camps to which people of Japanese descent were relocated during the war with Japan, Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah, and one prisoner of war camp that held Germans near Atlanta, Nebraska
A great variety of other themes that emerge from the scenes along Route 6 will be subjects of later commentary. In the meantime, enjoy our map-based tour of Route 6.