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Steel Rails and the Double Six

Legendary Route 66 is more than America’s most famous highway and its longest attraction. It is also more than a living, breathing time capsule with a soft neon glow.

The old double six is also a railroad buffs paradise. From Chicago to Santa Monica vestiges from the golden age of rail travel abound.

As the origins of Route 66 are firmly rooted in the railroad, it is rather fitting that the first landmark of note is located near the eastern terminus of Route 66 in Chicago. Now signed as the Motorola Building, the former corporate office for the Santa Fe Railroad casts long afternoon shadows across Route 66 as it has since the certification of that highway in 1926.

The portico at the La Posada captures the illusion created by architect Mary Colter.
The portico at the La Posada captures the illusion created by architect Mary Colter.

This railroad company did more than serve as a trailbreaker for the developers of the National Old Trails Highway, predecessor to Route 66. They also established a pioneering partnership with Fred Harvey to develop tourism in the American southwest, and that was to play a key role in the transformation of U.S. 66 from a highway into the Main Street of America.

As Route 66, and later the interstate highway and passenger air travel, eclipsed the railroad, the depots and hotels that were once the pride of communities large and small faded into tarnished relics or were razed leaving nothing but sepia toned memories and photographs to mark their passing.

Ironically, it was the Route 66 renaissance that led to the refurbishment and repurposing of many survivors along that highways course.

Topping the list of railroad related gems found along Route 66 would be the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Nestled snugly between the railroad and Second Street (the course for eastbound lanes of Route 66) this historic facility remains as a premier example of the stately facilities loosely lumped together as Harvey Houses.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, the La Posada built in 1929 has become a destination that receives favorable reviews in a wide array of travel publications, from leading travel writers, and Route 66 enthusiasts.

The La Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico is rising from the ashes of abandonment like the mythical Phoenix.
The La Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico is rising from the ashes of abandonment like the mythical Phoenix.

The properties architect, Mary Colter, designed the entire complex to present the illusion that this was an aged Spanish Colonial era rancheria. Extensive use of adobe, red terra cotta tiles, flagstone, rough-hewn wooden beams, and stucco in construction was enhanced with iron rajas, sand blasted doors and shutters, wrought iron railings, and gardens bordered with what appeared to be weathered adobe and stone walls.

Traffic on Route 66 kept the facility alive even as railroad passenger service waned. As late as 1954, the hotel and restaurant received favorable ratings from AAA.

Still, in 1956 the restaurant closed, the hotel followed three years later. Shortly afterwards the Santa Fe Railroad transformed the entire facility into an office complex, and in the early 1990s gutted it in preparation of demolition.

Restoration commenced in 1997 after the properties acquisition by Allan Affedlt and his wife, Tina. In the spring of 2014, this experienced couple set their sights on restoring the crown jewel of surviving Fred Harvey hotels; the long abandoned La Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Since completion in January 1930, the Santa Fe Building has dominated the skyline in Amarillo’s historic business district.

In Needles, California, the last remnants of the El Garces reopened as an office complex and Amtrak station in 2014. Established in 1908, the hotel met the needs of travelers until 1949.

Shortly after this date, the Santa Fe Railroad demolished the north wing, and converted the remaining portion into offices. Only extensive lobbying from the city of Needles, and Route 66 and railroad enthusiasts prevented the properties complete demolition when railroad operations were relocated to Barstow.

The highly acclaimed Route 66 Mother Road Museum is housed in Barstow’s stylish Casa del Desierto that opened in 1911. (Judy Hinckley)

Barstow is home to another railroad treasure; the stunning Casa Del Desierto built over a period of two years in 1909 and 1910. For this facility architect Mary Colter combined Southwestern and Spanish Colonial designs.

The facility served its original purpose longer than most of its counterparts. The hotel closed in 1959 but the restaurant remained operational until 1979.

Listed in the National register of Historic Places in 1975, renovation commenced in 1994 with funding from local contributions and grants from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Funds. In 2000, the Route 66 Mother Road Museum opened in one end of the complex. Shortly afterwards a railroad museum opened at the opposite end, and the Barstow Chamber of Commerce relocated their offices to the facility.

The historic Johnson Canyon Railroad Tunnel built in the 1880s is accessed from the pre 1932 alignment of Route 66 near Ash Fork, Arizona.

A Route 66 adventure is more than an opportunity to step into the world of tail fins, neon, and I Like Ike buttons. It is an unequaled opportunity to part the veil between the past and present, and experience a time when tourists traveled on steel rails, and only the daring ventured into the wilderness behind the wheel of an automobile.

By Jim Hinckley

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