“Main Street of America”, Route 66 is probably the most well known road in America. It’s been featured hundreds of times in American literature and film, from symbolizing escape and grief in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to the backdrop of Radiator Springs just off Route 66 but forgotten after ‘the Mother Road’ (another Steinbeck reference) was bypassed by Interstate 40.
From Illinois, or perhaps most of the country, Route 66 always looks westward- showing the horizon of the spiritual architecture of Americana. This westerly orientation makes sense, when it opened in 1926 as part of the U.S. Highway System, Route 66 began in Chicago and ran diagonally across the state, like a 300 mile asphalt vein through The Prairie State. You can virtually drive the entirety of “Old U.S. Route 66” in about 3 hours on Google Maps’ street view, but you wouldn’t get the full story of Route 66 before it was largely replaced by the speedier and beefier Interstate 55. Items from our contributors at Towanda Area Public Library, Illinois State Library, Illinois State University, and McLean County Museum of History, capture the spirit of Illinoisan Route 66 as it was in the 1940’s.
Like most roads, Route 66 repurposed other roads and trails, laying a new physical and administrative infrastructure on top of historic passages and routes far preceding car culture. In the earliest part of the 20th century, people traveled between Chicago and Saint Louis on the “Pontiac Trail ”- a native trail, turned unpaved stagecoach byway that travelled southwest through Springfield and the St. Louis area. By 1915 it became IL-4, and ran parallel to Chicago Alton Railroad.
The relationship between railroad and road was hot in Illinois. Railroads connected metropolitan areas, small farm towns along the railroads. Towns grew and farmers needed roads to ship their crop. Dirt roads weren’t enough, the roads of Illinois in 1910 were hardly better than the Illinois roads of 1818 according to historian David Wrone. The compact prairie sod was all too vulnerable to the elements; quick to become deep mud that a horse drawing cargo had difficulty picking its way through, and according to Donald Tingley, prompted “automobile pioneers [to store] their machines in the barn until spring. In the summer the mud turned into dust almost as deep.” Motorists, farmers, bankers and cyclists alike began organizing, building associations and committees that sought to advocate for better roads, and investigate solutions. The Tice Road Law of 1913 provided state assistance on roadside improvement for any county which was willing to build and maintain their roads. The Illinois Highway Department integrated a system to connect towns through highways. Illinois’ road story received another push in 1916 when the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, granting Illinois roughly three million dollars between 1917 and 1922.
The newness of these paved roads were politically advantageous for Illinois. Minimal construction meant that the route could open to traffic almost immediately in 1926. The flatness of Route 66 made it a popular truck route. The trucking industry stimulated the local economies it drove through, with small outposts of hotels, restaurants and diners, filling stations, roadside attractions to attract attention for money traveling through.
With the outbreak of World War II, the highway’s importance exploded as a road for military convoys and equipment transportation. Much of the original pavement was still in service but in poor condition from heavy truck traffic. The Federal Highway Defense Act sought to modernize the highway system, make repairs where needed, and establish a strategic highway network in preparation for war.
The Federal Highway Defence changed the roads dramatically. Two-lane highways became four-lanes. Route 66’s past as a long vein of county, windy, country roads, had been central to its character. Landmarks were named after it’s most dangerous parts. Illinois newspapers counted pile-ups, injuries, deaths of travellers. So-called “Dead Man’s Curve” in Towanda– a slim sharp curve, was especially treacherous for speeding drivers from Chicago who misjudged the sharpness they’d have to navigate. New portions circumvented these dangerous parts like these.
When car and tourism culture took off in the 1950’s the kitschy infrastructure had been well established with its legacy of trucking, and the roads were now safe enough to travel with your family in tow.
So, what did the impact of the interstate highway system have on its predecessors? Even while Route 66 was booming with roadside traffic and tourism in mid-1950’s, planning to make it obsolete was already in legislation. The improvements that had been made in the 1940’s to create a strategic highway network of small roads were left in the dust of Eisenhower’s vision for the Interstate Highway System. Inspired by the Reichschautobahn system, Eisenhower saw a fast and safe highway, as critical for economic growth defense, if it was ever needed.
1957. Parts of Route 66 were already being chosen for sections of I-55, I-74, or I-190. Route 66 was travelled less and less, left in increasingly worse disrepair- from over-use and then neglect. The mother road was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System on June 27, 1985. Community efforts have since surged attempting to preserve the highway’s particularity and celebrate it’s off-beat culture that lined rural America for three decades. Cities in Illinois began to register stretches of the route under the Register of Historic Places, citing both the engineering and cultural significance that preceded the interstate and knitted together rural communities alongside the road.
For more of Route 66 from our contributors, click here.