Route 66 in Illinois

In the national mythology surrounding Route 66, the roadway had a distinctly east-to-west directional movement, since it was this roadway that carried travelers from the American heartland to the Pacific Ocean.  The starting point of the storied road was in Chicago, and from these beginnings, Route 66 traveled southwest through numerous towns, eventually arriving in Missouri and linking Chicago to St. Louis before continuing on through several other states on its way to Santa Monica, California.

Beginning in 1916, with the National Road Act, efforts to put an east-west road together led to the eventual formation, in 1926, of Route 66, when the official numeric designation was used for the first time.  Once the roadway became recognized as the most important east-west corridor between the Midwest and California, people began to travel on it in large numbers, and numerous restaurants, truck stops, full service stations, motor courts and souvenir shops began to spring up in the towns and cities along its route.  The road was so heavily traveled, in fact, that by the 1930s much of the original two-lane configuration for the highway was starting to be replaced by a new four-lane configuration.  Sometimes the new four-lane configuration, which continued to be built in stages from the late 1930s until after World War II, bypassed the towns the route had originally traveled through, and so the businesses that had depended on the highway moved closer to the highway, or sank back into obscurity.

According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Route 66 in Illinois, the highway “was especially important to Illinois and the Midwest and many small, sleepy towns came to life as the road snaked its way through them.”  Many a small business along its length in Illinois and elsewhere depended completely upon the highway, and died out quickly when the Mother Road was replaced by the Interstate highway system.  This replacement was made possible by the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the building of the new Interstate Highway system.  Eventually, Route 66 in Illinois was replaced by I-55, which became the new primary route from Chicago to St. Louis.

There were stories to be had all along Route 66 in Illinois.  At Grant Park, in Chicago, where Route 66 officially began, the history of the roadway as an official entity came to an end when the signs for Route 66 were removed in order to be replaced by signs for I-55, the Interstate that replaced the old highway in Illinois.  A little-known fact about Route 66’s inception is that it did not originally begin in Grant Park – it began in Cicero, a town immediately west of Chicago.  The road’s predecessor, State Bond Issue (SBI) 4, began there, and it was while Route 66 was still known as SBI 4 that it was completely paved between Chicago and St. Louis, making it the only part of the roadway, along with the brief 14-mile stretch in Kansas, to have this distinction.  The changeover from SBI 4 to Route 66 became official in 1927, when the signs for the former were replaced by the distinctive black and white “66” shields.

During the course of its history, Route 66 shifted its route several times in Illinois, and some towns were bypassed in the process.  Some of the many towns that Route 66 traveled through in Illinois, according to Michael Wallis’s Route 66: The Mother Road, included “Godley, Braceville, Gardner, Dwight, Odell, Cayuga, Pontiac, Ocoya, Chenoa, Lexington, Towanda, Normal, Bloomington, Shirley, Funks Grove, McLean, Atlanta, Lawndale, Lincoln, Broadwell, Elkhart, Williamsville, Sherman, Springfield, Glenarm, Divernon, Farmersville, Waggoner, Litchfield, Mount Olive, Livingston, Staunton, Hamel, Edwardsville, Mitchell, Nameoki, Granite City, Madison, and Venice.”  The towns on this compendious list bear the distinction of having been part of history.  Although in some of these places it may seem as though history has passed them by, many of them still bear traces of a time when the most famous U.S. Highway in America put them on the map.  Some town have revived their connection to this past by restoring gas stations and restaurants and other old Route 66 businesses.