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Route 66 is alive in Williams, Ariz.

Initially devastated by the opening of Interstate 40, the town has repositioned itself as a living relic. Tourists, many foreign, come for a taste of the old Mother Road.

September 13, 2009|Jay Jones

WILLIAMS, ARIZ. — Twenty-five years ago, songwriter-turned-actor Bobby Troup came to Williams to perform "Route 66," the hit song he had written in 1946 for Nat King Cole.

Well, if you ever plan to motor west

Travel my way, take the highway that's

the best . . .

The occasion was the completion of the final stretch of Interstate 40. Although some celebrated the opening of the four miles of four-lane, others mourned.

Won't you get hip to this timely tip,

When you make that California trip?

Get your kicks on Route 66.

With the construction of the interstates, the Mother Road had been dying a slow death for decades. But the opening of a highway bypass on Oct. 13, 1984, meant Route 66 had flat-lined, taking Williams with it.

"When the bypass went around us, the town just died," says John Moore, the mayor and owner of a business that stages Wild West gunfights for visitors. Route 66 had brought prosperity -- "Our street was just one big, giant truck stop," he recalls, so its demise turned Williams into a ghost town almost overnight.

The town languished for five years, until a couple of entrepreneurs began offering passenger train rides from Williams to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, about 60 miles north. The influx of at least 1,000 tourists a day resuscitated the remaining merchants.

Before long, civic leaders were posting "Historic Route 66" signs along a two-mile loop through the downtown area. Themed businesses followed, along with a small museum in the former Santa Fe railroad depot. As one exhibit points out, the last remaining stoplight along Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles was on the corner just outside the station.

"This is small-town America. I think there's a hunger for the quaintness, the slower pace," says Kim Kadletz, a retired lawyer from Orange who now operates Goldie's Route 66 Diner in Williams. It's just one of the many businesses that have undergone name changes -- Goldie's used to be a Denny's -- and face-lifts in recent years.

"It's the history, the neon lights, the kitsch," Kadletz adds. "Europeans love it. They'll travel the entire route. They'll rent motorcycles in Chicago or Santa Monica and travel in groups."

Next door at Twisters Soda Fountain, owner Jason Moore, the mayor's son, agrees.

"We get a lot of foreigners who come in for a burger or a hot dog and a shake, a taste of American food," he says. Actual Americans, however, often choose the rich and creamy "route beer float." It's made with Route 66 root beer, a brand that's bottled on the former "Main Street of America" in Wilmington, Ill.

Sitting in one of the '50s-style booths, Jason Moore recalls growing up in Williams in the days before Route 66 was officially decommissioned.

"I remember the big trucks billowing black smoke as they slowed down to drive through town," he says. Nowadays, only the occasional big rig making a local delivery ventures off the interstate -- something Moore's dad, John, considers a blessing.

"The tourists don't have to compete with 18-wheelers," he notes.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Drive into history

The Williams Chamber of Commerce ( www.williamschamber.com) and the U.S. Forest Service jointly operate a year-round visitor center, including the museum, at 200 W. Railroad Ave., (928) 635-4061. The longest still-drivable stretch of Historic Route 66 is in Arizona. It begins west of Williams in Ash Fork and continues for about 150 miles to the Colorado River at Topock.

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