TBT: “…From Chicago to L.A.”

Men building former Highway #4 through Towanda, eventually parts of that highway became
Route 66.  Photo from the Towanda Area Historical Collection, Illinois Digital Archives --
A service of the Illinois State Library and Office of the Secretary of State.
The maps had just been released, but already the grumbling had begun.

In the 1920s, the first map of the proposed federal numbered highway system had been released. The most prominent east-west numbered highways were those ending with in zero. But a few states had been bypassed by every one of the round-numbered highways: a blow to their national prestige.

Some of those states’ representatives took their complaints to the proper authority, and some of the roads were dutifully re-numbered. More states got round-numbered federal highways and Illinois ended up as the hub of the most famous highway in the world: Route 66.

Route 66 begins in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park, just north of the famous Buckingham Fountain. Then, in the words of the famous Nat King Cole song, “It winds from Chicago to L.A.; more than two thousand miles all the way.” When the highway formally opened on November 11, 1926, it was meant to be just a road. It didn’t take long to become much, much more.

By the middle of the 20th century, Route 66 was an American cultural icon. Cole’s hit song was just one of many examples of Route 66’s impact on Americana. The road featured prominently in John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath. There was also an early 1960’s TV drama Route 66 about two adventurers traveling the highway in a Corvette. Over the decades it had become the lifeline of an entire section of the nation.

At first, Route 66 was just an idea and a line on a map. Sections were unpaved when it was officially commissioned in 1926, and it was designed to run through the Main Streets of as many small towns as possible because it was the only way to connect those towns and their residents to the highway system. A year later, the Tulsa-based U.S. Highway 66 Association was formed to help local citizens along the route get their sections paved. Illinois initially routed the highway along existing routes (state highway 4 and the Pontiac Trail), making Illinois the first state to have a paved Route 66 from end-to-end. To promote the highway, an L.A.-to-Chicago-to New York footrace was organized in 1928, with University of Illinois alum and Chicago Bears star Red Grange selected to fire the starting pistol each day.

Route 66 played a part in many of the major events of the 20th century. When Los Angeles hosted the 1932 summer Olympics, the Highway 66 Association took out advertisements encouraging Americans to travel the highway en route to the games. By then, truck drivers had discovered a major advantage to Route 66’s link to the west coast: its southern routing through Arizona and New Mexico was much flatter and easier to traverse than routes over the mountains farther north. Around this same time, the highway became the route for Dust Bowl families fleeing the southern plains for better opportunities in California, like the Joad family of Steinbeck’s novel.

Photo from the "Postcards from Route 66 Collection"
Illinois Digital Archives – A service of the Illinois State Library and Office of the Secretary of State.
Fully paved by the outbreak of World War II, Route 66 became an important supply route for war industries and the military. Bases like Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood were constructed near the route. The highway’s importance to the war effort led to an increase in traffic, with the resulting wear-and-tear. This led to Illinois receiving funding under the Defense Highway Act of 1941 to make the latest in a series of upgrades to Route 66. So many travelers had used the highway during the war that that its tourist potential exploded in the post-war period with the surge of automobile ownership. Soon tourist sites like the Grand Canyon were easily accessible for millions of Americans.

The highway’s path through Illinois changed and grew with the times. Just southwest of Chicago, Route 66 passed through downtown Plainfield, where it intersected with the New York-to-San Francisco Lincoln Highway. For a time, this made Plainfield, Illinois, the crossroads of the two longest highways in the world. Route 66 connected Chicago with Joliet, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield and St. Louis, passing through dozens of small towns in between. It connected farms with small towns, and small towns with large cities. It connected hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans with universities and the state capital.

In the mid-30s, Route 66 was the busiest highway in Illinois, with a speed limit in some places as high as 80 miles per hour. As traffic on the road increased, it was widened and re-routed time and time again, starting in 1930, but its presence in downtown would shape hundreds of small towns across the country for generations, including many here in Illinois. In Springfield, the highway originally passed along Second Street in front of the State Capitol then north to the State Fairgrounds. It was later re-routed to a wider road on the western edge of downtown.

The route through downtown Bloomington-Normal in the 1930s was shifted around the city to the east in 1940. The most dramatic shift was the southern section of the road in Illinois, which followed present-day Illinois 4 from Springfield through Chatham, Auburn and Carlinville. In 1930, it was moved several miles to the east along the present route of Interstate 55. As new bridges were built over the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Route 66’s path through the communities on the Illinois side changed again and again. Business owners found creative ways to react to these re-routings: the owner of the Old Log Cabin Inn restaurant in Pontiac had his business jacked up and rotated to a different angle so that it would face the new alignment.

But by the 1950s, Route 66 was becoming obsolete, in spite of a road-widening effort championed by Governor William Stratton. More traffic and higher speeds created dangerous driving conditions on the road which was known in some areas as “Bloody 66” because of the large number of accidents. In the mid-1950s, the Interstate highway system was created as a way to quickly and safely move people and goods from coast to coast. Before long, sections of Interstate began replacing Route 66, and bypassing town after town. In Illinois, Interstate 55 soon took the place of Route 66. By 1977, the entire route had been replaced and Route 66 was officially decommissioned.

But a story as important to American history as Route 66 could not end with a whimper. Communities along the route banded together to preserve the unique local quirks of the highway as it passed through their towns. Identical interstate exists with chain restaurants, hotels, gas stations and truck stops just did not hold the same appeal as the mom-and-pop diners, motels, curio shops and roadside attractions that had sprung up all along Route 66.

Soon Route 66 had a rebirth, including here in Illinois. In 1989, the Route 66 Association of Illinois was created to help in local historic preservation efforts. State government got involved in the 1990s, making Route 66 a state heritage tourism project. Finally, in 2005, Route 66 in Illinois was designated a National Scenic Byway. During that time, brown “Historic Route 66” signs began appearing in cities and towns across Illinois, including right in front of the State Capitol building. Today, Route 66 tourism has become an industry all its own, and the highway has recaptured a part of its former glory.

In towns all along the route in Illinois, Route 66 festivals and events are a part of the landscape. Some of the many events include the Route 66 Red Carpet Festival which stretches from Towanda to Joliet in May; or its southern-section counterpart the Miners, Mobsters and the Mother Road (formerly the Blue Carpet Corridor Festival) which runs from Virden to Collinsville in June. A long list of local festivals dot the route, including Macoupin County’s Black Diamond Days and Edwardsville’s Route 66 Festival and car cruise-in during June, and the Lincoln Balloon Festival in August (fuller list here).

Many of those local attractions in Illinois have stood the test of time, or been added or renewed in recent years. Pontiac is the home of the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum and Bloomington recently opened its new Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center in the McLean County Museum of History. There are also Route 66 museums in Litchfield and Joliet, just to name a few. Smaller attractions dot the roadside, like the wayside exhibits at Sprague’s Super Service 1931 service station in Normal, Carlinville’s “Million dollar courthouse,” the Ambler-Becker Texaco Station in Dwight, Atlanta’s Paul Bunyan statue and the “Gemini Giant” in Wilmington, among many, many others. Historic small-town business districts with local restaurants can be experienced all along the highway, many of them preserved or renovated to their classic mid-20th century appearance.

All along Route 66 in Illinois, local governments and civic groups have worked to preserve the history that the iconic highway brought to our state. Both the Route 66 Association and the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway maintain a wide-ranging directory of local attractions, events and festivals, as well as food and lodging information and even sample travel itineraries for a Route 66 road trip in Illinois.