Tulsa “elected” capital of Route 66

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Photo by Emma Nairne.

Nations have capitals; states have capitals; roads generally do not. Route 66, however, technically hasn’t been a federally designated road for more than 30 years now — instead, it’s become something more like a blend between a destination and a cross-country community — so why not designate a capital for it?

So went the thinking over at Route 66 News, where Ron Warnick decided to put it up to his readers to vote for the city that best exemplifies the history and the spirit of the Mother Road. Inspired by a recent article in the Tulsa World in which writer John Klein argued that Tulsa “is already the heart of Route 66,” Warnick included the Oklahoma city in his list of candidates alongside nine other primary candidates and eight other secondary candidates.

Among those candidates were Tucumcari, New Mexico, which as Warnick and Klein pointed out recently made USA Today‘s list of 50 places to visit across the United States; Springfield, Missouri, which bills itself as the birthplace of Route 66; Pontiac, Illinois, which houses the Route 66 Hall of Fame; and Williams, Arizona, the last location along Route 66 that Interstate 40 bypassed.

Nearly 60 percent of Warnick’s respondents agreed with Klein and voted for Tulsa. Indeed, Tulsa has strong links to Route 66 history: Cyrus Avery, the businessman who advocated for Route 66’s adoption during the 1920s, hailed from Tulsa and was instrumental in bending the course of the highway to travel through Tulsa rather than straight across from Chicago to Santa Monica, California.

Photo by Nicolas Henderson.

In addition, Tulsa has preserved a good number of Route 66 landmarks, from the original alignment bridge over the Arkansas River (punctuated by the Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza, above) to the massive Meadow Gold neon sign; and the city will soon host the Route 66 Experience, a museum dedicated to the highway, expected to open this fall.

“There has already been so much done to help promote our rich Route 66 heritage,” Ken Busby, executive director and CEO of the Route 66 Alliance, told Klein. “There are projects underway. There are plans for the future. All along 11th Street there is a renaissance. The Kendall-Whittier neighborhood to everything in west Tulsa and out to our eastern edges. There is so much going on.”

That’s not to say Tulsa unilaterally ran away with the vote. While it beat Springfield, the runner-up, by a handy 45-point margin in the general tally, Warnick noted that participants from outside the United States voted for Tucumcari, with Tulsa falling to third (tied with Flagstaff) among that demographic.

The voting could amount to little more than a thought experiment, as Warnick suggested. However, it also illustrates a yearning for the community of Route 66 enthusiasts — scattered across the country and across the globe — to begin to coalesce and centralize around core preservation efforts. Not coincidentally, that yearning comes at a critical time for Route 66, as Congress debates granting it National Historic Trail status, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation considers the road an endangered place, and as a long-term federal funding program for the road is set to expire next year.

Whether this unofficial vote means we’ll be getting more road capitals in the future remains to be seen.

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