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The ever-famous Historic Route 66 begins in Chicago for you Illinois travelers – coursing southeast through quaint and impressive cities like Joliet, Pontiac, McLean, and so much more.
Where it all begins. Chicago (pop. 2.7 million) is the hub of the Midwest, the third largest city in the U.S. and according to Forbes magazine, the world’s fifth most economically powerful city.
Chicago’s rich history includes fire and rebirth, gangsters, colorful politics, a rich pattern of immigration, music, culture and deep-dish pizza, just to name a few things. From its founding due to a portage between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds (we’ll discuss that in more detail shortly), Chicago has always been a major transportation hub. To aid in helping railroad schedules, the time zones for North America were first standardized in Chicago in 1883. Two years later, it became the birthplace of the skyscraper and for 24 years, the 110-story Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was the tallest building in the world (as of 2011, it’s still the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.) Chicago O'Hare International Airport has perennially been the world’s busiest, and is always in the top three. The other major airfield, Chicago Midway International Airport, was the world’s busiest before O’Hare opened in late 1950s.
Chicago has always been a key location for corporate headquarters, among them Sears, Roebuck & Company; McDonald’s; Kraft Foods; Walgreens; Allstate Insurance; Boeing; United Airlines; Baxter International; Abbott Labs and more. Even newer companies like CareerBuilder.com and Groupon began in Chicago. Major league sports teams are plentiful: the Cubs and White Sox for baseball, the Bears for football, the Bulls for men’s basketball and Sky for women’s, the Blackhawks for hockey and the Fire for soccer. There is also a complement of minor-league teams in a variety of sports from the city and suburbs.
Chicago has a dizzying array of restaurants, museums, parks, cultural facilities, events and other points if interest. If we got into all of them here, there wouldn’t be time to drive Route 66. Many are concentrated where the Mother Road begins, including the world-famous Art Institute of Chicago, which sits along Michigan Avenue between Adams Street (the start of westbound 66) and Jackson Boulevard (the end of eastbound 66).
Before you start, there are two great Best Western locations right in downtown Chicago: the Best Western River North Hotel and the Best Western Grant Park Hotel.
Route 66 officially begins at the intersection of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue (eastbound ends one block south, at the corner of Jackson & Michigan). Just standing at the corner provides some terrific views: the Art Institute to your east, with Lake Michigan’s Monroe Harbor and Lake Shore Drive just behind it; the wall of buildings lining the west side of Michigan Avenue contrasting with the parkland of Grant Park, Millennium Park and Buckingham and Crown Fountains to the east; the glistening stainless steel sculpture known as Cloud Gate; one block away, an “el” (short for “elevated”) train line running along the top of Wabash Avenue; further west, the Willis Tower – formerly the Sears Tower – the tallest building in the western hemisphere and, at 1,707 feet, the world’s tallest building period from 1974 to 1996.
And, remember, that’s without even moving yet.
Heading east down Adams Street, you cross under the el tracks at Wabash and past a slew of retail store and office towers, all part of the bustling mix that makes Chicago one of the world’s most vibrant cities. To your left will be one of the city’s classic restaurants, The Berghoff (17 W. Adams Street, 312-427-3170). In fact, it’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Chicago and offers up a wide variety of German food and other fare. Berghoff began as a brewery in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1887, but the lure of exposing millions to his beer lured them to Chicago in time for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. The brewhouse landed on Adams Street, where it prospered until Prohibition, when they were forced to diversify to make up for a lack of (legal) alcohol sales – so The Berghoff became a full-service restaurant. Obviously, it turned out to be a great move.
Through this part of Chicago, which includes about a mile of the city’s famous Loop district, tall buildings line the street in a canyon-like configuration you’ll see nowhere else on all of Route 66. The biggest standout is, of course, the Willis Tower, which was the tallest building in the world when it was completed as the Sears Tower in 1974. Though the Petronas Towers in Malaysia surpassed it in 1998 and several others like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai have also reached up higher, the 1,729-foot structure is still the tallest in the Western Hemisphere and (as of 2011) the sixth tallest freestanding structure in the world. Bounded by eastbound Route 66 (Adams Street), westbound Route 66 (Jackson Blvd.), Wacker Drive and Franklin Street, the Willis Tower Skydeck is open for tours seven days a week and offers unparalleled views of Chicago, portions of Wisconsin, Indiana, outstate Illinois and lower Michigan on a clear day… when you can also see the entire lower end of Lake Michigan, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. As you might guess, pretty much everything is a superlative in Chicago.
Ambling over the Chicago River, you reach Union Station, a beautiful, classic, and busy train station that opened in 1925, replacing an earlier station on site that dated back to 1881. When you factor in the approaches and storage tracks, Union Station is almost ten city blocks in size, although much of it lies underground and beneath skyscrapers that tower above. A total of 24 tracks run into the station. It’s where in the 1976 film Silver Streak, a train crashed full-speed into the endpoint of a railroad line and sent debris everywhere. While its heyday was during World War II when over 100,000 passengers used the station every day, today about 60,000 commuters and passengers still use the station daily. Route 66 hugs the station on the north and south, as Adams and Jackson westbound and eastbound.
Beyond Union Station, Route 66 spans the incredibly busy Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) and begins its trek into city neighborhoods west of what’s known as “The Loop”. Westbound, you’re still on Adams and eastbound runs one block south via Jackson Boulevard.
The dense neighborhoods just west of Chicago’s Loop don’t last too long on Adams Street, as Route 66 turns at Ogden Avenue to begin heading southwest – the true direction for most of Route 66’s length across the nation. Ogden is a broader boulevard, ducking under railroad tracks, passing large medical complexes and factories and traversing a grittier part of the city than Adams does. When you reach Douglas Park, however, shortly after the intersection with Roosevelt Road, expect some beautiful parkland flanking the Mother Road.
Shortly after crossing Cermak Road, Route 66 leaves its city of origin and enters the suburb of Cicero, the first of hundreds of cities and towns you’ll encounter on your way to Los Angeles.
Cicero (pop. 80,550) is named after Cicero, New York, which was in turn named after Marcus Tillius Cicero, a Roman statesman. Al Capone, needing an escape from the watchful eye of the Chicago Police, moved to Cicero and working his empire from here – when he wasn’t escaping to the North Woods. Al and his “associates” followed Route 66 back and forth between the Chicago and Cicero constantly as they, um, worked. Cicero has quite the colorful history pertaining to organized crime – and that’s just the political leaders.
Named for a suburb of Philadelphia, Berwyn (pop. 54,000) formed in 1908 (the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series) by breaking off from its neighbor, Cicero. Berwyn embraces its piece of Route 66 with plenty of signs and a Vintage Car Show every September. You can also check out the Berwyn Route 66 Museum (7003 W. Ogden, 708-484-9349)
If you’re hungry or thirsty at this point, it wouldn’t hurt to stop for some grub or refreshments. Try Henry’s (6000 W. Ogden Ave.) or Tiger O’Stylies (6300 Ogden Ave., 708-795-1298) for everything from Old Style beer to Wi-Fi for e-mailing friends from the road (sample message: “Hey! 9 miles down, only 2,231 to go!”)
Route 66, as Ogden Avenue, is the main drag through Berwyn. At Illinois 43 (Harlem Avenue), you turn south briefly before angling southwest again through plenty of forest, part of the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve.
When you enter the woods, you’ve entered the village of Lyons (pop. 10,255). Lyons is home to the Chicago Portage National Historic Site, where the Native Americans showed Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673 that a short, half-mile land portage existed between the Illinois and Chicago rivers. This revealed an easy connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River waterways could be created with the digging of a short canal, essentially giving birth to the notion that it would be a good idea to create Chicago as a center for transportation, tasty deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches. This didn’t actually happen, however, for another 160 years – apparently they ran into some delays with the contractors or something.
The Chicago Portage NHS can be accessed within the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve, located just south along Harlem Avenue from where Route 66 branches off, at 47th Street.
Past Lyons, Route 66 goes through the village of McCook (pop. 254), which has the distinction of being the smallest municipality in Cook County (the largest, of course, is Chicago). This is heavy industrial area, littered with large factories – only of some of which are still functioning. At the interchange with Illinois Highway 171, you can head north about four miles and visit the Brookfield Zoo. One of the world’s top zoos, Brookfield Zoo covers 216 acres and holds over 450 species of animals. When it opened in 1934, it pioneered the use of moats and ditches rather than cages to separate and display the animals.
Past Highway 171, Route 66 as Joliet Road enters the city of Countryside (pop. 6,000).
Countryside was pretty much just countryside until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 convinced some city residents to relocate to what would be the suburbs – eventually. Countryside didn’t even incorporate until 1960.
At the intersection of Joliet Road (Route 66) and La Grange Road, you’re at an interesting crossroads… you have U.S. 12, which runs from Washington state to Detroit, U.S. 20, which runs from Oregon to Boston, and U.S. 45, which runs from Ontonagon, Michigan on the Lake Superior shore all the way down to the Gulf Coast at Mobile, Alabama… all on La Grange Road, and you’re crossing that on Route 66. It’s a hub without the recognition, basically. There’s been some comedy near here, though: in 1917, the Marx Brothers family bought a chicken farm nearby. Groucho Marx reportedly claimed that the farm failed because his brothers focused more on attending Chicago Cubs games at Wrigley Field than tending to the soil. Even stranger, this part of town is pretty firmly Chicago White Sox territory.
Joining I-55 for a spell. Just beyond Countryside, Route 66 ducks under I-294, the Tri-State Tollway, which is Chicago’s primary bypass highway. Within blocks, the old Joliet Road blends into modern-day I-55, running right over the former Route 66 pavement. For the first time on Route 66, you can legally drive 55 mph… at least for about 10 miles. High traffic volumes, however, might get in the way of this.
This stretch of I-55, known as the Stevenson Expressway, is quite busy. The Argonne National Laboratory, the first science and engineering research national laboratory in the U.S., lies just to the south between the Cass Avenue and Lemont Road exits. Early in its history, the Argonne National Lab played a role in the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb.
Just after a major interchange with I-355, you’ll see an exit off I-55 named “Joliet Road”. This is where the traditional Route 66 branches off and heads southwest by itself again.
The traditional Route 66 at this point also picks up the Illinois Route 53 designation, which pairs with it for quite a while.
This area is redeveloping with industrial parks and new residential, but a longtime resident is the White Fence Farm Restaurant (1376 Joliet Rd., 815-838-1500), which opened around 1955 on the old Route 66 and has developed quite a reputation for its chicken dinners ever since. It’s not only a restaurant, though; the White Fence Farm features a petting zoo with llamas, sheep and goats as well as an antique collection of cars, music boxes, guns and clocks.
Just after this point, Illinois Highway 53 joins Route 66 and continues with it for much of the ride into central Illinois.
Shortly after leaving I-55 but picking up Illinois 53, Route 66 enters Romeoville (pop. 37,000), a fast-growing place often nicknamed “Stone City” due to the proximity of several stone quarries nearby. Romeoville was originally named just “Romeo”, to twin with its nearby sister city at the time, Juliet. When Juliet renamed itself to Joliet in 1845, Romeo quickly added the “ville” to its name.
It’s always a bad idea to pick up hitchhikers, but it’s an especially bad idea between Romeoville and Joliet; going through Crest Hill, you’ll find Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center. Opened in 1925, what’s commonly referred to as “Stateville Prison” is right along Route 66. So if you see a bus with cages in the windows… yep, they’re probably on their way there.
Joliet (pop. 152,000) is quite the “Crossroads of Mid-America” location: Route 66 of course goes right through, but right downtown you intersect with two major east-west U.S. highways: U.S. 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental paved road in the United States; and U.S. 6, which runs from Provincetown, Massachusetts at the end of Cape Cod to Bishop, California… and it once ended with U.S. 66 right in downtown Los Angeles. On the Interstate side of things, I-80, an east-west highways starts at the George Washington Bridge as you leave New York City and ends right after you enter San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, intersects with I-55, a key north-south freeway from Chicago to New Orleans. They all meet in Joliet. It’s no wonder a big piece of Joliet’s economy deals with transportation.
We’re, of course, taking Route 66, the Mother Road… so let’s follow this mother.
Joliet is a fast-growing area, but its history dates to a cabin built in 1833 along the banks of the Des Plaines River. On the other side of the river, another settler named James Campbell laid out the first streets of a town he would name after his daughter, Juliet. (Romeoville, a few miles back, originally named itself “Romeo” in a Shakespearian nod). In 1845, residents voted to change the name to Joliet, presumably naming itself after French Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet, although they dropped an “l” in the process.
Heading into the city, a great stop is the “Kicks on 66” park, featuring an ice cream stand, a playground and numerous kiosks giving you the back story on this fabled road’s history with Joliet.
Trivia: Joliet is home to the first-ever Dairy Queen drive-in, and is also where the UNO card game was invented.
Stateville isn’t the only prison factoring into Joliet’s history. From its opening in 1858, the famous Joliet Prison was one of the largest in Illinois. The “Kicks on 66” park actually overlooks the prison. This is where John Belushi’s “Joliet Jake” character was released from prison in "The Blues Brothers"; TV shows like "Prison Break" have also used the facility; it’s also been immortalized in a range of songs by artists from rapper Cashis to folk rocker Bob Dylan.
Known as the “Jewel of Joliet”, the famous Rialto Square Theatre opened in 1926 as a vaudeville movie palace and then became a venue for all kinds of shows. The historic list of performers ranges from the Three Stooges, Carrot Top and Bill Cosby to Lawrence Welk, James Brown, Alice Cooper and Taylor Swift. In other words, a wide variety.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Visitors Center (204 N. Ottawa Street (Route 66), 815-723-5201) offers a wealth of information about Route 66’s journey through Illinois, as well as many gift-buying options. The Historical Museum chronicles much of Joliet’s colorful history and provides kids with plenty of interactive opportunities. They include wandering through a life-size replica that shows how the Illinois & Michigan Canal was built, heading down a turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th, not 20th into 21st) historical street with storefronts, virtual rides on a replica trolley and even attempting to land a lunar module.
As we mentioned before, the downtown crossings in Joliet include U.S. 30, which is the Lincoln Highway – the first cross-country highway, connecting New York City and San Francisco. Route 66 is, of course, the most famous. So while the intersection is fairly nondescript (except for some charming old-school gas pumps on the corners), it’s a very significant crossroads in our nation’s history.
Heading south through Joliet, you cross Interstate 80. Just east of the Des Plaines River and up Interstate 55 a few miles, you’ll find the Best Western Joliet Inn & Suites, a 60-room hotel with a conference center that offers plenty of amenities and a great location for launching a day’s ride ahead down into the heart of Illinois on Route 66.
Route 66 stays coupled with Illinois 53 south of Joliet for quite a while. You reach two major motor venues just south of town. One, the Chicagoland Speedway is a major tri-oval 1.5-mile track that opened in 2001. A major stop on the NASCAR circuit, it will host the first race in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup on September 16-18.
Adjacent is the Route 66 Speedway, which hosts a ¼ mile drag strip and a ½ mile dirt oval track. There’s also a road course on the ground, which covers two miles, a one-mile off-road track, and a 35-acre paved driving pad…all adjacent to the 2,400-mile Mother Road.
Route 66 skims the eastern edge of Elwood (pop. 2,800), although the growth this area is seeing (a major intermodal train facility recently opened here), the edges of Elwood will be growing quickly.
Trivia: Fires are common. But it’s rare for a fire station to burn down, and that’s exactly what happened in Elwood in 1995.
The “brother” to Joliet Jake in "The Blues Brothers" was Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood Blues character, named after this village that dates back to 1854. Elwood grew rapidly when the federal government built the Joliet Arsenal in the area in 1940, in anticipation of munitions needed for World War II. It continued as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant until the late 1970s.
Today, substantial portions of the land have been redeveloped or returned to nature, including the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the 19,000 acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (30239 S. State Route 53, 815-423-6370), established in 1996.
Through a series of the towns south of Elwood, there is a stretch where the road is straight as an arrow, paralleling the same railroad tracks that connect Chicago and St. Louis. On the other side, you’ll notice a parallel road on the west side of the tracks, which was Route 66 from 1930-1940. For most of its history (1926-1930, 1940-1984), Route 66 followed on the east side of the tracks; this is the route we’re following.
Just past Elwood lies Wilmington (pop. 5,134), which features not only the banks of the Kankakee River, but a sizeable island in the river, much of which consists of city parkland. Not coincidentally, Wilmington’s nickname is “The Island City”, which is saying something when you’re in central Illinois.
As car fans, we noticed the “old school” sign pointing you to Lombardi Chevy, and, right across the street, an original Route 66 drive-in called The Launching Pad. Once a drive-in, now it’s an eat-in only restaurant…and a tasty one at that. The Gemini Giant, one of the taller fiberglass figures in the state, is perched next to the Launching Pad looking like he’s ready to watch an episode of "The Jetsons."
Next up is Braidwood (pop. 6,000), home to a nuclear generating station that helps Chicago keep its lights on. Braidwood has always been a “power center” – it grew after a farmer digging for water in 1864 struck coal instead, prompting a flurry of companies to start mining.
The Polk-A-Dot Drive-In (222 N. Front Street, 815-458-3377) opened in the 1960s as a school bus painted with polka dots (we’re thinking “Partidge Family-esque” here) and today – in a permanent building – serves as a true 50s-style drive-in, catering heavily to Route 66 travelers. Their signature dish is the chili cheese fries, although an order to go could get messy in the car. The Polk-A-Dot is right on Route 66, which still doubles as Illinois 53 on this stretch. The burgers are tasty, and the smell of their fried chicken wafts over the parking lot in a heavenly fashion. The little jukeboxes in the sit-down booths inside work; as of this writing, J-2 was “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper.
Once you pass Gardiner and Illinois Route 53 ends, you turn onto an original stretch of Route 66 and begin a long run through the rest of the state where you’re often mere feet from I-55. The beeline southwest is a quick ride between towns. In many cases, this stretch of Route 66 was a divided, four-lane highway and today’s I-55 lanes supplant what were the southbound lanes. When I-55 bends away, the remnants of the old lanes show up. This happens time and time again through much of Illinois. Pretty much every time you see I-55 bend away, you’re about to approach a town.
One of them is Dwight (pop. 4,260). Like so many towns in this part of Illinois, Dwight was founded in the 1850s and focused on its connection to the railroad. Today’s Amtrak Station is Dwight’s refurbished 1891 depot and serves riders connecting to Chicago or St. Louis. The rest of downtown Dwight is built around the station.
TRIVIA: Dwight was named in 1854; in 1858 there was an attempt to rename it “Dogtown.” It failed.
A good stop is the former Ambler’s Texaco Gas Station, located along Route 66 at Illinois Highway 17 in Dwight. This was the longest continuously-operating gas station on Route 66, lasting (not coincidentally) 66 years. They stopped pumping gas here for good in 1999. It re-opened as a Visitors’ Center in 2005 and inside you’ll find a potbelly stove, antique bottles, cash registers and more.
Next up after Dwight is the village of Odell (pop. 1,014), which also has an original Route 66 path through the heart of town, a bypass built in 1946, and today’s I-55 added just beyond that around 1964. The original route through town is fairly quiet today, but in 1933 it was bustling. Dual bypasses run around pretty much every town in central Illinois.
In 1933, Route 66 through town was so busy that fed up residents dug a pedestrian underpass under the street so churchgoers to St. Paul’s church and kids going to school there could cross without danger, or having to wait for ridiculously long periods of time. The underpass was filled in, unfortunately (it would be fun to check out) but the top portion of the stairway remains. It’s just kind of cool to look at.
Just down the street, a restored former Standard Oil Station from 1932 offers up a nice look at how service stations (yes, back then they provided service) looked during the Depression. The refurbished building was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
County seat of Livingston County, Pontiac (pop. 12,000) offers a beautiful town square and a city full of wall murals and other salutes to the Mother Road. The Livingston County Courthouse and you’ll see why they used Pontiac as the setting of the 1984 movie Grandview, U.S.A.
A new museum highlighting the Pontiac automobile opened in 2011. But of course, Route 66 is the focus here, and Pontiac holds the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum (110 W. Howard Street, 815-844-5657). Plenty of great artifacts, gorgeous Route 66 murals in the alley, and you have to check out the Bob Waldmire School Bus Mobile Home out back. Definitely a stop for a road trip like this! You can also check out the Livingston County War Museum right next door, which includes displays depicting World War I to the present.
Pontiac's murals and museums also beckon the walldogs. “Walldogs” are the painters who created – and now maintain or refurbish – outdoor wall murals and advertising signs that adorned the sides of buildings before the electronic mass media and billboards we see today. As Route 66 is a slice of Americana, so are these signs, often-massive works of art in themselves. Pontiac recently opened the International Walldog Mural & Sign Art Museum (217 N. Mill Street, 815-842-1848) to showcase these works and their history and encourage preservation.
Based on the Walldogs, Pontiac says it’s the starting point for “1,000 miles of murals”, from there to Tucumcari, New Mexico. So let’s keep going!
Little Chenoa (pop. 1,845) is where Route 66 crosses U.S. 24, a major highway from Detroit to Vail, Colorado. The downtown area is small and quiet but features several wall murals and a pleasant gazebo area, good for a picnic or just to relax for a bit.
Route 66’s main route carries you just around the town – like most of the towns in this section of Illinois – but the trip to the center of Chenoa is just a few blocks. The twinned lanes of Route 66 that were taken out of operation decades ago survive as part of a bike path today.
The original, original Route 66 – complete with the 1926-era pavement (in rough shape) can be found going into Lexington (pop. 2,060). It’s a turnoff from the 1940 bypass alignment.
The pavement is quite worn, and you have to travel slowly. It seems to be a popular place for local kids to hang out, walk, scheme against their parents, etc. You come out next to the bypass, which you can re-join for the ride toward Bloomington-Normal.
The parade of Burma Shave signs keeps your passengers’ attention (you’re busy watching the road, of course) in short, broken-sentence increments as you enter the small burg of Towanda (pop. 493). The town highlights its Route 66 connection by turning the former southbound lanes into a walkable history museum, complete with signs profiling the route in each state and drawings on the roadway depicting its path across the nation.
Trivia: A female-led attack on a tavern owned by Towanda's founder Alex Warren could possibly be called the "whiskey party". A group of local women took exception to how much the men in their lives were spending on whiskey. Using hatchets from a local hardware store, they marched into the tavern, smashing bottles, threatening the barman, and hurling whatever they could find through the tavern windows. Each of the women was fined one dollar. And we presume there was a whiskey shortage for a while.
After all these relatively small towns, the Bloomington-Normal Metro Area seems like a major city. Here, Route 66 splits into two options: the traditional route right through the downtowns of each city or the bypass called Veterans Parkway, which was the official U.S. 66 route after 1940. For the real feel of the towns, it’s better to follow the traditional route.
The traditional route going into Normal runs through a residential area, now relatively quiet but once bustled with the traffic of Route 66 (follow the signs carefully, as some portions of Route 66 now resemble small streets in a subdivision)! In some areas, new homes are being built along the old road; in others, the homes were there when the cross-country travelers were. Relics of the past pop up here and there, including Sprague’s Super Station, a tudor revival-style former service station, restaurant and garage. Opened in 1930 by William Sprague, it was intentionally built to blend in with its residential neighborhood. It was restored in 2006 and has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and inducted into the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame.
Normal (pop. 52,497) was named after the original “normal” school that established there in 1857. Now called Illinois State University, it’s still the very first public university in the state of Illinois. They live high here: the 28-story Watterson Towers are reportedly the tallest dormitory buildings in the world, and offer the highest observation deck in Illinois outside of the Chicago metropolitan area. It was completed in 1967 and can be found at the corner of Fell and Beaufort Streets, although it is easily visible for miles around. The area around it is known as Uptown, and the streets are filled with small retail shops, bars and restaurants and all the touches that reinforce Normal as a fun, and perhaps underrated, college town.
Need proof that this is corn country? Okay, fine: there is a professional baseball team in Normal called the Normal CornBelters. They play in the Frontier League, which is not part of the MLB system, but still… it’s a pro team. The name of the stadium? The Corn Crib. Actor McLean Stevenson hailed from Normal, Illinois too; without him, "M*A*S*H" would never have been the same (then again, there never would have been a Hello, Larry, either.) The politicians Adlai Stevenson I and II hail from Bloomington. Yes, they were all related.
Of course there’s more than corn here: the original Steak ‘N Shake restaurant opened in Normal in 1934. While that building is now a pizza parlor, there are other Steak ‘N Shake locations in the area – and for that matter, up and down a long stretch of Route 66.
Normal’s larger twin is Bloomington (pop. 76,610), originally called Keg Grove, a notion not unheard of by area bartenders. Beer Nuts, the sweet-covered salty peanuts that have increased beverages sales in bars since 1937, originated in Bloomington and are still made here. You can check out their factory, the only place in the world where they’re made, at 103 N. Robinson Street (309-827-8580). They also have a store, of course, where you can buy the freshly made treats. This area tends to be well-insured, since Bloomington is also the world headquarters of State Farm Insurance.
On the south end of town, the original Route 66 merges back in with Veterans Parkway, which was its own bypass. From there, you’ll reach the I-55/74 interchange. Follow the signs that will put you back onto the old Route 66 road, paralleling I-55 once again – only this time, you’re west of the interstate rather than east. You’re back on the beeline path heading southwest.
You may never spell “syrup” the same way again.
Real Maple Sirup (the original spelling) is the claim to fame for Funks Grove, a tiny hamlet along Route 66 that holds fewer than one hundred residents and quite a few maple trees. It’s the home of Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup. It all began when Isaac Funk (which is a GREAT name for a music star today) settled here in 1824. Inspired by Native Americans, he began to draw sap from the area maple trees and used it to sweeten food for his family and neighbors. His grandson Arthur started selling the sirup commercially in 1891 and with the exception of some World War II rationing years, the Funk family has been at it ever since.
You can stop in, crawl up the gravel road to their little store to pick up some sirup and other collectibles, and say hi to Mike and Debby, the current Funks who are continuing the tradition. You’ll find their farm right along Route 66 between Bloomington and Lincoln, near the town of Shirley.
McLean (pop. 808) has long been a popular stop along Route 66 because of the Dixie Travel Plaza, long known by its previous name, the Dixie Trucker’s Home. It was first established in 1928 as a small sandwich stand in a mechanic’s garage. Demand from travelers led to its expansion into a full-fledged restaurant, with additional services for truckers such as showers and an indoor rest area.
A 1965 rebuild after a fire and a major renovation in 2009 means you don’t get to take in the historical feel of the building, but you can stock up on road supplies and enjoy a small version of the Illinois Route 66 Association Hall of Fame – it was based here until 1990, when the main museum moved to Pontiac, Illinois, back up a road a ways.
Named after Atlanta, Georgia, and originally named Xenia (like the Ohio city), Atlanta, Illinois (pop. 1,635) grew up around the railroad and then Route 66, like pretty much every town we’re going through in Illinois. Entering Atlanta on the old road (Arch Street), you see a few hanging signs reminding you of the original look of the markers that once adorned the path into town.
Unlike many Illinois towns along Route 66, Atlanta doesn’t have a town square, per se. It does, however, have a beautiful Public Library that also serves as a museum. Constructed in 1873, the building offers not only museum-style artifacts, but plenty of books for browsing – some of which seem as old as the library itself.
The Palms Grill Café is like going back in time; that’s because the inside was restored to a 1940s era appearance, from the fixtures to the displays to the pinball machine. Originally known as “The Grill” when it first opened in 1934, it also served as a Greyhound bus station; people wishing to catch the bus would simply flip on a light outside to summon the next bus. The prices in the Palms Grill Café are modern era, but quite reasonable. If you'd rather shop than eat, check out Sherman's Curiosity Shop, an antique store with quite a variety of merchandise. Harry Sherman, the owner, specializes in carnival glass; that in itself should be enough of a hint.
Atlanta is now the home of this “Paul Bunyan” figure, originally constructed around 1962. Initially, he held an axe while standing in front of the Paul Bunyan Café in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 1965, the axe was removed, he was shipped to Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand Cicero, Illinois, where a hot dog was put in his hands. After the restaurant closed in 2003, he was donated to Atlanta for display. The hot dog remains.
Make sure to check out the city park across from the library too, where one or four original drinking fountains continues to quench locals and visitors alike. These fountains actually replaced an earlier set from 1894, a unique convenience at the time. The local paper noted that the fountains were for "man and beast."
Heading out of Atlanta, just follow Arch Street south to the main Route 66 road, which is the bypass built in 1947. At this point, you parallel I-55 for the ride to Lincoln. As you approach Lincoln, the road will become four-lane again, go under I-55 and offer two options: the four-lane bypass built in 1940 or the original 1926 route through town. For this tour, let's go through town.
It’s only fitting that in the “Land of Lincoln”, you would have a Lincoln, Illinois (pop. 14,504). It was actually named Lincoln prior to Abraham Lincoln becoming president, the only town named Lincoln with that distinction. Lincoln, a lawyer in town at the time, assisted with the platting of the town in 1853. He also reportedly broke open a watermelon during the naming ceremony proceedings and squeezed the juice on the grounds as an informal rite of passage. Not too many towns can say they were christened with a watermelon by a future president. In fact, probably no other town can.
Route 66 has bypassed downtown Lincoln for a long time; it has followed the four-lane Lincoln Parkway around the north and west side of the city since 1940. You can follow the old route (1926-1940) by following Business I-55, a combination of Kickapoo, Keokuk, Logan and 5th Streets. The Best Western is located off 5th & Lincoln, where the old and older Route 66 routes come together.
Other points of interest in Lincoln include the Heritage In Flight Museum (1351 Airport Road, 217-732-3333), located right off Route 66 at the Logan County Airport in an actual World War II barracks, and the Lincoln Heritage Museum (330 Keokuk Street, 217-732-3155), which offers an extensive collection of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War-related artifacts.
Yes, the World’s Largest Covered Wagon is in Lincoln. Known as the Railsplitter Covered Wagon, it was created by a man named David Bentley after a successful bout with heart disease. Reader’s Digest named it the #1 Roadside Attraction in America. Dedicated in 2007, in a different location, since March of 2010 it has graced the front of the Best Western PLUS Lincoln Inn. The wagon weighs five tons, is 40 feet long and 24 feet high. A 12-foot tall Honest Abe (just under twice his actual height) sits in the front, reading a book. He weighs 350 pounds as he peruses a law book.
Continuing towards Illinois capitol city, you run through several small towns like Broadwell (pop. 169), once home to the famous Pig Hip Restaurant. Operated by Ernie Edwards from 1937 to 1991, the restaurant operated as a museum until 2007, when it was destroyed by fire. A marker now commemorates the spot where it stood.
After Elkhart (pop. 443), the next town up is Williamsville (pop. 1,387), essentially now a suburb of Springfield. In Williamsville along the original Route 66 (not the first bypass), you’ll find The Old Station, a former gas station with plenty of eclectic items adorning the building.
This isn't the first one we've seen, nor will it be the last, but it's without question fun to stop and check out. Williamsville is also home to the Route 66 Dream Car Museum (530 W. Main Street), although when we drove by it appeared to be undergoing a renovation. We will update as we get more information.
The capitol of Illinois, Springfield (pop. 116,250) is the center of the Land of Lincoln and offers a multitude of sights downtown that complement the area’s rich history.
Springfield was originally named Calhoun, after a South Carolina senator. By 1832, residents changed it to Springfield, after the Massachusetts town of the same name. It was the third capitol city for Illinois; upon statehood in 1818 the capital was Kaskaskia. It was first moved to nearby Vandalia, but Springfield has held the title since 1839. Abraham Lincoln himself was a key figure in getting the capitol moved to Springfield, along with eight other associates who were collectively referred to as the “Long Nine," because of their combined height: 54 feet. At six feet per person, that was rather tall for the 19th century.
Driving into Springfield on Route 66, which includes a spell directly on I-55 between exits 109 and 105, just follow the exit sign. You’ll follow Peoria Road through the town of Sherman and through plenty of parkland. Dirksen Parkway is the historic bypass route for Route 66, and leads you to the Best Western Clearlake Plaza. But for Springfield flavor, continue on Peoria Road and then 9th Street, which brings you to downtown.
On your drive into the center of Springfield along Peoria Road, be sure to keep an eye out for Shea’s Gas Station Museum (2075 Peoria Rd., 217-522-0475). An awesome, eclectic plethora of road-worthy collectibles adorn this gas station (which also, based on the blue sign, may have been a former Ford dealership) owned by Bill Shea. Inside is an impressive collection of photos and signs that only augments what you can view from the outside. From gas station signs to old pumps to old road crew signs from way back when, this is one great museum for road trippers.
Further down 9th Street, downtown Springfield will emerge to your right (west). Follow Madison Street (Illinois 97) to access all the downtown sights.
The current Illinois State Capitol is seven blocks west of Route 66, which is 9th Street along this stretch. The capitol is on 2nd Street. A look down Capitol Avenue gives you a straight-line look at the capitol and its tall, slender dome. Topped with zinc to help withstand the elements and maintain a silvery look, the Illinois State Capitol towers 361 feet high, taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
Trivia: Back in 1877, the Illinois State Capitol had 198 spittoons in its House chamber and 129 more in the Senate; this doesn't include the rest of the building. Presumably, none remain.
Just east of Route 66 at this point, not too far from the Lincoln Depot, you can find the Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop (118 N. Pasfield Street, 217-523-0723), which lays claim to having the first drive-thru window in the United States, dating back to around 1927, right about when Route 66 was first established through town. Loose meat sandwiches and root beer are generally the order of the day, as it has been for nearly a century.
Heading to the south side of Springfield, you angle over to 6th Street. Hungry and missed Maid-Rite? Or are you ready for the next treat? Stop and enjoy a cozy dog at the Cozy Dog Drive-In (2935 S. 6th, 217-525-1992). It lays claim to the invention of “corn dog on a stick”, when owner Ed Waldmire speared the first one as he immersed it in corn batter in 1946. The diner has been in this location since 1949.
Here’s some morbid trivia for you: the ill-fated Donner Party began their journey west from Springfield in 1846. They went straight west, though; they didn’t follow Route 66.
The Best Western Clearlake Plaza is on the east side of Springfield, along I-55/72 right by the Dirksen Parkway, one of the original Springfield bypass routes. It is easily accessed from downtown by taking Clearlake Avenue (Illinois 97) out to the interstate.
DRIVE-IN ALERT: Along the south side of Springfield, just south of I-55 where two different alignments of Old Route 66 are within a few miles of each other, you’ll find the Route 66 Twin Drive-In Theatre (1700 Recreation Drive, 217-698-0066), one of the few still going along the Mother Road. It’s next to Knights Action Park, visible from I-72 just west of the I-55/Route 66 interchange and east of Veterans Parkway (Illinois 4). If you’re spending the night in Springfield between Memorial Day and Labor Day, feel free to drive on down to catch a flick; they begin at dusk every evening. The MacArthur Boulevard or Old Chatham Road exits off I-72 will bring you there.
South of Springfield, Route 66 offers two pathways: one is along or adjacent to I-55 and the other is the 1926 original route, following Illinois Highway 4 south (in fact, all of Route 66 was Illinois Highway 4 prior to Route 66 being designated in 1926.)
Highway 4 is slower and goes through more towns, but is therefore more scenic and interesting; the realigned Route 66 from 1940 on basically follows today’s I-55 directly and is significantly faster. At this point, you’re about 120 miles from St. Louis, so plan and choose accordingly.
To follow this route, head west on I-72 along the south side of Springfield to the Illinois 4 exit; turn south and you’re all set.
Chatham (pop. 11,500) is a comfortable suburb of Springfield. It offers the Chatham Railroad Museum (100 State Street, 217-483-7792), housed in the original train depot from 1902. Over 3,000 items related to the rails are on display. Operating hours are quite narrow (2 p.m. to 4 p.m., the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month and by appointment), so call ahead if you plan to check it out.
This area of Illinois has a long history with coal and mining. When you reach Virden (pop. 3,338), you're at an apex of that history. Virden was founded in 1829 and prospered throughout the late 1800s after large deposits of coal were found beneath the area. The Chicago-Virden Coal Company was founded to mine and ship this coal, and they hired hundreds of workers who toiled under dangerous and rough conditions. Battles between the Chicago-Virden Coal Company and striking workers came to a head on October 12, 1898, when the “Battle of Virden” erupted. A coal train pulling into town was met with shotgun-toting miners; in turn, the train was prepared for such a possibility and had guards with rifles on board. The result was 20-minute battle that left 13 dead. The full history is detailed in the town square, right along Route 66. The United Mine Workers’ union still recognizes “Miners’ Day” on October 12th, in recognition of the event.
Mary Harris Jones, best known as “Mother Jones”, was involved with this movement. Once denounced on the U.S. Senate floor as “the grandmother of all agitators” (which she embraced), Mother Jones is buried in nearby Mount Olive, Illinois, located near the newer alignment of Route 66 & I-55, alongside many of the miners killed in the Battle of Virden.
If you take the western, original 66 route, you’ll also pass through lovely Carlinville (pop. 5,912). The seat of Macoupin County, Carlinville is officially part of the exterior St. Louis region. Carlinville is named for former Illinois governor Thomas Carlin (not comedian George Carlin, as some like to joke) and has a town square surrounded by handsome brick buildings. “Circling the square”, you’ll see a number of local restaurants, shops and the Loomis House.
The Macoupin County Courthouse (210 E. Main Street, 217-854-2141) lies along Illinois 108 just east of the town square. Completed in 1870, the courthouse’s construction was anything but boring. Originally bonded for $50,000 to handle initial construction costs, by the time the building opened costs had soared to over $1.3 million – in 1870 dollars – earning the nickname “million dollar courthouse” and inviting plenty of scandal around the possibility of misappropriating funds (in Illinois – imagine!). Upon completion, it was the largest county courthouse in the United States and was even larger than the Illinois Statehouse. Forty years later, all bonds were retired. Today, the southeast corner of the Macoupin County Courthouse grounds also holds the county’s war memorial, completed in 1966.
The Macoupin County Jail is notable for looking more like a fortress than a jail. Completed in 1869 and in use until 1988, the jail was built with leftover cannonballs embedded in the walls, a further impediment to escape for contemplating inmates. Tours are available by calling 217-854-2141.
Trivia: Sears Catalog Homes was a popular ready-to-assemble set of kit houses in the early 20th century that gave rise to over 70,000 housing units in the U.S. between 1908 and 1940. Sears found a huge customer in a mining company that ordered thousands of homes to erect for its workers in and around Carlinville. In recognition, Sears named one of its Catalog Home lines “the Carlin.”
At this point, you can follow Illinois 108 east to catch I-55 and the newer Route 66 alignment for speed, or continue on the original 1926-1940 stretch of Route 66 south from Carlinville.
Continuing south on the original stretch, Gillespie (pop. 3,412) is next. Over the Honey Creek Bridge, check out the original bridge and alignment of Route 66, in use until 1930. Next is Benld (pop. 1,541). Yes, we spelled "Benld" right; it's named for founder Ben L. Dorsey.
In Benld, check out the Fassero Oil Company and the Coliseum Ballroom, both Route 66 Hall of Fame members. Benld is also notable for a 1938 incident in which local resident Edward McCain came home to find a 4-inch meteorite had crashed through his garage roof and embedded itself in the seat of his 1937 Pontiac. The meteorite and portions of the car are now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Heading south of Springfield, Route 66 follows today’s I-55, so open it up and let ‘er rip! You cross Lake Springfield, a huge reservoir that formed in 1935 when the Sangamon River was dammed to provide the city with drinking water and recreation. When people from Springfield say they’re “going to the lake”, this is usually what they’re talking about.
The interchange where I-55, I-72, and Route 66 meet up on Springfield’s south side is Exit 90, and the numbers decrease as you head south. It’s pretty much a beeline to the towns south, as you can use the east Frontage Road, which for a time was the original highway, or the freeway lanes.
At Exit 52 is Litchfield (pop. 6,588), which features two points of interest: the Ariston Café (413 Old Route 66, 217-324-2023), which lays claim to being the longest-operating restaurant along Route 66. It began in Carlinville in 1924 along the original Route 66 (now Highway 4) and moved to its present location in 1935. The menu has some serious variety for a roadside café, so the whole family can find something to enjoy. The Ariston Café began as a Greek restaurant, and the baklava stands the test of time. It was inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame in 1992 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
DRIVE-IN ALERT: The SkyView Drive-In Theatre (217-324-4451) opened in 1951 and still shows first-run and second-run films under the stars. Children under 5 are free, so you don’t even need to sneak them in the trunk…not that you would, just saying…
South of Litchfield, you can follow the old Route 66 – the two-lane, not the interstate – down to the next town. MOUNT OLIVE
Either along the old Route 66, or by using exit 44 off I-55, you enter Mount Olive (pop. 2,150), which features the historic Soulsby Shell Station. It went up in 1926 and pumped Shell Gas for Route 66 .
Mount Olive was the site of many union and company protests by mine workers in the 1880s and 1890s. The harsh working conditions led to the rise of the United Mine Workers union. Mount Olive, as well as nearby Staunton and Virden, saw numerous clashes and violence during a tumultuous time for laborers in the coal industry, as evidence by the reference to the Battle of Virden along the original Route 66. Mother Jones is buried in Mount Olive alongside numerous miners who were killed in the Battle of Virden.
This where the older and newer alignments of Route 66 come back together, near Exit 41 on today’s I-55.
Staunton (pop. 5,030) is home to Henry’s Rabbit Ranch, a unique visitors center that contains not only plenty of Route 66 history and memorabilia, but rabbits galore. Rich and Linda Henry opened the ranch after traveling Route 66, deciding to mix their love of rabbits and the Mother Road into something that looked historical – but wasn’t. They did a good job, though – an old gas station replica looked so real that the EPA came along to inquire about buried gas tanks, of which there were none.
Beyond, you continue through small settlements like Livingston and Hamel, where you’re also following Illinois 157. In Hamel, Weezy’s Route 66 LLC (108 Old US Route 66, 618-633-2228) continues the tradition of its predecessor, the Tourist Haven Restaurant. It’s a popular stop for vintage car drivers and bikers to refresh their palates while on the road.
Edwardsville (pop. 24, 293) is actually Illinois’ third oldest city, having been established in 1812. The “Edward” in Edwardsville wasn’t even named for the first settler (his name was Thomas Kirkpatrick), but rather for the territorial governor; this was six years before Illinois became a state.
Today, Edwardsville is a major suburb in the Metro East area of St. Louis and holds about 25,000 residents. Route 66 travels along St. Louis Street, through the heart of Edwardsville. The city boasts several nice attractions, including the Wildey Theatre and a children’s museum. It’s also the first place where we saw a sushi restaurant along Route 66 since Chicago.
Leaving Edwardsville, you can hop on I-270 westbound for speed or stay on old Route 66 for authenticity. The original Route 66 in 1926 went down into Venice and East St. Louis and crossed into St. Louis on the McKinley Bridge, but that changed by 1930 when the route stayed north through Mitchell and Granite City, crossing the river on the Chain O’ Rocks Bridge. Route 66 then headed into St. Louis from the north on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.
Here, Route 66 parallels I-270 (built in 1967), as Chain O’ Rock Road, joins Illinois Route 203 and passes through unincorporated Mitchell, which has two “old school” features of interest: the Luna Café and the former Bel-Air Drive-In. The Luna Café opened in 1924, two years before Route 66 even came along. In its early days, the café also offered gambling and “ladies of ill repute”, leading to claims that Al Capone and other gangsters frequented the Luna. A large “neon moon” once adorned the roof and efforts are underway to recreate it. The Bel-Air Drive-In delighted movie-goers from the 1950s until it closed in 1987. The original sign still stands, although the deterioration is beginning. The lots have overgrown; we’ll see what happens with this property.
Just past the Luna Café, you join I-270 for a few miles. At Exit 3 (Illinois Route 3), follow the cloverleaf south to Chain O’ Rocks Road once again, where you can turn right, head toward the river and see Route 66’s span across the Mississippi for four decades: the Chain O’ Rocks Bridge.
The Chain O’Rocks Bridge was finished as a toll bridge just in time for the Great Depression. In the early 1930s, Route 66 was moved to this location and that certainly helped toll collection. The bridge is distinctive, with a 22-degree angle turn in the middle that gave some drivers anxiety, especially in bad weather – which is frequent in this area. Thought it’s been closed to traffic since 1970, you can still walk or bike across; the Chain O’Rocks Bridge is now essentially the longest walking and biking-only bridge in the world.
Since cars can no longer cross the Chain O’Rocks Bridge, a quick double back to Illinois 3 and back to up westbound I-270 will carry you out of the Land of Lincoln and into Missouri – and St. Louis – on Route 66.