Route 66 guru Michael Wallis believes Tulsa “is the heart of Route 66” and is quickly becoming the absolute must-see along the historic road.
“You know you have become popular when you are talking to a couple of Laplanders and they aren’t in Tulsa to buy some reindeer milk,” Wallis said of some visitors from Finland. “I’ve met people from all over the world here in Tulsa who are coming through here, stopping and shopping here, all because of Route 66.”
A short stretch of Route 66 was listed on a USA Today “50 bucket list” places to visit.
Not in Oklahoma. Or Missouri. Or Arizona.
The “bucket list” of 50 top spots in the U.S. included the seven miles of Historic Route 66 (between entrance and exit ramps of Interstate 40) through Tucumcari, New Mexico.
Tucumcari, which gained fame as the town “two blocks wide and two miles long,” is loaded with Route 66 history.
“Certainly, I understand why you would list Tucumcari,” said Wallis. “It became such a popular overnight stop on Route 66 through the years.
“But I think Tulsa has incredible potential. There is so much going on along Route 66 in Tulsa that I believe we’ve become one of the most popular and must-see stops along the road. There is a remarkable amount of Route 66 history, and there are so many things to see and do in Tulsa with great museums and parks and Route 66 landmarks.”
The article reads: “It’s easy to miss the small city of Tucumcari when you’re speeding down Interstate 40 through the New Mexico desert. But put on your blinker, get off the highway and discover why it deserves a reputation as a bucket list destination.”
The article describes the building-size murals depicting local history as a ranching town and Route 66 desination. It mentions the neon signs that line the historic stretch of Route 66 through town.
Tucumcari became famous for the many billboards placed along Route 66 (later Interstate 40) — which declared “TUCUMCARI TONITE!” — urging motorists to spend the night in one of Tucumcari’s 2,000 (later changed to 1,200) motel rooms.
For many, “Tucumcari Tonite,” the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo and Missouri’s Meramec Caverns have become iconic symbols of the Route 66 experience.
At the heart of the road, however, is Tulsa. The city’s revitalization of its several Route 66 alignments has been impressive. From the east edge, across the river and through west Tulsa there has been a remarkable renaissance in everything Route 66.
“It is very impressive,” said Ken Busby, executive director and CEO of the Route 66 Alliance. “There has already been so much done to help promote our rich Route 66 heritage. There are projects underway. There are plans for the future.
“All along 11th Street there is a renaissance. The Kendall-Whittier neighborhood to everything in west Tulsa and out to our eastern edges. There is so much going on.”
It is only going to keep growing. The Mother Road Market, a food hall with small retail shops, will soon open in a renovated building on Lewis Avenue just off Route 66 (11th Street). The Route 66 Experience is a planned $26 million facility where Route 66 crosses the Arkansas River (intersection of Riverside Drive and Southwest Boulevard), that Busby estimates could be open by the fall of 2020.
It will be the northern end of a riverfront corridor of attractions that stretches along the River Parks from the River Spirit Casino Resort and Margaritaville Casino and Restaurant to the Gathering Place, a world-class park that opens in September, to the Route 66 Experience.
“It will be amazing,” said Busby. “There is a lot happening all along the river.”
The facility will not only tell the story of Route 66 but also serve as an expansive guide to the thousands of possible attractions, restaurants, museums, shops and historical stops along the entire route.
“This will be a great resource for people all along Route 66,” said Wallis.
The original 1926 Route 66 is estimated by some to be about 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. By 1947, Route 66 was believed to be about 2,278 miles.
“What we want to be is far more than a museum,” said Busby. “Our plans are to be a place where you can not only enhance your Route 66 experience but to get more information on everything there is to see along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“We want to be able to help travelers plan where and what to do on the entire length of the road. Our goal is to enhance Route 66 for everyone that travels down the road.”
Cyrus Avery, considered the father of Route 66, was a Tulsan. He created the route while serving as a member of the federal board appointed to create the Federal Highway System.
There’s more than 400 miles of Route 66 in Oklahoma, the most drivable miles of any of the eight states along Route 66.
“The potential here for Route 66 is fabulous,” said Wallis. “There is so much here. There has already been so much done. There’s more to come.
“Certainly, I could make a great case for Tulsa and Albuquerque when it comes to Route 66 history and significance. Tulsa has really awakened in recent years.”
Wallis said the plans for the Route 66 Experience will make Tulsa “the capital of Route 66, and the Route 66 Experience will be the capitol building.”
Could Tulsa become a “bucket list” place to visit in the United States because of Route 66?
“That is definitely in our future,” said Wallis.
Busby added: “When you put everything together that we have to offer here, either on or near Route 66, there is no doubt. Everyone working together.”