Chicago Story: Where Route 66 begins

Publish Date: 
Mar 30, 2014
By Karen Widdicombe

Did you know that you can stand at the easternmost point of Route 66 -- at Jackson Blvd. and Lake Shore Drive, in downtown Chicago?

U.S. ROUTE 66 was one of the original highways – and one of the nation's principal east-west arteries – within the U.S. Highway System. It was established on Nov. 11, 1926, and fully paved by 1937.

The highway, which is one of the most famous roads in America, ran from Chicago (Dealer Expo’s new home) to Santa Monica (Dealer Expo’s home office). It crossed eight states and three time zones over 2,448 miles.

Route 66 was initially built by connecting established roads, then over time paving, straightening and improving until it became the quickest, easiest way to reach California. Decommissioned in 1985, time and change has now reversed the process – to travel Historic Route 66 is to ride on interstates (I-55, I-40, I-15 and I-10) until the opportunity to switch to the original road comes along.

Much of the highway was essentially flat, and this made the highway a popular truck route. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced many farming families to head west for agricultural jobs in California, and Route 66 became the main road of travel for these people. Also during the Depression, traffic on Route 66 provided relief to communities located on the highway. Passing through numerous small towns, the growing traffic helped create the rise of mom-and-pop businesses, such as service stations, restaurants, and motor courts, all readily accessible to passing motorists.

During World War II, more migration west occurred, lured by jobs with war-related industries in California. Route 66, already popular and fully paved, became one of the main routes and also served for moving military equipment.

In the 1950s, Route 66 became the main highway for vacationers heading to Los Angeles. The road passed through the Painted Desert and near the Grand Canyon. Meteor Crater in Arizona was another popular stop. This sharp increase in tourism in turn gave rise to a burgeoning trade in all manner of roadside attractions, including teepee-shaped motels, frozen custard stands, Indian curio shops and reptile farms. It also marked the birth of the fast-food industry: Red's Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Mo., site of the first drive-through restaurant, and the first McDonald's in San Bernardino, Calif.

Over the years, Route 66 received many nicknames. Right after Route 66 was commissioned, it was known as "The Great Diagonal Way" because the Chicago-to-Oklahoma City stretch ran northeast to southwest. Later, Route 66 was advertised by the U.S. Highway 66 Association as "The Main Street of America."  In the John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the highway is called The Mother Road, its prevailing title today. In the John Ford film about the book, a sign along the road was titled The Will Rogers Highway, a name later adopted by the association and still seen on some markers along the route.

It importance to our history and our national image has been paid tribute in popular culture many times – from the 1960s hit song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" and the Route 66 television show to Pixar’s “Cars” in 2006 – as well as by more august bodies. The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has a section on U.S. Route 66 in its "America on the Move" exhibition. In the exhibit is a portion of pavement of the route taken from Bridgeport, Okla., and a restored car and truck of the type that would have been driven on the road in the 1930s. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill which provided for $10 million in matching fund grants for preserving and restoring the historic features along the route.

In 2008, the World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to the World Monuments Watch and the National Park Service developed a Route 66 Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary describing over one hundred individual historic sites.

Follow today’s historic Route 66 by visiting  For Chicago area information, click HERE. (Above image supplied by Getty Images)

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