In the mid-1920s, the early decades of America’s “Age of the Automobile,” the nation was developing a network of national highways. One of them, U.S. Route 66, stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles.
During the Dust Bowl years, John Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath, his classic novel about people migrating west to escape the worst of the Depression. He wrote, “. . . they come into [Route] 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. Sixty-six is the mother road, the road of flight.”
In Albuquerque, most people think of The Mother Road — Route 66 — as Central Avenue, the historic highway slipping out of Tijeras Canyon and exiting to the west up Nine Mile Hill. But it wasn’t that way at the start.
The road — mostly graded, compacted stone — left Santa Rosa in a northwesterly direction, ostensibly to satisfy political and business interests in Santa Fe. When it reached Romeroville, just south of Las Vegas, it headed south through Albuquerque on the north/south axis and onto Los Lunas before heading west again.
Travelers leaving Santa Fe had to navigate the treacherous switchbacks of La Bajada Hill before arriving in Bernalillo and then Albuquerque. Once there, the Mother Road was labeled Second Street and, after crossing the Rio Grande near today’s Avenida Dolores Huerta, it traversed Isleta Boulevard to Los Lunas.
There was a good reason for this north-south course. At the time, engineers could not have built a road ascending the sandy, rocky slope of the volcanic escarpment comprising Albuquerque’s West Mesa. So, the extension to Los Lunas was really an end run around it. Anyone traveling I-25 to Los Lunas today will notice the blocky lava sitting in a layer that once would have been as much as 50 feet thick.
The Development of Route 66
Route 66 wasn’t completely paved until 1937, nearly a decade after it was first built. 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.
That year — 1937 — was when state highway engineers decided to realign Route 66 and cut more than 100 miles off the route. The giant “S” that swept nearly to Las Vegas and then to Los Lunas was eliminated. The road was realigned directly from Santa Rosa to Moriarty to Albuquerque — following a surveyed and graded course that had been more of a political stunt of Gov. Arthur Hannett than an effort to improve travel. Only after the road was straightened did its axis through Albuquerque become east/west. Now, 85 years later, most people only remember it that way.
On the east side of the city, Route 66 became the focus of Louis Hesselden, considered Albuquerque’s most prolific architect. It was here that the Nob Hill Business Center Hesselden had designed was developed by Robert Waggoman in 1946 – 1947. The shopping center featured a Streamline-Moderne style with rounded side corners, decorative towers, and white stucco walls with horizontal bands of terra cotta tile and brick.
At the time, many people dubbed the project “Waggoman’s Folly” because it was miles east of Downtown and farther from Old Town. It was the first suburban shopping center, shifting from pedestrian-oriented development to decentralized, auto-oriented business. But it was not only a major success, it also served as a model for future development in Albuquerque. The building was added to the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties in 1983 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. It remains a popular shopping oasis of stores and restaurants.
Nearby is La Puerta Lodge, one of many iconic motor courts that dotted the land all along Route 66. There are notable restaurants and cafes along Central Avenue, including the Frontier, famed mystery writer Tony Hillerman’s favorite burger joint.
Once west of Broadway Boulevard, you’ll come to Albuquerque’s multi-model transportation hub, where Amtrak, RailRunner, bus, and cars intersect. It was once the site of the Alvarado Hotel, the largest and perhaps most famous of the Fred Harvey Houses.
Even farther west, you’ll find an assortment of stores featuring clothing, home decorating items, curios, and even more places to eat — as well as theaters. Route 66 eventually climbs Nine Mile Hill, where it merges into today’s Interstate 40.
While you’re moseying around Downtown Albuquerque, discovering and enjoying its historic treasures, there are another few blocks you will not want to miss — a tribute to our pioneer women, The Madonna of the Trail sculpture.
You could spend a day or a month reliving the adventures of Route 66. And while its name may have changed over the years, along with its orientation, The Mother Road continues to live, its history enduring, its future yet to be written.