Finally…a Finish Line!
On November 11, 2009, the 83rd birthday of Route 66, the Mother Road leapt into the future when a newly designated Western Terminus was named in California at the Santa Monica Pier.
Following the announcement was the unveiling of a historic “End of the Trail” sign replica, now standing on the pier as “welcome” to what’s been the road’s “spiritual end” for decades.
The Route 66 Alliance, which represents Route 66 businesses from Chicago to L.A., was one of the event’s many sponsors. It was during the summer of 2009 that the Alliance’s reach was effectively extended over the Pacific when Dan Rice’s company “66-to-Cali, Inc.” opened on the Santa Monica Pier.
What happened next couldn’t have been expected.
Rice states, “We were designing an ‘End of the Road’ shirt for people who travel the whole road and mark the end of their journeys here. We looked for a sign to put on it that had both Santa Monica and Route 66 history. What we found wasn’t much, and we were about to give up when we found this very unique sign. It said three things: ‘Santa Monica,’ ‘66,’ and ‘End of the Trail.’ It was beautiful.”
The older pedestrians who walk the pier each morning began sharing its remarkable history with Rice. What he’d found was originally a movie sign that had been left on the bluffs in 1935. It’d also been responsible for creating the perception that Route 66 ended at the ocean.
“(The sign) was the missing link and a perfect one between the route, its end, and the pier,” said Rice.
Since Route 66 sported many “official” and “unofficial endings” in California over the years, arguments about the Mother Road’s end point have dated back as far as 1935. At that time, Route 66 ended in downtown L.A. at 7th Street and Broadway. However, with the establishment of the “End of the Trail” sign in Santa Monica at that time, downtown businessmen began complaining about the confusion. This was after all, the Great Depression and anything leading business away from downtown and toward Santa Monica represented a real threat to long-term business viability.
A year later, their concerns were justified. With the “End of the Trail” movie sign still standing tall, the end of 66 was extended to Santa Monica by city leaders. Interestingly enough, when the change was made, it didn't get moved to where the sign stood. It was re-routed instead to the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic Blvds., fulfilling the Federal rule that one highway ended where another started. Route 66 now ended where Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) began.
Still, that infamous movie sign beckoned adventurers to come just a few blocks further.
A few years later, the powers that be decided that Lincoln and Olympic was a “such a busy intersection,” the ending of 66 should be changed again due to congestion. Conveniently, it was rerouted straight down Santa Monica Blvd. to the intersection of Santa Monica and Ocean Avenue…where the “End of the Trail” movie sign had stood for several years.
Critics balked. Placing the end of America’s Main Street at the intersection of Santa Monica and Ocean violated the Federal rule of Highway endings and beginnings in one place. While an “unofficial” end was born, Lincoln and Olympic remained known as the “Official” end of 66.
Official or not, the people traveling the Route didn’t care. They preferred ending their travels at the new, more dramatic overlook of the Pacific. In 1952, the city honored their preference by dedicating the site and the highway itself to entertainer Will Rogers. A monument was placed (that still stands today), and the ‘End of the Trail’ sign was suddenly just feet away. The rich and famous who originally pushed for the change to the location seemed to have their victory.
Or so it seemed. The Santa Monica Pier was just two blocks to the south, and was a still-drivable option at the time. After a 2500 mile ride, there was no stopping the caravans of visitors who chose to venture those last few blocks to end their “trails” on the Santa Monica Pier. Reaching the end of the pier’s wooden planks began to symbolize the “spiritual” end of the road for many, and for many more, the beginning of their dreams.
While this “pier ending” was also unofficial, you couldn't tell it to the millions of people who claimed it as their own over the years. They kept coming.
The official end of Route 66 took a different path. During the 1960’s, when the interstate highway system replaced it in Los Angeles, the official end of Route 66 shrank back from Santa Monica to the corner of Arroyo Parkway and Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena. In 1975, the interstate’s completion in California meant an even more grim future. Route 66 was reeled back again to an official ending at the Arizona/California border. Ten years later, the entire road was decommissioned, and if not for the fervor of those who wouldn’t let it die, would’ve faded into history.
Coinciding with the retracted Pasadena ending of the 60’s, the infamous “End of the Trail” sign mysteriously disappeared. Although theories abound regarding its final resting place, one thing was clear: During its infamous existence, it had forced life to imitate art and created an enduring perception that a trip on Route 66 wasn’t complete until you made it the pier.
In 2009, in recognition of the sign’s amazing influence, history, and subsequent status of having gone M.I.A. for nearly 50 years, the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation and 66-to-Cali, Inc. began discussing the possibility of having the sign recreated for a resurrection at the pier.
Enter the Route 66 Alliance. In exchange for the city’s restoring the “End of the Trail” Sign to prominence, and with the dissolution of the Federal Highway Rules over a now decommissioned highway, Alliance Director Jim Conkle offered the pier the reciprocal recognition of finally being named Route 66’s Western Terminus, correcting a long overdue discrepancy between the last official ending and the traditional ending travelers had chosen for years. The city embraced him and an agreement was struck.
Conkle’s eventual naming of the new Western Terminus and the unveiling of the new “End of the Trail” sign took place before an excited audience of locals, Route 66 enthusiasts, and countless media sources.
Mark Havenner of Pollack PR Media Group estimates the coverage reached an audience of over 60 million people around the world, including the audiences of the New York Times and NBC Nightly News.
“I like to think of this (event) as one final alignment,” says Rice. “The one between people’s perceptions and what actually is. Nobody’s changed history. We’ve added a new chapter. The one that says the road didn’t die in 1985. It got off life support and back on its feet in 2009. If the number of people taking their picture in front of the new sign every day is any indication, what happens next for the road will be very exciting.”
With an anchor at the pier in all its festive glory, the new "terminus" will create an awareness of Route 66 for nearly four million annual visitors who visit the pier looking for something fun to do. With the old sign’s resurrection, they now have a place to gather, and a new direction to look toward: east!
If you’ve traveled to the Santa Monica Pier, 66-to-Cali, the Route 66 Alliance and the City of Santa Monica can finally greet you in one voice: “Welcome! You’ve reached the ‘End of the Trail’ and the ‘Beginning of Dreams!