Nostalgic motorists are rediscovering U.S. 80, a historic southern Arizona highway that has long been overshadowed by Route 66.
Don’t believe the Route 66 hype. Although shelves of kitsch and a timeless tune written about Route 66 make it seem otherwise, the “Mother Road” is not the only fabled east-west, two-lane highway in Arizona. And it might not even be the most important.
Route 66’s popularity lies with the nostalgic freedom it represents. This mindset was highlighted in the early 1960s TV series Route 66, wherein pals Tod and Buz roamed America in a Corvette looking for adventure. But from a practicality viewpoint, “America’s Main Street” falls short. Starting in Chicago and ending at the Santa Monica Pier, Route 66 doesn’t provide coast-to-coast passage. American Heritage magazine named it the most overrated highway in October 2002. And the Route 66 TV series wasn’t even filmed on the actual road.
But there is another two-lane blacktop to consider, one that lacks Route 66’s mystique but surpasses it in other parameters. “More cars actually traveled into California on U.S. 80 than on Route 66 in the years after World War II,” Steven Varner, a transportation historian, says. “It’s a highway that’s very worthy of an adventure vacation, with its iconic tourist towns and preserved alignments.” And it runs right through Arizona.
Marketing U.S. Route 80 has been a challenge for the Grand Canyon State. While long stretches of Route 66 remain prominently marked for nostalgic motorists to get their kicks in northern Arizona, U.S. 80 – which slithered across the southern half of the state, through towns as disparate as Yuma and Tempe – has disappeared from the official state map. However, a recent heritage tourism effort aims to spotlight the highway and its roadside riches to help revitalize communities along its route.
U.S. 80 was created as a federal highway in 1926. Starting at the Atlantic Ocean in Savannah, Georgia, the route stretched for 2,726 miles through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before reaching the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. The highway was mainly stitched together from private auto trails that, as was customary at the time, were named rather than numbered. These auto trails had bucolic monikers that resonated with travelers, including the Bankhead Highway, the Borderland Route, the Dixie Overland Highway, the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway and the Old Spanish Trail.
In Arizona, U.S. 80 mirrored a planned southern transcontinental railroad along a less-mountainous path, as noted by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads in 1927. “Because of the southern latitude and the comparatively low altitudes, the route is never blocked by snow and is open to automobile travel the year round.” The report added the following caution, all-too-familiar to Arizonans: “But where it crosses the Southwestern deserts it has the disadvantage of being uncomfortably hot in the summer months.”
Like an aimless traveler, U.S. 80 took a meandering transit of 541 miles through Arizona. From east to west, the highway passed through Douglas, Bisbee, Tombstone, Benson, Tucson, Florence, Mesa, Phoenix, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Wellton and Yuma. In the Valley, the highway followed Apache Trail, Main Street, Mill Avenue, Van Buren Street, 17th Avenue and Buckeye Road.
U.S. 80 inspired bridges and tunnels that were engineering marvels (see sidebar). The highway created a social tapestry along its path composed of some of Arizona’s most impressive architectural gems, mom-and-pop businesses, and hucksters looking for a quick buck, all bathed in the glow of neon signs.
“Like Route 66 to the north, U.S. 80 shaped Arizona,” Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, says. “Along its curb developed roadside architecture: service stations, diners, motels, tourist attractions and other resources woven into communities. Along with the rural vistas, they combined to create a distinct sense of place.” U.S. 80 led motorists by Lowell’s Shady Dell Trailer Court, an incorrect “Continental Divide” marker atop Mule Pass just west of Bisbee, Tombstone’s famous gunfight at O.K. Corral, motel rows in Tucson and in Phoenix (including the exotic Kon Tiki Hotel at 24th and Van Buren streets that was demolished in 1997), the copper-domed Arizona Capitol and over the treacherous Telegraph Pass outside Yuma.
But the highway’s glory days were numbered. U.S. 80’s ambling path necessitated highway shortcuts completed in the 1930s, including Arizona 86 that connected Lordsburg, New Mexico, to Benson, and Arizona 84 from Tucson to Gila Bend. With the advent of freeways beginning in the early 1960s, Interstates 8 and 10 largely supplanted the historic highway in Arizona. U.S. 80 in Arizona west of Benson was deleted from the national highway system in 1977, and the remainder was removed in 1989. Today, 40 segments of U.S. 80 survive in Arizona as state highways or minor roads, and they continue to inspire passion among roadside historians. A favorite section for motorists is the drive from Douglas to Bisbee that goes past Lowell’s Erie Street, looking unchanged since the 1950s, skirting the deep hole of the Lavender Pit excavated for its copper riches, and depositing travelers at Bisbee’s Brewery Gulch.
The highway that helped shape the Southwest and the cities that straddled its roadbed should be showcased and clearly marked, Clinco says. “The road connects a myriad of cultural landscapes and historic places and is, itself, a unique historic resource,” he says. To honor the heritage of U.S. 80 within Arizona, Clinco’s Tucson
organization spent more than $100,000 to initiate a Historic Highway designation, similar to Route 66’s, with ADOT in 2012.
Clinco says the communities that would be affected by the Historic Highway designation have been overwhelmingly supportive. “The designation would be an economic catalyst for these places, which have been heavily disinvested for decades, and help connect rural areas to urban cores.” ADOT, however, has been dragging its feet, missing deadlines and experiencing difficulties interpreting its own regulations, according to Clinco. “They’ve been an extraordinary challenge to work with,” he says. “The result is that U.S. 80 remains a mostly untapped asset and an unmarked passageway through Arizona. And that’s a lost opportunity for the state.”
A representative from ADOT says it is nearing completion of required reports for the Arizona State Transportation Board for the U.S. 80 segments that remain part of the state highway system, such as Arizona 80 through Douglas and Bisbee. For other sections, the agency is working with local entities to finalize and implement historical designations.
While state approval for U.S. 80’s historical designation is on hold, curious motorists continue to travel this living museum. The highway features artifacts that define the 20th century American roadside experience, including the ornate marble lobby of the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, the Tucson Inn’s famed neon sign jutting through its porte-cochere, the animated diving lady sign at Mesa’s Starlite Motel, and the kitschy Space Age Lodge in Gila Bend. And there are many more. “I’ve driven the entire highway three times and always find some overlooked gem,” Clinco says. “U.S. 80 is like a time machine that captures what life was like in Arizona.”