Historic Route 66 – The Mother Road

Photo courtesy of Sunset Motel

Historic Route 66 (National Scenic Byway, All-American Road) – As one of the earliest roads in the U.S. highway system, Route 66 led travelers across 2,400 miles from Chicago, Illinois, west to Santa Monica, California. It was, and still is, dotted with small towns and quickly became synonymous with American’s love of the automobile. Today, the road has become famous around the world as a representation of the freedoms and free spirit of America. The portion of Route 66 that crosses our region is part of the 1929 Alignment (graded in 1927, originally paved in 1937).

FUN FACT: The East Mountain-Estancia Valley stretch is part of “Retribution Road.” As the story goes, it began when New Mexico Governor Arthur T. Hannett lost a bitter 1926 re-election bid to Richard Dillon. Hannett fervently blamed Santa Fe business owners for the loss because they had heavily backed his opponent.

Hannett, however, was not content to fade quietly into retirement. He ordered state engineers to survey, cut, and grade a new road that went from Romeroville (just north of Santa Rosa) straight across to Moriarty. That’s where the new road would connect to an existing farm-to-market road that ran through Edgewood and Tijeras to Albuquerque. Not only would this new road shorten the distance from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque by 100 miles, but it had the added benefit (for Hannett) of completely cutting off Santa Fe businesses from Route 66 traffic.

The story is often called Hannett’s Joke, and actually displays an amazing feat of engineering. With simple road graders, shovels, and determination, the crews had just 31 days to finish 69 miles of new road. They worked day and night, including Christmas Day, in one of the coldest winters on record. Often sleeping by their equipment to guard against sabotage, the two crews, one starting in Santa Rosa and the other in Moriarty, worked feverishly toward each other.

When the new governor, Dillon, took office on January 1, 1927, his first order was to the new state engineer, “Stop that road!” But the weather didn’t oblige and the new engineer was stuck in Santa Fe under the blanket of an icy blizzard. By the time he did reach the new road, both crews had met up, the road was connected, and cars were already traveling on the new alignment. The road was here to stay. So Hannett’s really did the last laugh, and the new road did forever change Santa Fe. The shorter route greatly benefitted Albuquerque which went on to become the most populous city and hub of commerce for the state.

EXPERIENCE IT:  Starting in the Estancia Valley, travelers can enjoy the longest, uninterrupted stretch of the Mother Road in the entire country. From I-40 interstate, exit at Moriarty (exit 197) and drive west on Route 66 through Albuquerque. (TIP: if you travel the historic highway in the morning, you will have the sun to your back while driving toward Albuquerque, and also on the return trip to the East Mountains)

Be sure to take your time and don’t hesitate to pull over to see the many original building (some still in use today). Along the Moriarty stretch, look for the Sunset Motel, Whiting Brothers gas station, many commissioned Route 66 murals, and an original neon Rotosphere (atop the old El Comodore Restaurant building).

Continuing west toward Edgewood, you’ll see a number of old barns – signs of the regions’ farming and ranching history – and The Midway Trading Post (yes, the halfway point across the state). Once in Edgewood, the modern day Red Arrow BBQ sits just about where Cherry Cider Hill provided refreshments to thirsty motorists. Then, also on the north side, comes the 101 Motel building (now a collection of small businesses, but you can make out the old rooms on the east side of the building).

Continuing west to Tijeras, at NM 217, you can see an old gas station and a building that was a hair salon. This site once belonged to the late Bob Audette who was a strong force in efforts to preserve Route 66 history. On the downhill side from Sedillo Hill, you can see a small church down off the south side. A little further along is Zuzax, a place named precisely for curiosity sake to grab Route 66 travelers’ attention (you can still see the building which once housed a curios shop, food, and gas – there was even a small tram there at one time). Once you’re into Tijeras, watch your speed limit and take time to see many old stone buildings and church in the village.

BONUS: On your way back from Albuquerque, take Route 66 to experience a little fun. Just after passing under the Carnuel overpass (west of Tijeras) you can enjoy the “Singing Highway” by keeping your right tire on the grooved roadway and listen to it play “American The Beautiful.”

Additional East Mountain-Estancia Valley Scenic Byways:
Turquoise Trail (National Scenic Byway)
Salt Missions Trail (National Scenic Byway)