Little Legacies of Route 66

Originally published on the LHIP blog site.


This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Lunas, New Mexico, and visit with Cynthia Shetter and Troy Ainsworth of the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and with a local historian, Baldwin Burr, who wrote about the history of Los Lunas in the Images of America series. Generally, you wouldn’t think about Los Lunas as contributing to the history of Route 66 in New Mexico. This small town is south of Albuquerque and does not intersect with what remains of Route 66 as defined today. However, the history of Los Lunas is intertwined with Route 66, as prior to 1937 part of the Mother Road actually crossed through Los Lunas as it headed west toward Gallup.

Pictured: Kaisa Barthuli (far right in the corner), Program Manager of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program; myself (in the blue shirt); Cynthia Shetter, Los Lunas Museum Library Director; Troy Ainsworth, Los Lunas Museum Specialist; and Baldwin G. Burr, local historian during our meeting at the Los Lunas Museum.

Pael, Michael E. “New Mexico’s Historic Route 66.” New Mexico Department of Tourism, ca. 1990s-2000s. Inventory of the Albuquerque and New Mexico Pamphlet Collection 1880-1961. Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

The pre-1937 alignment of Route 66 in New Mexico snaked across the state, forming a sideways “S” as it traveled south from Santa Fe, crossed through Albuquerque, and went through Los Lunas before following the road out to Arizona. It wasn’t until 1937, when the road was paved, that it was straightened out and bypassed Los Lunas and Santa Fe to reduce travel time. In spite of the realignment, parts of the pre-alignment Route 66 remain, and it followed this “S” pattern for many reasons. Access to Route 66 transformed the towns it went through; it provided new access to commerce, healthcare, employment, and many other opportunities. For many New Mexicans, it provided a lifeline outside of the isolated communities they lived in. So, it is no surprise that Route 66 stretched to so many different towns in the state to best benefit everyone who lived there.

There is another reason for this path, however. Route 66, in part, followed established roads that already existed in the areas it traversed through. Within New Mexico, outside of east-west corridors established by the railroad, it relied upon north-south routes that had been utilized for centuries, first by indigenous groups as trade routes and hunting grounds, then by colonizers and Spanish and American traders who utilized the Camino Real that ran from Santa Fe to Mexico City, and later the Santa Fe Trail which connected Santa Fe to Missouri. When Route 66 traveled through Santa Fe and Los Lunas, it was following much older paths that had facilitated movement for centuries. As such, some parts of this old alignment strongly contrast with what we stereotypically envision when we think of Route 66. It isn’t neon signs, but acequias and farmland that still mirrors the old Spanish rectangular allotments.

On the way back from the Los Lunas Museum, instead of taking the interstate we traveled through the pre-1937 Route 66 (and Camino Real) road, still marked as such, which winds and curves throughout rural areas, small towns, and even crossed through Isleta Pueblo. What struck me most, as we drove through and Kaisa pointed out abandoned adobe houses and old buildings that used to be gas stations or other businesses that accommodated Route 66 travelers, was how much people who lived in these communities made an effort to adjust and take advantage of the opportunities Route 66 brought. They didn’t completely change their ways of living; cows often grazed next to what used to be old service stations, and farmland was just as prominent as the businesses that travelers would have encountered. Instead, they transformed with the road, incorporating traditions and lifeways into modern advancements of transportation and commerce. Many of the oral histories I’ve read acknowledge this as well; cows and sheep were herded across the road to different pastures while tourists from the east passed through and stopped at gas stations, providing an economic benefit to the community and offering a glimpse of the world outside of New Mexico.

It is this personal impact that museums like the Los Lunas Museum hope to emphasize and what my project hopes to accomplish. The entire history of Route 66 as it travels across the entirety of the United States is interesting, but what is more fascinating is how individual communities, particularly Hispanos who had lived in these small towns for centuries, evolved and adjusted to best utilize the Mother Road, and how Route 66, in turn, was influenced by their presence.

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