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Route 66

Illinois
Route 66

Route 66

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Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and the eastern end of Route 66.

The day the signs came down for Route 66 in Illinois it was the end of an era. On January 17th in 1977 the once celebrated highway was no more in Illinois so the American Association of Highway Officials thought. But Route 66 was hard to forget. It was remembered in song, fiction and film. In the Land of Lincoln Illinois Route 66 had a special place in the history of the state. Illinois Route 66 had followed the original State Route 4 from Chicago to East St. Louis and was the first fully paved highway in Illinois. This original road, christened the Pontiac Trail in 1915, began as an unpaved route connecting Chicago with the Mississippi River and St. Louis. The Pontiac Trail was touted as the shortest distance between Chicago and St. Louis. Its path intersected many major east-west routes and its importance was recognized early on. In 1918 the route was designated State Bond Issue 4 when a $60 million bond issue was passed for the construction of paved roads in the state. Not much was done with the road until 1921 when road construction began in earnest. By the time Route 66 was born SBI 4 was completely paved. In 1927 Route 66 signs went up along SBI 4 in Illinois and across the land. With the passage of time Route 66 would capture a nation’s attention and become the legendary road to the Pacific.
    

Soulsby Service Station, Mount Olive, Illinois

Route 66 started in Chicago and connected the mid-west with the fabled lands of the far-west and Golden California. Those Route 66 signs marked the highway for 50 years in Illinois. Then Interstate 55 replaced the old Mother Road as the nation demanded better roads. But Route 66 was a highway the nation couldn’t forget. It symbolized the great open road and freedom. Route 66 was a cross section of the heart of America; it epitomized the very soul of this great land. In Illinois the people certainly didn’t forget Route 66 either. The Illinois Route 66 Association has done a fine job of bringing the Route 66 Experience to a whole new generation of road wanderers. The old alignments of Route 66 are clearly marked, right down to the dates of operation! The historic preservation movement in Illinois is great and serves as an example of what historic preservation is all about.
     
Illinois has a history that goes back over two hundred years – not counting the Native Americans of course. Fur trappers and explorers first traveled the old Indian Trails and waterways in search of wealth and the fabled Northwest Passage - a water route linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. In a vastly unexplored land I can well imagine what those early explorers thought when they beheld the Mighty Mississippi and the seemingly endless expanse of the Great Lakes. Certainly there was a route to the Pacific Ocean somewhere around here, all that water there just had to be. Of course the Northwest Passage proved to be only a fable, but the importance of the territory that would become Illinois didn’t go unnoticed. The history of Illinois has been intrinsically wound around the history of transportation and trade. First it was the waterways, those 18th and 19th century forerunners of the modern Interstates, then the trails and the railroad that made Illinois the crossroads of America. Into this scheme of things Route 66 found its place. And it fit quite nicely too.
    
Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and Springfield was his town. Long before Route 66 would wind through the center of this historic capital of Illinois, Lincoln walked its streets. He practiced law here and gave his speeches in the historic Illinois capitol building, now preserved as a historic monument. Lincoln left Springfield to serve as President of the United States during one of the worst times in our country’s history, the Civil War. And returned to Springfield as a fallen hero, a casualty of that very same war. Today the Lincoln Home and Lincoln’s Tomb are among the state’s most visited attractions, as they were in the days of Route 66.

Lincoln's Home, Springfield, Illinois
Lincoln's Home in Springfield

     

Sculpture at Lincoln's Tomb

Bronze sculptures at Lincoln's Tomb provide a powerful image of a Nation at War. Here, beneath the marble and encased in concrete for eternity lie the remains of one of America's greatest heroes ~ Abraham Lincoln.

   
The importance of Route 66 and how it played into the drama that shaped the early 20th century landscape of Illinois is evident. Outside of Chicago the old roadway saw plenty of excitement I imagine. I can’t help but visualize gangsters and rumrunners speeding down the old Mother Road here. Okay, I admit it, I’m a hopeless romantic, but that helps make Route 66 so much fun for me.
    
This is the country of Al Capone and it seems he really got around too! Speaking of old Al, I've heard it said that he was one of the biggest supporters of old Route 66 and getting it paved. I believe he realized that it would be easier to move his booze and get away from the law if it were paved. He was right too. Route 66 became the road of choice for Al Capone and many of the other famous Chicago gangsters in their pursuit of untold wealth. Route 66 in Illinois is full of tales of prohibition, bootleg whiskey, speakeasies, rumrunners and gangsters. At every turn and every roadhouse there are stories of famous gangsters and daring escapades it seems. Today these stories are still being told of the wild old days, giving historic Route 66 in Illinois a charm of mythic proportions. Are these stories true? Perhaps, then again perhaps not. Are they interesting and entertaining to hear? You had better believe it.

Al Capone
Al Capone

     
The many small towns along Illinois Route 66 contain little pockets of delightful Mother Road nostalgia. Old gas stations, motor courts, famous cafes and even a Maple Grove await the intrepid road explorer around the bend. Many of the Illinois Route 66 towns are guardians of this precious heritage of vintage architecture, roadside attractions, and fine cuisine – probably one of the finest being the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield (If Lincoln were alive today I’m sure he would be a regular customer).
     

The Odell Station

In Odell, the Illinois Route 66 Association has restored a vintage gas station from the early years of Route 66. The Odell Standard Station ranks as one of the most original and best-preserved stations from the 1920s in my opinion. But there’s so much more to be found on Route 66 in Illinois. Every small town seems to have something of interest. From Frank Loyd Wright architecture, pioneer grain elevators, beautiful courthouses, unique buildings and nostalgic highway hangouts, Illinois Route 66 has something for everybody.
    
Hungry? How about a real road original, the Cozy Dog? The Cozy Drive-In in Springfield is another classic place that serves up a memorable (in a good way) meal to the Route 66 road wanderer. And who could forget the one-of-a-kind family owned establishment that actually predates Route 66 by about a hundred years, Funk’s Grove? Funk’s Grove is home of the world renowned Funk’s Grove Maple Sirup. Yes, that’s how it’s spelled. That’s the real old fashioned way to spell Syrup, and Funk Grove Maple Sirup is definitely the real thing!
   
Thanks to the dedicated businesses, the Illinois Route 66 Association and her preservationists, state organizations, and individuals like you Route 66 will not be forgotten in Illinois. Journey down the Mother Road here and see the sights to be seen. Take a cyber tour of this great state and its celebrated highway. Route 66 is frozen in time on the pages that follow - a moment only on a forever-evolving highway. Route 66 may no longer be a certified US Highway but her legend continues to grow. Vintage Pumps at Shea's Gas Station

 

Details of Illinois Route 66 from a 1936 Shell Oil Highway Map:

[St. Louis Area]    [Springfield Area]   [Bloomington Area]   [Odell-Dwight Area]   [Chicago Area]

Photographs taken September 2002 and June 2003

Click on an area or city of Route 66 on the map below to take a cyber tour of that section of the  Mother Road

Travel Cyber Route 66 in Illinois

Go West on Route 66

NAVIGATION NOTE: Buckle up and hold on to your mouse! These pages are arranged like the map above, from the western state border to the eastern state border. I have set up this site as if you were traveling from EAST to WEST, much like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. You can click on the Route 66 shields to "travel" the Mother Road in either direction though. Or you can select any shield below to take you to that specific state.

Go East on Route 66

Chain of Rocks
Bridge

Begin East Rt. 66
Chicago

 

Select the Route 66 State to Visit

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