Route 66

Chicago is the eastern end of historic Route 66, the most iconic American road trip ever. If you drive the route through downtown and the Near West Side today, you have to take Adams Street westbound because Jackson Boulevard, the route's original path, is now one way east.

[more]

Jackson was a two-way boulevard when U.S. Route 66 opened in 1926 as part of the U.S. Route System; Adams wasn't added until nearly 30 years later. So why was Adams included at all? The short answer is expedience, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

The switch happened during the height of Route 66's popularity: the mid-1950s. (Pictured below: looking west on the corner of Michigan and Adams, 1950.) That's when The Berghoff, the Marquette Building, the Field Building, the Rookery, the Continental & Commercial National Bank Building (now the J.W. Marriott Chicago) and historic Old St. Patrick's Church became part of the route. By then, Jackson had been a boulevard for more than half a century and had been periodically widened. Boulevards, many of which linked major city parks, were the responsibility of the Chicago Park, which had to approve any alterations along them.

Michigan and Adams in 1950

Outside the central city, most of the Loop's thoroughfares became side streets. Jackson, however, had been a boulevard since 1896; it was a main artery into the Loop as well as a main street through the West Side and a few close-in suburbs (it still is). In December 1926, just one month after Route 66 opened, Jackson already carried about 28 percent of the average weekday traffic going in and out of the Loop. It soon carried a lot of Route 66 traffic as well.

None of that was true about Adams, which was one-way west, narrower than Jackson, and choked with downtown weekday traffic. Most streets in the Loop first became one way during the early 20th century, but that flirtation didn't last long. In September 1928, even the West Park Commission briefly considered making both Jackson and Washington Boulevards one-way east during morning rush hour and one-way west in the evening, to ease traffic; but protests about bus route disruption and inconvenience to commuters quickly put an end to that idea. Loop streets didn't become one way again until the post-war era.

During construction on Wacker Drive in 1951, the city designated all downtown streets other than Jackson, Michigan Avenue, State Street, Congress Boulevard and Wacker as alternating direction one-way streets. The plan worked well enough to ease traffic while the roadwork continued. However, some folks complained that Jackson hadn't been included in the plan because the city couldn't redirect traffic on the boulevards - it had to ask the park district to do that, and the park district was free to refuse, as indeed it had that time.

The following year (1952), the last trolley line on Adams was discontinued, and its street rails were paved over. With the trolleys gone, Adams got roomier for other traffic but was still narrower than a boulevard. Route 66 remained on Jackson. Then, more street construction began downtown in January 1953. The Grant Park Underground Garage was being built at Monroe Street and Michigan, and that intersection was to be closed for the duration (up to a year, per some estimates). The closure affected not only Michigan Avenue but all traffic downtown.

This time, the park district cooperated. Jackson was temporarily designated one-way eastbound, starting at Canal Street, and its westbound traffic was temporarily redirected onto either Adams or Van Buren Street. But that was only the beginning. The following month, work began on the Jackson Street Bridge (below, in 2014) and on Wacker Drive (when it rains, it pours), and a few lanes on Jackson had to be closed while the section from Franklin Street eastward remained one way eastbound. All this roadwork absolutely required temporarily detouring westbound Route 66 onto Adams for many months.

Jackson Boulevard Bridge

As hoped, the one-way street designations did speed traffic through the Loop - so when construction ended, the city wanted to leave things that way. However, city officials had to petition the park district board to change Jackson to a one-way boulevard, and then the commissioners had to vote on it. They didn't hurry. On Oct. 27, 1953, the park district voted to make Jackson Boulevard one-way east from Campbell Street on the West Side to Franklin downtown, where it had already become one way during construction; but that didn't end the matter.

In theory, once Jackson became one way eastbound, Route 66 westbound was automatically ‘rerouted' onto Adams Street at Michigan Avenue. In reality, however, that couldn't happen until the state okayed the move and the route signs had been changed, which was some time later (exactly when is unclear). Why? Because only the state had the power to officially alter Route 66's path - and things moved so slowly at the park district and state levels that apparently it took until 1955 for the change to become official ... by which time all of the aforementioned construction projects were finished.

But wait: there's more. When U.S. Route 41 was moved from Michigan Avenue to Lake Shore Drive sometime after the Outer Drive Bridge was completed and Lake Shore had become a major traffic artery, the starting point of U.S. Route 66 was moved east a few blocks to Jackson Drive and Lake Shore, so that it would still meet Route 41. The starting point remained there until Route 66 was decommissioned in Illinois in late 1976 (the route signs in the city were removed in January 1977).

However, when the route was revived in Illinois as a historic road two decades later and then designated a National Scenic Byway another decade after that, historic Route 66 once again began at Jackson and Michigan - and from there immediately slid over to Adams Street for the westbound section through the Loop and West Loop.

So: that Begin Historic Route 66 sign on Adams west of Michigan is still technically in the wrong place. 

Maria R. Traska is an independent journalist, author, historian, blogger, occasional deejay and editor of CuriousTraveler66.com, The Curious Traveler's Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago blog. 

Photos: Michigan and Adams intersection, 1950 by Joe+Jeanette Archie via flickr; Jackson Boulevard Bridge by Maria Traska