HISTORY OF ILLINOIS ROUTE 66
Route 66 is the most famous road in America. Generations of travelers have romanticized this highway as a symbol of unlimited mobility and freedom of the road. Its iconic status is enhanced by the unprecedented volume of music, books, films, and other art forms that depict it as the essence of America's highway culture.
It was born in 1926 as part of the new numbered highway network and quickly grew to be the preferred road west for a nation on the move. U.S. Highway 66 was not as old or as long as some other transcontinental routes like the Yellowstone or the Lincoln Highway but it quickly gained fame as the shortest, year-round route between the Midwest and the coast as it passed through the fabled landscape of the American Southwest. The construction of this thin, ribbon of road helped to transform the American West from an isolated frontier to an economically vital region of the country and made it accessible to anyone with a car.
In its lifetime this celebrated road witnessed a continuum of highway and transportation evolution from Ford Model Ts plodding through rutted dirt to the rise of the monolithic American Interstate Highway System. Route 66 was the most well known road in a national network of public highways which succeeded in uniting a huge, dispersed nation into a cohesive whole.
During its heyday, Route 66 mirrored the mood of the nation.
During the Great Depression, it became the Road of Flight for farm families escaping the Dust Bowl. In his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck christened it the Mother Road and it has carried that moniker ever since. Even this monumental exodus was but a single surge in the mass movement of humans in the nation's history. Another was the post-World War II movement of ex GIs and their families to join the booming California job market. In the post war recovery years, optimism pervaded the national attitude. Times were good and people traveled. American families took two week vacations to drive 66 and see the wonders of the West and the new California scene. In the 1960s, the "Hippie" counterculture lured thousands of the nation's disenchanted youth west on 66, hitchhiking or packed into microbuses. The old highway is a road of dreams.
Part of the charm of Route 66 is its idiosyncratic personality. Like a giant carnival Midway, this corridor of neon signs and gaudy roadside attractions was embraced by the traveling public as an exciting diversion from ordinary life. A trip on Route 66 promised an exhilarating pilgrimage where one might discover the unknown and experience the unusual. Route 66 is synonymous with fun and adventure.
What made Route 66 an intimate adventure also made it dangerous. "Bloody 66" was totally accessible. It twisted through congested cities, crossed railroads on grade, and was riddled with blind corners and hazardous cross traffic. Every incremental improvement that was made to safely accommodate the increasing traffic brought the engineering closer to the Interstate Highway solution that would succeed the old road.
Route 66 achieved a mythic status in American culture that could not be replaced by a safer but soulless super highway system. Mythical 66 refused to die. Illinois was the first state to hard surface the highway and the first to replace it with Interstate. It was where Route 66 began and finally, where it was officially ended.
Route 66, stripped of its signs and removed from highway maps, appeared destined to become a forgotten footnote in history. Almost 2,500 miles of pavement, the great neon corridor, was faded, less traveled, and in places, harder to find but still there and waiting to be rediscovered. By 1984, when Interstate 40 bypassed the last stretch of Route 66 in Arizona, a movement was already developing to resurrect the old road. It might not be the corridor west that it once was, but it could still be a road where travelers could experience the landscape and a time before franchises and freeways swallowed up the old route. The scale of the road corridor and its interface with the communities it connects allows travelers to experience the local sense of place in ways that super highways cannot achieve.
On March 5, 1989, the Route 66 Association of Illinois was formed with the purpose to "preserve, promote and enjoy the past and present of U.S. Highway 66." Since their establishment, this group has developed historic route markers, traveler's guides, museums, and signs to highlight attractions. Many tangible relics of the old road have been saved as a result of their efforts.
In the late 1990s, Illinois Route 66 was designated a "state heritage tourism project." Illinois Route 66 Heritage Project, Inc. was developed to manage the initiative. This non-profit, 501(c)3 organization received a grant from the State of Illinois, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Bureau of Tourism to develop a Corridor Management Plan. This was a requirement for designation as a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transportation. On September 22, 2005, Illinois Historic Route 66 was designated a National Scenic Byway.