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About 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.

The 3 Alignments

While Route 66 has been viewed as a constant in the cultural identity of many Americans, it has always been an ever adapting ribbon of highway that has been shaped by transportation and American history. As the vehicles that traveled the Mother Road evolved, so did the pavement. Illinois has attempted to preserve this story through the preservation of three active alignments. Each segment preserves the story surrounding the evolution of the automobile and the story of the travelers of that era.


While Route 66 did not exist until 1926, in 1924 State Bond Issue 4 (SBI 4) was a route that was created from existing roads and paved to create an all weather road that connected Chicago to St. Louis. The 1926 alignment of Route 66 follows SBI 4 and is the reason that Illinois was the first state to boast having Route 66 paved from end to end. Prohibition was in effect from 1920 until 1933 and an all weather road made the transportation of illegal alcohol possible virtually all year long. Production stills located in central and southern Illinois could easily ship alcohol on Route 66 to speakeasies in Chicago and St. Louis. There is still pavement in use today that was laid between 1922 and 1924 (SBI 4, later Rte. 66) and is characterized by a road width of only 18’-20’. The average speed was 25 mph, cars share the road with horse and-drawn vehicles, and tractors. Mechanical problems were frequent in the relatively new transportation technology and it is for that reason that this alignment passes through so many small towns.


Rum running is in full swing until prohibition is repealed in 1933. Cars now have a top speed of 60 - 80 mph. Speed limits are now set by states and municipalities and the moniker “Bloody 66” is widely used. By 1936 the Chicago to St. Louis portion of Route 66 is the heaviest traveled long-distance highway in the state. As a result the Road is re-routed to bypass larger more congested communities such as Springfield and Joliet. By 1940, a maximum speed limit is set at 70mph. It is also during this period that picnic and rest areas are recognized as a necessary part of highway planning.


In June of 1940, as WWII raged in Europe, President Roosevelt asked for a study on the use of the Nation’s highways to meet defense needs. The result was the Highways for the National Defense report which identified two types of defense roads; Roads required for defense operations and roads required to improve the strategic network of defense roads. Route 66 played a significant strategic role in the war time efforts including transportation of personnel and equipment and munitions. The next significant redesign occurs in 1951 and exceeds all other redesigns since 1928. The 1956 Highway Act began the construction of the Interstate Highway System which ultimately replaced Route 66 as the main transportation route west. Many sections of Route 66 became I-55 by the end of 1956. By 1977 the Mother Road was deemed obsolete in Illinois, as much of it had been replaced by Interstate 55. The last sign was removed on January 17, 1977. The entire road was decommissioned on June 27, 1985.