Friday, December 6, 2013

New Kicks On Historic Route 66

The Road Runner Retreat Restaurant between Amboy and Essex is an example of a landmark “ghost-station” on Route 66.

By Ruth Musser-Lopez
San Bernardino County Sentinel

Ten boarded the 55-seat chartered bus at Rancho Cucamonga, three at San Bernardino, and sixteen at Barstow, all to cross the county on its backbone, the historic American icon, Route 66 (RT66). That evening, last Tuesday, was the opening kick off discussion in a packed meeting room at Juicy’s Café in Needles to learn about and consider what amounts to a planned “new kick” on Route 66. In attendance that night in Needles were additional San Bernardino County residents joined by city of Needles officials and chamber of commerce members.

On Wednesday morning, another eight boarded the bus in Needles along with several trailing cars filled with participants. The entire entourage of 50 then headed back across the Mojave desert to the west, together to view the longest, unaltered segment of intact Route 66 in the country-- “Portions of this road where the vistas have not changed at all since its realignment in 1931” noted Roger Hathaway, professional cultural resource manager/historian, Route 66 expert, now working for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works and serving as guide on the tour. The pristine, intact section between Ludlow and Mountain Springs Road, all 70 miles of it, was visited along with other accessible portions of the 153-mile long route between Needles and Barstow.

Attending the three day tour was anyone and everyone showing a desire for the care and preservation of the plus 85-year old road, particularly those “interested, crazy people--crazy about RT66, that is” Hathaway explained.
On Wednesday evening at a “meet and greet” in Barstow, the entire group met at the Quality Inn’s Los Domingos Restaurant with City of Barstow officials and Chamber members as well as California Desert District Bureau of Land Management District Manager Teri Rahal to further ruminate on the planned “new kick” on Route 66.

So what’s the kick? The California Route 66 Association, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have teamed up and merged their energy and resources to develop a much needed “Corridor Management Plan” (CMP) for what is likely the most famous American highway, Route 66. Partnering with this effort are other stakeholders such as the county of San Bernardino, the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, chambers of commerce, CalTrans, various tourism bureaus, local businesses, museums, grassroots organizations and other Route 66 advocates.

Why a plan?

This is a comprehensive document that identifies the specific byway route, outlines the special intrinsic qualities along the corridor and develops a guide on how to market the byway. Officially established on November 11, 1926, US Route 66 began in Chicago, Illinois and terminated in Santa Monica, California, a distance of 2,448 miles. It was one of the original highways in the US highway system and was likely the most used. When Interstate 40 was completed in the early 70s, Route 66 was bypassed and in California, the transportation department (CalTrans) returned the route right-of-way to the BLM.

Now, though there has been deterioration, the original Route 66 continues to be a paved highway that through much of San Bernardino County remains intact as two lanes divided by a painted line with a few paved pull out rest areas installed in 1957. Through an agreement with the BLM, the county has attempted to keep the 85 plus year old road open to the extent possible, but without adequate funding the road along with its 127 timber trestle bridges has slowly fallen into decline.

What is more, over the years, what is left of the abandoned 1930s, 1940s and 1950s restaurants, gas stations, motor camps and lodges that sprang up when the highway was more active have become historic roadside attractions drawing international attention. The international visitors are usually high-income tourists who spend more and stay longer than the typical passerby, according to Rutgers University’s Route 66 Economic Impact Study. Drawing the crowd, Route 66 is a ghost road of the past that can truly be driven through mid-twentieth century ruins amidst a backdrop of vast high desert vistas that haven’t changed for thousands of years.

This new influx of tourism is a catalyst to ensure that the road is maintained as a viable attraction and doesn’t deteriorate further. Making the plan possible is $103,000 grant for the project acquired at the behest of James Kemp, California state director of the BLM received from the Federal Highway Administration in 2012 and supplemented by an 80/20 matching grant in services from the California Route 66 Association. Credit for preparing the grant application documents goes to Danella George of the BLM and Lynne Miller, treasurer of the Route 66 Association. Miller lead the charge during the 3 day tour along with other association members, including president Glen Duncan along with BLM representative Doran Sanchez and the BLM’s contracted project manager, Jim Klein of Virginia based Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects, which has been selected to prepare the CMP.

All attending the tour became the participants in the first phase of a seven-part program to develop and implement the management plan. The first phase entails scoping and brainstorming as to what would eventually become a plan to maintain and protect the road for this and future generations. The goal of the tour: “Experience the trail itself, determine how to communicate it, how to enhance it and how to make it a draw while still being an enjoyable, safe, and attractive experience” Klein instructed.

But there’s a kicker in all of this. If it were just the road that is to be preserved and protected as a historic linear site, that would be a simple, howbeit, costly matter, as estimated by the San Bernardino County Public Works Department to the tune of about a hundred million dollars’ worth of road, guard rail, bridge repairs and maintenance.

But as it turns out, there seems to be a consensus of opinion that extends beyond our county and even beyond this country into far reaches crossing international borders. That consensus is that the stretch of the highway in San Bernardino County, particularly that between the Colorado River and Barstow has such a mystique about it with its 1930s-1940s vernacular structures spiced up with nostalgic whoop-dee-doos and post war “atomic” style neon signs--sparsely spaced road side attractions set against the vast background of the wide desert expanse that to not include the entire viewshed of that which is visible to the eye from the road would be incomprehensible.

The intent is to go beyond the physical “in-kind” repair, replacement and maintenance of the road. The overarching question posed to participants is “what constitutes the road?”

Klein expounded, “It’s the whole desert experience and what you see along it.” Looking over the desert expanse from the tall perspective of the tour bus, the question begged to be asked, should this now pristine corridor be filled up with solar energy production fields, housing developments or similar or would doing so make driving along Route 66 a different experience? Would it have the same feel, the same character, and the same charm if massive industrial, agricultural, commercial or residential development will be situated here in the future.

Klein’s job is to document, assess and describe the special scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archaeological and natural qualities associated with the desert segment of Route 66 and to get them recognized as such through legislation and official designation. To do this, Klein’s firm has let subcontracts to a cultural resource management firm Thomason & Associates based out of Nashville, Tennessee and a landscape architect, Dean Apostol, Portland, Oregon whose role on the team is how the landscape or viewshed might change in light of recent energy development proposals and how to manage potential developments to keep the impacts low.

This documentation would not just be used as a management tool but also for documenting the linear corridor site and the various individual sites along it for the National Register of Historic Places and as supporting evidence of a hopefully near future designation as a National Scenic Byway in need of preservation and federal funding to implement the management plan. “Visitors come from around the world as well as the US and California--yet little information exists” Klein observed, “except for a few wayside stops and some Route 66 markers. The project will lay out the steps needed to implement a comprehensive interpretive and marketing strategy that will provide accurate travel information, correct historical, cultural and natural history information, and better access to recreational experiences associated with the corridor, including safety and community pride.” The participants were to consider as the corridor everything that could be seen from the road—potentially the entire landscape beyond. A National Scenic Byway designation “refers not only to the road itself but also to the corridor through which it passes.”

Each equipped with a map of the route, participants were asked to provide their “expert advice and opinions” the map to help identify “important places and landscapes that contribute to a high quality travel experience and to identify any potential issues and concerns.” The types of notations to be made were for “features” any landmarks or places that are felt to be worthy of including as part of a travel itinerary along Route 66 for example, the “must sees,” places as well as destinations that require a side-trip but are worthy of the extra time spent and “views” towards recognizable, distinct and memorable landscapes. Participants were to draw arrows in the direction of the view and to identify “roadway issues or opportunities,” places along the road that present an issue that needs to be addressed in the plan such as an old bridge in need of preservation or place along the road that should be considered for interpretation.

A further category for identification was “landscape issue or opportunity” such as a proposed change in land use or a place that offers opportunities for more in-depth exploration to learn about natural or cultural resources or values or provide recreational opportunity. Examples provided were historic bridges in need of repair, mountain bicycle opportunity areas, and views toward a unique geologic or cultural feature like Amboy Crater or General Patton’s World War II maneuver areas.

Participants were asked to rate the “setting or “context” of the stops along the tour using the following scale 1) not very scenic, 2) barely scenic, 3) somewhat scenic, 4) very scenic and 5) extremely scenic where “scenic” was not defined. The stops included: El Garces Harvey house in downtown Needles and the Casa del Desierto Harvey House in Barstow. Other points of interest included Klinefelter townsite, Goffs Schoolhouse, Amboy, Essex, Danby courthouse, Cadiz, Chambless, Dola Bridge Ludlow ghost town, the original Bagdad Café that once housed the only jukebox between Needles and Daggett, the ruins of the Siberia Service Station, the Cliff House Resort and cliffside swimming pool, and the site of the historic Daggett inspection station made famous in the book Grapes of Wrath.

Of particular interest to the group was some 30 miles of contemporary rock art along the 1930 protective sheet flow berms along the north side of the road in the section between Essex and Amboy, backdropped by the beautiful Castle Dome in the Clipper Mountain Range. This rock art is basically people’s names written with hand sized stones aligned as letters. Sometimes the names were colorfully painted.

How can you get involved and find more information about the National Scenic Byway plan for Route 66? Send an email to with a copy to with “CMP Project” in the subject line. Go to to check out “Route 66” to learn more about the potential benefits that National Scenic Byway designation may have upon both the economy and environment in San Bernardino County.