Remembering Route 66’s lost leg through Santa Fe

May 6, 2019

Mike Pitel still receives calls from people who remember riding in the back seat of their parents’ car when they were kids, traveling through New Mexico on Route 66.

Their fragments of memories are usually enough for Pitel to identify the city or place a returning visitor is trying to rediscover. One woman remembered getting out of her dad’s car while he negotiated a steep hill with switchbacks near Santa Fe — and how he had to drive backward in parts.

That was La Bajada.

Pitel, a 22-year veteran of the state Department of Tourism, is mostly retired these days, but he still offers walking tours of Santa Fe, where he tells groups how the “Mother Road” from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., initially slithered through Northern New Mexico and the City Different on its way to Albuquerque.

Route 66 through Santa Fe?

Yes, they came together for a short time in the 1920s and ’30s, long before the road was romanticized by singers, authors and East Coast migrants headed for the Pacific Coast. But as history, politics and, perhaps, common sense would have it, Route 66’s role in Northern New Mexico was fleeting.

Evidence that it was here at all is crumbling: Only a few spots remain where you can see where it once meandered through the area.

One of those places is La Bajada, just south of Santa Fe — one of the most daunting natural obstacles motorists would encounter on the entire length of the route, Pitel wrote in an issue of AAA New Mexico Journey.

“Accidents were legion,” he wrote. “Southbound drivers had to contend with cloth brake pads that caught fire. … Northbound drivers had to back their cars up the mesa because the steep grade played havoc with gravity-fed carburetors.”

That road down La Bajada is no longer accessible, but you can still see it from Interstate 25.

When Route 66 came through Santa Fe, it was “a highway to hope for those fleeing the Dust Bowl,” wrote Bill Thomas, chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Partnership. It also was a way of hope for others during the Great Depression, including African-Americans who left the rural South in droves.

As these migrants came into New Mexico, they found a roadway that took them into towns like Glenrio, which straddles the New Mexico-Texas line, and Santa Rosa. Back then, instead of heading due west, as it did after a realignment in the late 1920s, Route 66 veered north to Romeroville and into Santa Fe. It then dipped south into Albuquerque and Los Lunas, and finally west toward Arizona.

Pitel leads his tour groups to Old Santa Fe Trail and Water Street, and the former De Vargas Hotel — now Hotel St. Francis. He offers the visitors a line of sight to Agua Fría Street, where Route 66 headed southwest from 1926-32. On Alameda Street, he points out the beginning of Cerrillos Road, the highway’s route from 1932-37.

“It seems absurd to think of Highway 66 coming into Albuquerque by way of Santa Fe,” wrote E.B. Bail in an article that appeared in the New Mexico Professional Engineer in 1952. “But if you will look at the highway, you will see that it did go that way; and it went that way until the man — Gov. Arthur Hannett — made his farewell gesture.”

Ah, the gesture — the move that straightened Route 66 and, some say, took it away from Santa Fe.

Hannett, a Gallup Democrat, defeated Holm Bursum in 1924 to become New Mexico’s seventh governor. As the story goes, a bitter Bursum and his wealthy friends then besmirched Hannett’s name in the press during his two-year term, and Hannett lost his bid for reelection in 1926.

Hannett’s Republican opponent, Richard Dillon, known as the “Merchant of Encino,” took office in early 1927.

Before leaving the Governor’s Office, Hannett appointed Bail the district engineer for the stretch of Route 66 that ran through Santa Fe. By some accounts, Hannett struck back at powerful Santa Fe politicians by directing Bail to reroute the highway.

Indeed, Bail later wrote, before Christmas of 1926, he “was jolted by an order from Santa Fe [and] was told to gather together all the available grading equipment north of U.S. 60 for the purpose of cutting a road through from Moriarty to Santa Rosa.”

Hannett wanted the work completed before his term ended.

“By the time the equipment was assembled, it was December 1,” Bail wrote. “Sixty-nine miles in 31 days — 30 if the workers took off Christmas. The tractors were WWI Caterpillars. The graders were tractor-drawn. The equipment was shaky but the laborers weren’t.

“It was a brutal winter,” Bail continued, “but the crews moved westward and finished the road before the new governor could stop it. … We tore down fences and cut across pastures without let or hindrance.”

And thus, a straight — or at least, straighter — Route 66 was born.

Before it was even paved, much less designated as part of the interstate highway, said state Records Administrator Rick Hendricks, people began using it as an alternate route to cross New Mexico.

But, Hendricks said, the shift of the road away from Santa Fe likely had little to do with political revenge and more to do with practicality.

“It was a 100 miles shorter and it also avoided La Bajada,” he said.

George Hannett, a great-nephew of former Gov. Hannett, agreed.

“It doesn’t take too much of a genius to figure out that … the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” he said, adding his great-uncle “laid out a ruler in front of the highway people and drew a straight line and said, ‘that’s where the road’s gonna go.’ ”

In 1938, it became official: A 107-mile stretch of Route 66 was taken away, and the road officially bypassed Santa Fe.

According to Pitel, however, Santa Fe was unfazed. “It went on being Santa Fe,” he said.

Still, there were ripple effects. When the road straightened and went directly to Albuquerque, that city’s population tripled.

And then, by the mid-1980s, when other interstate highways were serving the nation’s motorists, Route 66 was deemed obsolete and decommissioned.

But it wasn’t forgotten.

Nostalgia took hold in the 1990s, reigniting travelers’ interest in the bygone highway and its roadside businesses — such as old diners, hotels and the sites of long-gone tourist camps, including one that operated in Santa Fe.

After all these years, even Santa Fe continues to draw some luster from Route 66. The original route attracts people from around the world — drifters and dreamers, many on motorcycles. Even former Beatle Paul McCartney passed through in 2008.

Kaisa Barthuli, coordinator of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program for the National Park Service, said the roadway “transcends those who actually experienced it.”

“It symbolizes the road trip, freedom,” Barthuli said. “… It resonates at a deep level for a lot of people in terms of just journeying to learn about the world. And themselves. And on a deeper level — as a metaphor for the journey of life.

“It’s so powerful what a road can do.”