John Steinbeck wrote about it, Bobby Troup put it to music while driving along it, Nat ‘King' Cole turned it into a pop-chart hit almost overnight, and Stirling Silliphant made it into a cult 1960s TV show. A parabolic arc that connected the Third Coast to the West Coast, U.S. Route 66 linked the Midwest to the Pacific in a southern route that didn't close through the mountains during winter. Everyone who had a car and needed to reach California drove it - blue-collar truckers, movie stars, Dust Bowl escapees, Army transports, and millions of people headed out on family vacations.
Anyone who knows the words to Troup's road anthem "Get Your Kicks On Route 66" knows that "It winds from Chicago to L.A., more than two thousand miles all the way." Its path ran through eight states and multiple changes of landscape - from the day it was born during the Roaring Twenties, to the day it was decommissioned in Illinois in 1976 (being mostly replaced by Interstate 55), to the 1990s when it was reborn as a historic road, to 2005 when it was designated a National Scenic Byway in Illinois. Chicago remains Route 66's eastern terminus. But where, exactly, does it begin?
Well, it doesn't begin on Adams Street where the Begin Route 66 sign is posted. That's only there to keep traffic from getting snarled up, so that drivers on a road trip know they're headed in the right direction. Besides, Adams wasn't even part of the route for the first three decades of its existence.
To clarify where Route 66 begins, you only have to ask when it began - and that was on November 11, 1926, when the American Association of State Highway Officials voted at its annual meeting to approve the new U.S. Route System, which they and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Bureau of Public Roads had taken two years to create. Like all other U.S. Routes, Route 66 was overlaid as much as possible on already existing highways. The streets and roads chosen for Route 66 in Illinois were Jackson Boulevard, Ogden Avenue, Joliet Road and Illinois Route 4, also known as SBI 4 because a state bond initiative had financed its paving.
Why these? IL 4 was built on the old Chicago-to-St. Louis stagecoach road, which dated back to the early 1800s; it was the major highway in the state and by the early 1900s was known as the Pontiac Trail. Jackson was a wide boulevard where cable cars, trolleys, trams and commercial traffic were banned; it could handle heavy automobile traffic. Ogden, another important traffic artery where trolleys were banished to parallel side streets, had once been the Southwestern Plank Road, which dated back to the 1840s. Ogden radiated west-southwest from Chicago, past Mud Lake and the Chicago Portage toward Naperville. Connecting Ogden and IL 4 was Joliet Road, a former stagecoach road that began in Lyons near the portage and curved along the Des Plaines River through Romeoville to Joliet.
A key goal of the new system was to connect all the routes. U.S. 41, a major north-south highway, was charted down Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago because it was a main street with a bridge across the river. In contrast, Lake Shore Drive only existed for a few blocks north of the river, and to the south its forerunner was merely a service road in Grant Park; they didn't connect. Therefore, the route planners began Route 66 at Jackson and Michigan, where it met U.S. 41. This intersection became the Gateway to Route 66.
The sight from that spot in November 1926 was daunting - and breathtaking. The Art Institute of Chicago was the only structure on the east side of Michigan for blocks on either side, except for the Fountain of the Great Lakes next to it, added in 1913 (that's the real public artwork that serves as a marker for Route 66). Most of the AIC we know and love today was already there: the main section, completed in 1893, and six additions made between 1898 and 1924. Grant Park was a treeless construction zone: electrifying and lowering the nearby rail lines below grade, begun in 1919, had been completed barely four months earlier. Architect Daniel Burnham's ideas for transforming the park hadn't yet been put into practice by his surviving partner Edward H. Bennett, who would ultimately design both Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain, which wasn't even a hole in the ground then.
On the southwest corner was the Art Deco style Straus Building (1924, now Metropolitan Tower, above), built for the investment banking firm of S.W. Straus & Company and designed by a Burnham successor firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. On the northwest corner stood Burnham's headquarters - his 1904 Railway Exchange Building, where he and Bennett wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago and which is now home to the Chicago Architecture Foundation - and next to it, the Burnham-designed Georgian Revival Orchestra Hall (1904), home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which Burnham himself was a director. Further north at Adams was Burnham's Peoples' Gas, Light & Coke Co. Building (1911). And as director of construction for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Burnham had influenced the choice of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge as architects of the Art Institute - because that building was first used for lectures and other events that were part of the fair. Given all that, one could call that lineup All Burnham All The Time. It was very impressive.
What is even more impressive is that these same structures remain more than a century later, essentially unchanged and waiting for you to discover them. Anyone who stands on the Jackson Drive Bridge and looks west will literally see what those very first motorists on Route 66 saw on November 11, 1926. It's like looking back in time - and you can arrange your own time travel by taking a CAF tour (or doing your own walkabout) of the structures on those three corners. What route-roadie wouldn't love that?
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.