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The Ozark Trail, aka the original Route 66

Disused building
This former Phillips 66 station in the town of Vinson, Harmon County, Oklahoma sits close to the 100th meridan, which acts as the state line between Oklahoma and Texas. Today's OK 9, along which Vinson sits, was yesterday's Ozark Trail.

One of the first interstate roads west of the Mississippi River was the early 20th-century Ozark Trail, which consisted of a path that started in St. Louis, Missouri and extended southwest to El Paso, Texas, and which was maintained by volunteer groups of automobile-owning individuals who wanted to use their new technology on "Good Roads."

It makes sense that this road would be called the Ozark Trail as it went through the Ozarks of Missouri. The Ozarks are an ancient mountain chain that, over millions of years, became the hills that modern tourists have to cross to get to Branson. By 1926, the northwestern portions of the Ozark Trail were subsumed by the federal highway project designated as US 66, aka the original Route 66, and the Ozark Trail lost its tourist trade in favor of the new highway.

But why did automobile tourists of a century ago want to connect El Paso to St. Louis? Well, for starters, it may have seemed natural. For example, I came across this 1823 map of the United States (which inspired this article!) that indicated the Ozark Mountains as a ridge that reached from the Rio Grande River at El Paso to the Missouri River near St. Louis... and, about ninety years later, became a tourist road. Of course, we don't call the hills in Texas and Oklahoma the "Ozarks" anymore... they are the Wichita and Arbuckles and San Saba and Palo Pinto "mountains."

This map from 1823 inspired this post - first, it shows how far west Arkansas Territory and the Choctaw Nation stretched at this time; the Chickasaw Nation in their homelands in Mississippi; and the Ozark Mountains stretching from the Missouri River ot the Rio Grande! (Ruderman Rare Maps)

Surely, though, it wasn't just automobile tourists who recognized this natural ridge line. Might the Ozark Trail have been an earlier trading path? Maybe one that connected the Apaches and other southwestern tribes to the Mississippi tribes surrounding Cahokia?

Today, following the original Ozark Trail is not that easy. It's now a series of roads in southwestern Oklahoma that in Texas briefly parallels the Caprock Canyon State Trail (a former railroad bed). The portion of the Ozark Trail that went from Oklahoma City to New Mexico passed through the Oklahoma towns of Anadarko (Caddo County), Hobart and Lone Wolf (Kiowa County), Granite, Mangum, and Reed (Greer County) and Vinson (Harmon County). When Route 66 was built, these towns were bypassed to straighten the road and make travel more efficient.

Hats off to the Ozark Trail, which became the famous Route 66... a relatively unknown, yet very famous, road.

Find the maps referenced in this article here:

East of Granite (Greer County, Oklahoma) was this fantastic bridge that honored Great War military veterans over the North Fork of the Red River (today, Lake Altus-Lugart) along the Ozark Trail. The statues are now housed in Granite. This photo stems from the collections of the Greer County Museum and was posted by Stephen Dock.

This 1906 map of a railway ROW, owned by a French company, depicts the connection between the Rio Grande and Missouri Rivers (Ruderman).

Though not the easist to see, the road designated as 50 in this 1924 Rand McNally Map was the Ozark Trail, which became Route 66 further north within a few years (David Rumsey Library).

The Ozark Trail was marked along posts with the "OT" and was designated as named highway 50 in a 1924 Rand McNally Atlas (David Rumsey Library)..

Early auto trails, maintained by private automobile owners, used obelisques, like this one in Hall County, Texas, to help fellow travelers navigate the route that they maintained.

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