It’s called the “Mother Road,” a moniker applied to the historic U.S. highway labeled as Route 66. The highway stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles and traverses the entire 375-mile width of New Mexico.
We like to think of Route 66 shooting straight across the state because that’s how Interstate 40 is today, and we know it followed the Mother Road. But, in its early years, the road itself was as convoluted as its history.
Alternate Route for Route 66 Proposed
In the early 1920s, in the fading light of America’s Golden Age, the nation was developing a network of national highways. One of its most ardent promoters was Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, who knew a national highway would bring greater prosperity to Oklahoma. U.S. 60 had been laid out from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri. It was slated to continue across Kansas, Colorado, and Utah to California.
Avery had a different idea. He wanted the highway to run from Springfield through Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Amarillo. It would enter New Mexico at Glenrio, travel to Santa Rosa, and then southwest to Vaughn, Encino, Mountainair, Socorro, and Quemado before entering Arizona. He promoted the route as avoiding crossing the high Rockies in Colorado. Moreover, he thought the road should extend north to Chicago, believing that would give Oklahoma ranchers better access to Chicago stockyards.
In 1926, the United States commissioned Route 60 the way Avery wanted — all except the part from Chicago to Springfield. He had been opposed by highway commission members of southern states who wanted an Atlantic to Pacific highway.
Arthur T. Hannett’s Joke
That’s where our story of Arthur T. Hannett’s joke begins.
Arthur T. Hannett had been a controversial trial lawyer, mayor of Gallup, and member of the state highway commission before being elected governor of New Mexico, serving from January 1925 to January 1927.
According to Eric Scott Jeffries, who wrote “The Historic Committee Presents — Hannett’s Joke: Route 66” for the Bar Journal in 2000, New Mexico was a rapidly changing world. Its politics were as rough and tumble as its roads. When Bronson Cutting was a U.S. senator, he accused the Hannett administration of corruption.
Jeffries wrote, “Cutting charged Gov. Hannett with ‘stealing the election from Manuel Otero two years ago; with having double-crossed the candidate for treasurer; with being unfair to Spanish Americans in the selection of Ed Scope as a successor to Land Commissioner Justina Baca; and with using the office for the benefit of a little ring calling itself the Democratic Party.’”
Hannett lost the 1926 election to Republican Richard Dillon, a sheep rancher from Encino. The now-lame-duck governor apparently decided he had time to seek revenge for the political slight he perceived to have suffered.
Shortly after the November election, Hannett called E.B. Bail, state highway engineer, to his office. He placed a map before the engineer and drew a straight line from Santa Rosa, through Moriarty, to Albuquerque. Bail was familiar with this suggested route. A Mr. Crossley of Moriarty had once driven Bail over the cross-country route.
This is where Hannett said he wanted the new U.S. highway built. It was a political stunt, but the move bypassed Encino and put Governor-elect Dillon’s sheep ranching business in jeopardy. The highway engineers were enthusiastic about the challenge. They knew they would lose their jobs on the first of January and thought the project a huge joke.
Hannett had Bail assemble two crews: one Bail led east from Moriarty; the other led by Sam Fulton west from Santa Rosa. In 31 days, the crews surveyed, cut, scraped, and graded 69 miles of highway. They worked through bitter December weather. They worked with a makeshift collection of tractors, graders, and dilapidated World War I caterpillars.
Bail’s Moriarty crew encountered nearly 30 miles of piñon forest. They chained trees to tractors and yanked them out of the ground. They cut fences without obtaining condemnation notices. Apparently, landowners thought the road would benefit them as there was not a single lawsuit filed.
On January 1, 1927, Dillion sent his highway engineer to Palma, about halfway between Moriarty and Santa Rosa, to stop construction. But a heavy snowstorm prevented him from reaching the road crews before January 3. By then, the two crews had met; the road was finished.
The Story Continues
That should be the end of our story. But it’s not.
The southerners opposing Avery won and got their sea-to-shining-sea highway. It took until 1932 to complete U.S. 60 from Springfield through Amarillo to Clovis, Vaughn, Encino, and the rest of the route we can drive today.
The proposed Chicago to Los Angeles highway was numbered Route 66. But, instead of following Hannett’s joke from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque, it met the interests of Santa Fe politicians, businesspeople, and the tourist industry. Route 66 left Santa Rosa in a northwest direction to Romeroville, just south of Las Vegas. It turned south through Glorieta Pass to Santa Fe, switch-backed down La Bajada Hill to Albuquerque, and farther south to Los Lunas. There it turned northwest again, avoiding the worst of the steep, sandy escarpment of Albuquerque’s west mesa, to Correo before heading to Arizona.
Route 66 wasn’t completely paved until 1937 when New Mexico became a recipient of Works Progress Administration funding to ameliorate the impact of the Great Depression. The National Recovery Act of 1933 allotted nearly $6 million for road work in New Mexico, including new bridges, paving, grade crossing elimination, and roadway straightening.
This last task — roadway straightening — had its highlight in 1937. That’s when the state highway engineers decided to realign Route 66 and cut more than 100 miles off the route. The road was realigned directly from Santa Rosa to Moriarty to Albuquerque — following Gov. Hannett’s rush job at the end of his administration.
You might say, in the end, Arthur T. Hannett finally did have the last laugh.