Northeast Oklahoma: The Sidewalk Highway
In the far northeastern corner of Oklahoma, old Route 66 runs through a hardscrabble former lead- and zinc-mining region, from the Kansas border to Vinita on the I-44 Turnpike. Three miles southwest of the Kansas border, Quapaw could be the first or last Oklahoma town you visit, depending upon your direction, but either way it’s worth a look for the many murals painted on the walls of downtown businesses. The next town along, Commerce (pop. 2,473), was another old mining town, noteworthy as the boyhood home of the late, great Yankee switch-hitter Mickey Mantle, in whose honor the old Route 66 alignment down Main Street has been renamed. A statue of Mantle graces the Commerce high school baseball field, right off Route 66.
Four miles to the south via old Route 66 (now signed as US-69), Miami holds the magnificent Spanish Revival-style Coleman Theater, built in 1929 when the town was still luxuriating in the riches coming out of the surrounding mines.
Still following US-69, now roughly parallel to (and eventually crossing under) I-44 between Miami and Afton, some of the earliest paved stretches of old Route 66 were constructed only one “wide, because in 1926 the state of Oklahoma did not have enough money to build a full-width version. Not surprisingly, these lengths of the road became known as the “Sidewalk Highway.” The easiest stretch to find runs parallel to US-69: Turn west at the Northeast Technology Center vocational school along an increasingly narrow country lane, and look out for the 66 shields painted on the pavement. This “Sidewalk Highway” rejoins the main Route 66 alignment at Afton, where a convenience store now stands on the site of the fabled Buffalo Ranch Trading Post. For more on Afton, the Buffalo Ranch, Route 66, or help finding the Sidewalk Highway, head down to Afton Station (12 SW 1st St., 918/257-4044), a nicely renovated 1930s-era gas station that has been brought back to life as a gift shop and museum of mostly old Packard cars.