Devil’s Highway

On April 10, 2012 · 10 Comments

Here is wisdom. He that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred and sixty and six. — Revelation 13:18

Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia –- Fear of the number 666

A national highway in the western United States carried the "number of the beast" — the Antichrist — U.S. Route 666, for three-quarters of a century. It stretched for six hundred miles at its peak before slowly being chipped away, disappearing for good in 2003. It was at that time that New Mexico legislature hastened the demise of this final segment:

… WHEREAS, people living near the road already live under the cloud of opprobrium created by having a road that many believe is cursed running near their homes and through their homeland; and

WHEREAS, the number “666” carries the stigma of being the mark of the beast, the mark of the devil, which was described in the book of revelations in the Bible; and

WHEREAS, there are people who refuse to travel the road, not because of the issue of safety, but because of the fear that the devil controls events along United States route 666; …

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that the United States department of transportation be requested to assign United States route 666 a new numeric designation as quickly as possible;…

There was nothing nefarious behind the original assignment of U.S. Route 666, as discussed in detail by the Federal Highway Administration. As the FHWA explains, "Boring though it may be to contemplate, the route was simply the sixth branch of U.S. 66 when it was assigned in early August 1926."



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The Original U.S. Route 666: Gallup, NM to Cortez, CO

The famed U.S. Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. Originally it was designated Route 60, a two-digit number ending in a zero to distinguish it as a major east-west transcontinental road. The highway spur from Gallup, New Mexico, to Cortez, Colorado became U.S. 660. That meant it was the sixth major spur from U.S. Route 60. See how that works?

Then several eastern states got upset because Route 60 wasn’t truly transcontinental so in 1926 the highway authorities changed it to Route 66 (and assigned 60 to a different highway). That’s when the trouble began. The sixth spur also changed, from an innocuous 660 to a demonic 666.

Route 66 became a road of legend, the famed "Mother Road" or "America’s Highway" while a single changed digit caused its spur, Route 666, to became the Devil’s Highway. It hardly seemed fair but that’s how it happened. That FHWA website mentioned above describes this entire process in a meticulous, blow-by-blow account. Check it out if you want to see the complete story.



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U.S. Route 666 at its maximum: Douglas, AZ to Monticello, UT

U.S. Route 666 grew over ensuing decades, eventually stretching from Douglas, Arizona on the Mexican border all the way to Monticello, Utah. Then it began to contract. The road itself never went away of course. It just changed numbers. The final segment lasted until the 21st Century when the New Mexico governor and legislature made renumbering a priority. I’ve read plenty of resolutions before, but I have to admit that this was the first time I’d ever seen references to the devil and curses written into the legislative record.



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I Drove Along 666 Without Any Problems

I actually drove a small section of U.S. 666 when it still carried the number of the beast. This was back during my longest road trip. We stopped at Mesa Verde National Park for a couple of days and then headed towards the Four Corners marker. Even back then I was an aficionado of geo-oddities. Judging by my route I must have traveled the segment immediately south of Cortez down to where U.S. 160 split-off in a southwesterly direction. I don’t recall the drive as being particularly creepy or unnerving. To be honest I didn’t even realize I’d driven a section of 666 until I pulled together information for this article. Some of the Street View imagery seems a little spooky though (check it out!).

Whether the road was ever actually evil or not really isn’t the point. Rather, people feared the road’s numeric identifier and their elected officials acquiesced. They changed it in a rare instance of government responding to the will of concerned citizens.

My new favorite word is Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.

On April 10, 2012 · 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Devil’s Highway”

  1. Jasper says:

    Virginia still has a number of VA-666s because small roads in counties are numbers in the 600s.

    Greens Corner Rd, of off US-15/29 near Culpepper, VA is VA-666.

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    I very much hope that VA-28 north of I-66 will at some point become an official spur of I-66, and am praying hard that they will name it I-666. No chance of that happening because it would be a spur needing an odd first number, but one can always pray (to the devil in this case), can’t one? I-166 would be soooo boring.

    • Rhodent says:

      Given the notoriety of the number, I doubt any spur will ever be given that number. That being said, I have heard more than one tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Beltway around D.C. be changed from I-495 to I-666. If not for the general practice of starting with I-2xx, it would be a perfectly reasonable designation.

  2. Karl Z says:

    As a transportation engineer, I’m familiar with the story, and I wasn’t surprised, but…there’s some evidence that the “666” in Revelations is actually a translation error, and the “number” should have been “616” instead. (Conveniently, there’s no US 16 for there to be a US 616, so that takes care of that.) There’s also a fairly compelling argument about it being a code for someone who the author didn’t name directly, although who that is remains an open question (most people think Nero, but that isn’t the only possible option). Taken that way, the number “666” has no actual meaning in and of itself. (Considering some of the other stuff in there, you could also ask what the author who wrote Revelations was smoking at the time…) The main problem is convincing people who take the Bible WAY too literally that this is the case…

    Union Pacific had to renumber a locomotive numbered 666 because of incessant local complaints, too.

    It’s the same reason most buildings don’t have a 13th floor. (As someone who turned 13 years old on Friday the 13th, has 13 letters in his first+last names, grew up in a house with 13 stairs to the second floor, and was assigned number 13 repeatedly when playing sports, let’s just say “13” doesn’t bother me much…) I still like the explanation given in the movie “Apollo 13” when Jim Lovell’s wife questioned why it had to be 13: “It comes after 12, hon.”

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but numbers can never hurt me…

    • My first date with my (future) wife happened on a Friday the 13th, and our wedding anniversary falls on a 13th too. We’ve always thought of it as a lucky number in our household.

    • Actually, there is a US 16. At its greatest extent, it ran from Detroit to Wyoming, and included a ferry segment across Lake Michigan. Historically, there were two spurs – US 116 and US 216 – but those were decommissioned long ago. Today, since I-90 has subsumed much of what used to be US 16, that designation exists only between Rapid City SD and Yellowstone N.P. There’s practically zero chance that a “US 616” will ever be designated.

  3. Mike Lowe says:

    667 – The neighbor of the beast.

  4. Rhodent says:

    On some of the road geek message boards I’ve been on, it has been mentioned that another reason for the designation change was that people kept stealing the signs (prevailing theory was that they made cool dorm room decorations) and it was simply getting too expensive. There’s an interestingly-named village in Austria that had a similar problem with their village signs, but changing a name that a town has had for roughly a millennium isn’t as easy as changing a highway’s numeric designation.

    • Karl Z says:

      Yes, New Mexico did have a problem with sign theft out there, considering the number and the relative remoteness of the location. However, individual signs aren’t THAT expensive, and you constantly have to replace signs anyway due to deteriorated sheeting (they stop “getting bright” when headlights hit them) and damage from other sources (e.g., collisions, target practice), so I think that was more of an excuse, not a reason.

      Of course, if you want a US 666 route marker, or any other traffic sign, you can always order them on-line (for instance, from store.hallsigns.com). They usually cost $20-$30 each. I always tell my students that if they want a particular sign, order it, don’t steal it–there’s a reason those signs are out there, and someone’s life isn’t worth saving yourself $20 on a painted sheet of aluminum by stealing it instead of buying it. (Even back in the day, a custom sign printer could make you a similar sign for very little money.)

      • US 666 ran through Colorado and Utah, too, so those states needed to agree to New Mexico’s proposal for a numbering change. In 2003 I had a lengthy email exchange with a transportation official from southwest Colorado. His main reason for supporting the designation change: due to chronic sign theft, they literally couldn’t keep US 666 markers posted on the highway. So yeah, it was related to the “number of the beast” thing, but it wasn’t as sensational as some people want to believe.

  5. Pete says:

    I lived in Gallup, New Mexico, when they changed it, and didn’t learn about how famous it was among geography fans until years later. Interesting. However, there seems to be disappointing knowledge of the correct spelling and pronunciation of “Revelation”, especially in the New mexico legislature, apparently. Sigh.

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