A Whale of a Good Time: Route 66 in Oklahoma

Home of the “Father of Route 66” and the place where the idea for America’s most famous road was conceived, it is fitting that Oklahoma contains the most still-drivable miles of any state, with more than 400 still in service. From a gas station purportedly once visited by Bonnie and Clyde to a giant blue whale to the self-proclaimed “Redneck Capital of the World”, Oklahoma is so much more than that place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.

In the early 20th century, cars were still a bit of a novelty and few people had the means by which to acquire one. Consequently, little attention was paid to roads; and outside of cities, most roads were rutted, dirt, and required drivers to carry a spare of just about every part on the car. After rains or other inclement weather, many became messy, muddy, and sometimes, completely impassable. It was the enactment of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, the first legislated funding for federal roads in the U.S., that finally started the country on the path to better roads. Over the next few years, more state and federal legislation would be enacted; and in 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials recommended the creation of a Joint Board on Interstate Highways. The intent of this board was to create a plan for numbering and marking “interstate” highways (not to be confused with our current Eisenhower Interstate Highway System). It was at this time that the “U.S. Highway” designation and the shield, which remains much the same to this day, were created.

Shortly after its creation, Joint Board on Interstate Highways member and Tulsa businessman, Cyrus Avery, began to push for a route from Chicago to Los Angeles (part of a transcontinental road intended to run from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles) to be numbered U.S. 60; however, a threat from Kentucky to leave the national highway system, lead to Avery choosing U.S. 66 and the Mother Road was officially incorporated on November 11, 1926. Avery continued his tireless work by advocating for the creation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association in 1927, its purpose to work on getting the road paved from end-to-end, as well as promote tourism. Through all of his hard work, doggedness, and desire to provide good roads across the nation, Avery became known as the “Father of Route 66”, and nearly 100 years later we are still beyond grateful for his determination and forward-looking vision.

What to Do

Drive the Ribbon Road- Afton
In eastern Oklahoma, running just over 15 miles in length between Miami (pronounced Miam-uh) and Afton is the Ribbon Road, also known as the Sidewalk Highway. Originally constructed as Oklahoma State Highway 7 in 1922, the nine-foot wide (about the width of a sidewalk) roadway made of five-inch thick concrete, carried Route 66 traffic from 1926 until 1937.

The last remaining section of nine-foot pavement on the original alignment, rumor has it that the road is nine feet wide because the state of Oklahoma only had enough budget to pave half the mileage at the standard road width of 18 feet. In order to have the funding to pave the entire stretch, the state instead chose to construct the road at half the standard width. The original white concrete curbs are still visible and some of the original concrete roadbed can be seen where areas of asphalt have been worn away. One of the coolest stretches of road we drove, it provided one of those steps back in time that make driving Route 66 so incredible.


Pose with the Blue Whale- Catoosa
The Blue Whale of Catoosa was built in the early 1970s by Hugh Davis as a surprise anniversary gift for his wife, Zelta, a collector of whale figurines. Originally known as the “Fun and Swim Blue Whale”, the whale was initially an attraction added to the Davis’ already-existing roadside reptile attraction, A.R.K. (Animal Reptile Kingdom). Lounging in a naturally spring-fed pond at an impressive 20 feet tall by 80 feet long, it took 126 bags of concrete, applied one five-gallon bucket at a time, to cover the whale’s hand-welded metal framework.

The Blue Whale was originally intended solely for family use; eventually though, locals began to enjoy the cool respite from the hot, humid Oklahoma summers. In 1972, the Davis’ added sand to create a “beach”; as well as constructed concrete tables and benches added along the “shoreline”, and the Blue Whale become a popular hangout for locals and a favorite roadside stop for Route 66 travelers. Eventually the Blue Whale become so popular that all of the other attractions at A.R.K. were closed.

Closed to the public in 1988, the whale fell into a state of disrepair over the following decade. In 1997, efforts were made by the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce and local Hampton Inn employees to refurbish the whale, complete with its signature blue paint. While swimming is no longer an option, you can still walk through the whale, have a picnic, talk to the friendly volunteers in the gift shop, and have a whale of a good time.

Buy a Soda at Pops 66 Soda Ranch- Arcadia
Located in Arcadia, Pops 66 Soda Ranch is the perfect place to fill up your tank and quench your thirst. Architecturally striking with a cantilevered truss that extends 100 feet over the gas pumps, it is reminiscent of the beautifully designed gas stations of yore; and with more than 700 types of soda (or pop for those from the Midwest- we’re a split household), it’s not your usual gas station stop. Arranged by color along a huge wall of coolers, you can spend a ridiculous amount of time choosing one or many sodas to take home. Built in 2007, it’s a modern-day roadside stop by Route 66 standards, but still well worth a stop even if only to take a picture of the 66-foot tall bottle (which lights up at night) or grab a celery soda or a bottle of zombie brain juice.


Explore “Cowtown” at the Old Town Museum Complex- Elk City
With its gigantic Route 66 shield and 14-foot tall Kachina, Myrtle, (that once welcomed visitors to the popular ’50s-era roadside stop, Queenan’s Trading Post), it’s hard to miss the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City. Four museums are located within the Old Town Museum Complex and there is much to explore. You could easily spend an afternoon checking out the exhibits, which include a chance to walk along Route 66 state-by-state at the National Route 66 Museum or “drive” the route in a 1955 Pink Cadillac at the National Transportation Museum.

Since the museums aren’t dog-friendly, we opted to explore some of the outdoor exhibits, which include a replica early 20th Century plains village, Cowtown, and a small section representative of Elk City in the 1950s. A stroll around the complex provides the opportunity to pose with a vintage “visible” gas pump, peek into the window of a malt shop, and warily check out a life-size metal longhorn and buffalo (if you’re Finley). A nice respite from driving, a visit provides a chance to stretch your legs and get a glimpse into Oklahoma’s history.

Take a Step Back in Time on a 1929 Alignment- Hext
Thankfully, there are still some stretches of Route 66 that are off-the-beaten path and convey a sense of what it was like to travel the Main Street of America in a time before interstates, chain motels, and 75mph speed limits.

Just north of the current roadway between Sayre and Erick, visible in some places and obscured by trees and overgrowth in others, lies two lanes of a 1929 alignment. For many years, these two lanes carried Mother Road motorists, until 1956 when the road was upgraded to a divided four lane highway. These lanes became the westbound side of four-lane Route 66, remaining in service until the arrival of the interstate in 1975. The construction of I-40 paved over the eastbound lanes and this original stretch of road was abandoned, the last segment of Route 66 in Oklahoma to lose its U.S. Highway designation. Despite being just shy of its 90th birthday, stretches of original Portland Cement concrete peek through later-added layers of asphalt that have worn away.

Not typically at a loss for words, this is one of the those experiences that was so moving, it has us struggling to put our feelings into words. For us, this was one of those moments that made time stand still and maybe, almost, for a moment made us believe that time travel was possible and we had actually stepped back in time.


What to See

Hole in the Wall Conoco Station- Commerce
Just a few miles into Oklahoma is the small town of Commerce. Chances are, this town isn’t familiar to you; but if it is, it’s most likely for one of two reasons: a) Commerce was the boyhood home to famous switch hitter and star of the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle, or b) in April 1934, just one month before meeting their ultimate demise, the depraved Depression-era duo of Bonnie and Clyde engaged in a shootout with local law enforcement, killing the town constable and kidnapping the police chief.

Built into a brick wall on the side of a building in 1929, the Hole in the Wall Conoco Station, now known as Allen’s Fillin’ Station, is the first of many beautifully preserved and restored gas stations in Oklahoma and a photo opportunity not to miss. Built in the cottage-style station popular at the time, the station began life as a Conoco before becoming a Phillips 66 station in 1939. No longer a working gas station, it was refurbished and repainted in 2008, and now houses a gift shop open on the weekends. Stop in for a souvenir, snap some photos, and be sure to bust out your best outlaw pose, as its rumored that Bonnie and Clyde once filled up here.

Barnsdall Service Station- Sapulpa
You may not recognize the name Waite Phillips, but you are definitely familiar with the Phillips name and the not-so-small oil company, Phillips 66, created by his brother, Frank. This beautifully restored station, located one block off of Route 66 in Sapulpa, was originally a Waite Phillips station built in 1923 at a cost of $8,000. Choosing to focus on his businesses in Tulsa (and his amazing Art Deco buildings- the Philcade and Philtower), Phillips sold the station to the Barnsdall Oil Co. in 1926. It managed to serve as a gas station until the late 1940s, after which it housed various other businesses until the station was restored to its former glory in the late ‘00s.


Sapulpa is also home to at least two other restored service stations, including this Gulf Oil station located a block from Route 66, with dreamy gas prices and some great vintage signage.

Pony Truss Bridge- Bridgeport
There are bridges, and then there are bridges. Crossing the Canadian River, east of the town of Bridgeport on Route 66, is the longest single-span pony truss bridge in the country. Constructed in 1933, with 38 pony trusses each measuring 100 feet, the William H. Murray or Pony Bridge, comes in at a total length of 3,944.33 feet. Carrying Route 66 traffic from 1933 until 1962, when the interstate opened a few miles to the south, it’s so long that on a warm, sunny day, mirages make it pretty much impossible to get a clear picture of the far end of the bridge. Driving over the bridge is mesmerizing and it almost feels as if it goes on forever.


Provine Station / Lucille’s – Hydro
One of the more famous and recognizable service stations on Route 66 is Lucille’s in Hydro. Built in 1929, it was originally named the Provine Service Station, before becoming the more recognizable Lucille’s, after being sold to Carl and Lucille Hamons in 1941. In addition to the service station, there was also a small store and five-room motel on the property which the Hamons’ operated until 1962, when the road was bypassed by the interstate. The station continued to see a decline in business after the interstate was built, until the early ’90s when new-found Route 66 enthusiasts and those seeking nostalgia from childhood trips began to stop in for souvenirs and a cold drink.

Known as the “Mother of the Mother Road” because of her kindness and willingness to help out travelers, Lucille ran the station until her the day she died in 2000, despite the interstate having cut off access in 1971. Once recognizable by its vine-covered facade, the out-thrust porch style station (one of only a few remaining) is no longer operational, but has been restored and now serves as a photo stop and glimpse into the past.

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Sandhills Curiosity Shop- Erick
If you love vintage tin signs, this is a stop not-to-be-missed. Housed in the former City Meat Market in Erick, the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, the self-proclaimed “Redneck Capital of the World”, is a riotous collection of anything and everything. The outside of the building is a petroliana enthusiast’s dream, with tin signs from defunct gas stations like Cities Service (the predecessor to Citgo) and Magnolia to ones for the once-ubiquitous S & H Green Stamps. If you’re lucky enough to stop by when the shop is open, don’t be scared off by overall-clad owner Harley Russell; he may seem gruff, but we found him to be welcoming, even telling Jen to “take as many pictures as you’d like, darling”. Prior to her passing a few years ago, Harley and his wife, Annabelle, used to treat visitors to performances as the “Mediocre Melody Makers”. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to find Harley still singing and entertaining visitors. While we didn’t get a personal serenade, we still walked around the shop and tried to take in just a small sampling of the thousands of items in the shop where “nothing is ever for sale”, but is there for everyone to enjoy. And enjoy, we did.