Tulsa Remembers When East Met West at the 11th Street Bridge

By Ken Busby

            Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell likes to say, “If you want to see America, then you’ve got to see Oklahoma!”  I like to add, and if you want to see Oklahoma, there’s no better way than on Route 66!

            And if you want to learn about Route 66, you better come to Tulsa because that is where East met West in 1926. Tulsa is the capitol of Route 66 thanks to the old 11th Street Bridge and the persistence of Cyrus Avery, a Tulsa entrepreneur who became known as the “Father of Route 66.”

            After the federal government decided that the first highway would begin in Chicago and end in Santa Monica, Avery convinced officials to bring that highway through Tulsa because that was the only place where there was a concrete and steel-reinforced bridge across the Arkansas River.

That is how the 11th Street span became a bridge to the West on the nation’s first federal highway. No wonder Tulsa is such a focal point for this historic highway. But if Tulsa is the capitol, then Oklahoma must be the highway’s home state because there are more miles of Route 66 in Oklahoma than any other state. In fact, the Mother Road even nudges the State Capitol as it passes through Oklahoma City.

So, it’s only fitting that next June the Sooner State is kicking off the lead up to the historic highway’s centennial celebration with the AAA Route 66 Road Fest, an event that begins on June 18 in Oklahoma City and ends on June 26 in Tulsa.                 

            Weekend events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa will feature historical journeys through the decades, allowing visitors to travel through time from the 1920s to futuristic visions of the Great American Road Trip. There will be food, music, and an assortment of family attractions. A major highlight will be the automobile itself, a Route 66 icon that transcends generations. The event will include RVs, motorcycles, and especially cars, ranging from classic cars and remote-controlled cars to tomorrow’s automated vehicle technology.

            While the Road Fest will be in Oklahoma, it is not just for Oklahomans. This will be the beginning of a four-year countdown to the Route 66 Centennial in 2026, a national celebration that will capture international attention. 

            Even though the U.S. Interstate Highway System bypassed Route 66 a long time ago, tens of thousands of tourists still travel the Main Street of America every year, and nearly half of them are from outside of the United States. That’s because Route 66 is the most famous highway in the world, through songs, movies, television shows, and books that have inundated popular culture for decades.

            So, don’t be surprised next June when crowds from inside and outside of our state descend on Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and spill into Catoosa, Miami, Arcadia, Clinton, and towns up and down the Mother Road to relive the nostalgia. It’s an exciting time for Route 66, and where better to celebrate its history than the place where East meets West.

Ken Busby is executive director and chief executive officer of the Route 66 Alliance.  He is also known as the cultural czar of Northeast Oklahoma.