Route 66, also known as “The Mother Road” or “Main Street of America,” was one of the original highways in the US. It was first established in 1926 and connected Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. It was a pathway for immigration during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and a popular tourist route in the 1940s and ‘50s. This road sustained multiple small towns along the way, and after the birth of the US Interstate System, the lack of traffic led to the decline of multiple communities. Nowadays, this road provides a road trip into America’s past. As we are from the west, we’ll start our journey in California.
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Check out our full story about our strange visit to Amboy, California.
Although not a complete ghost town, with a population of 23 in the year 2009, Goffs is a fascinating place to get a piece of desert history. The town was originally named Blake between 1893 and 1902 after Isaac Blake. Mr. Blake was the builder of the Nevada Southern Railway that began here.
The Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association took up shop in the original schoolhouse, built in 1914, and has preserved artifacts like mining equipment and vehicles. The original general store still stands, although abandoned. Goffs began a decline to ghost town status early, starting in 1931, when a more direct route was built for Route 66. For a ghost town from the 1930s, there is still plenty to see.
Canyon Diablo, Arizona
This little town sprung up after construction of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad halted because of the giant canyon (surprise, it’s called Canyon Diablo!). In 1882, nobody was quite sure how to build a bridge across the vast expanse, and instead a little town was formed among the railroad workers who were sidelined. A lot of lawlessness and true “wild west” spirit emerged in this small desert town. The amount of crime is evidenced by the first town marshal, who was sworn in at 3 pm and was dead and buried by 8 pm the same day. After the bridge was finally figured out, this town dwindled… and then Route 66 was born. A gas station and roadhouse were built, but those too faded into history. Some buildings and foundations remain, and of course, the bridge that started it all.
If you do make make the trip out to Canyon Diablo, make sure to take a detour to check out the Meteor Crater!
Newkirk, New Mexico
Boasting a population of seven people in 2010, this ghost town offers everything you’re looking for. Right after the construction of the highway, this town sprung up in population but quickly began to dwindle. One of the bigger towns we’ll mention, at it’s peak, Newkirk had four gas stations, two restaurants, a general store, and a few places for travelers to sleep. Most of these places are still standing, although empty. Strangely, the nearby interstate provides easy access to this town, but the population disappeared anyway.
This little ghost town straddles the border between New Mexico and Texas. This is a highly tourist-based town that still has residents, and you might recognize it. The 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath was filmed here. One of the businesses in the movie Cars is named “Glenrio” and is based off the now-defunct Little Juarez Restaurant, which bears a near-identical resemblance. Driving through town, you’ll take a route along the old Main Street, and you’ll see dozens of closed businesses- restaurants, garages, gas stations, and convenience stores. You can also stock up on gas and snacks at the nearby Glenrio Welcome Center off Interstate 40.
Jericho Gap, Texas
Not really a town, but this area deserves mentioning. This stretch of “road” between Alanreed and Groom was quickly abandoned early in the dirt road days of Route 66 due to the amount of travelers who literally got “stuck in the mud” here. You won’t be able to drive straight through- parts of the road have washed out and parts are now private property. However, this is a great place to pull over and take a look. During its heyday, locals were rumored to benefit from the treacherous conditions, charging a pretty penny to tow vehicles out of the mud. Eventually a better road was built that avoided the mud, and the town quickly died. However, many of the old buildings still stand.
Lela, originally known as Story, Texas, sprung up at the turn of the century due to the railroads. The town had access to water, and boasted a school and post office. However, the nearby town of Shamrock began to overtake business, and Lela never truly thrived. Route 66 helped this town hang on for a while, but it quickly fell into disrepair. Although there are a few residents remaining, most people moved to Shamrock and left the homes and businesses to rot. You’ll be able to see the empty schoolhouse from 1928, along with the abandoned church and houses.
This town doesn’t quite qualify as a true ghost town, with a population of 235, but there’s plenty to see. This was once a bustling community with a post office, saloon, schools, churches, multiple gas stations, and even a veterinarian. This area thrived during Route 66’s heyday, but slowly declined until it was annexed by the nearby town of Wellston in the 1960s. Many of the original buildings still stand here, and some folks still call this place home. However, with a lack of commerce, it’s quickly becoming a ghost town.
From a piece of history older than Route 66, Plano is home to “The Wire Road” from the Civil War, which is where telegraph lines ran. This route’s history stretches even further back, as a part of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, when Native Americans were forced to be relocated from their original homes. As you drive through this area, consider all that has happened here in just the last few hundred years. During the days of Route 66, this area had a gas station and general store. You’ll coast over rolling hills, while gazing at beautiful farmland and fields.
Route 66 State Park, Eureka, MO
This State Park is beautiful. However, it has a treacherous story behind it. Times Beach was a resort founded in 1925 along the picturesque Meramec River. During the Depression, the area struggled. The tourism from Route 66 helped it stay afloat, but as the interstate system took over, the town dwindled to a lower-middle class city. Then, scandal broke, when in the 1970s the city hired a company to spray their dirt roads with oil to combat their dust problems. Horses began to die, and the CDC moved in to investigate. It was found that this oil was highly toxic, and by 1985 the entire town was evacuated- save from one elderly couple who refused to leave. Eventually the government bought the area, incinerated the soil, and deemed it safe to use. In 1999, the Route 66 State Park was opened, and now the area is filled with hiking trails, wildlife, and seriously pretty scenery.
Funk’s Grove, IL
Who doesn’t love a stack of pancakes drizzled in maple syrup? This historic ghost town is the home of that sweet, delicious breakfast treat. First settled by the Funk brothers in the 1820s, the town prospered from cattle ranches that fed Chicago’s beef industry. Yes, their name is a bit funky, but the Funk family made a major impact on Illinois history. Another claim to fame is that Abraham Lincoln was the attorney for the Funk family, and together they helped bring the railroad to this part of Illinois. Some Funk family members are even rumored to have hosted slaves escaping the south during the Civil War.
Route 66 travelers relished the pieces of history that are visible, and are still standing today. In fact, the Funk family still owns the grove of maple trees that brought us one of our favorite breakfast treats- now designated as a Natural National Landmark- and a monument to the family is located at a rest stop nearby.
Route 66 is an extremely long stretch of road with a lot of history that is still making its stand against time. It’s a worthy road trip for anyone, we’d highly recommend it.