U.S. Route 66 (US 66, Route 66) connected St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois. The highway had previously been Illinois Route 4 and the road has now been largely replaced with Interstate 55 (I-55). Parts of the road still carry traffic and six separate portions of the roadbed have been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Construction on the U.S. Route 66, known as the “Mother Road”, began in 1926 and eventually the 2,448 mile highway would cross through eight states on its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. In Illinois, and the Midwest in general, the construction of U.S. Route 66 was important to the economies of small, rural towns, which saw a burst of activity when the road finally passed through. The earliest known Chicago–St. Louis road was named the Pontiac Trail in 1915. The route began in Chicago and traveled through several cities and towns on its way to St. Louis, some of those included, Joliet, Odell, Bloomington, Lincoln, Springfield, Edwardsville and East St. Louis.
In 1916 the Federal Aid Post Road Act, known as the Shackleford Bill, passed Congress and appropriated $75 million to be distributed to the states over the next five years. The funding was provided on an ongoing basis, over the period of five years, and the law made the federal government an active partner in road building for the first time. Five roads in Illinois were designated to receive federal money under the legislation, they were: National Old Trails Road (National Road, present-day U.S. Route 40), Lincoln Highway, Dixie Highway, the road from Chicago to Waukegan and the road from Chicago to East St. Louis, including portions of Illinois Route 4, which was the actual predecessor to U.S. 66 in Illinois.
Illinois Route 4 closely paralleled the Chicago and Alton Railroad tracks running from Chicago to East St. Louis. The roadbed for Route 4 was prepared in 1922 by teams of horses dragging equipment behind them. Laborers received 40 cents per hour for performing backbreaking labor on the roadbed. In 1923, in Bloomington-Normal, concrete was poured along the road’s path along much the same route U.S. 66 would take on its original route through the area. By 1924, Illinois Route 4 was almost entirely paved between Chicago and St. Louis.
By the 1940s U.S. Route 66 extended from Chicago, through Springfield, to St. Louis and much of the original pavement was still in use. When World War II erupted the road, already the heaviest trafficked highway in Illinois, saw an increase in military traffic and importance to defense strategy. The aging road’s deterioration was hastened by the increase in military truck traffic. The Defense Highway Act of 1941 provided Illinois with about $400,000 in funding and by 1942 plans were in place to make much needed road repairs.
U.S. Route 66 has come to stand for the collective, American tourist experience and holds a special place in American popular culture. There is a certain nostalgic appeal to Route 66 that is associated with the thrill of the open road which has contributed to its popularity. Looking at the historic roadway through Illinois from a different perspective it reveals a unique history which tells the story of movement across the prairie and road building across the same terrain. Study of the highway in Illinois also reveals the evolution of the interstate highway system and the growing popularity of automobiles.
Aside from the six sections of the route in Illinois that have been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places the entire stretch of 66 through Illinois has been declared a National Scenic Byway. The 436-mile (702 km) stretch of road was declared a scenic byway on September 22, 2005 by the U.S. Department of Transportation.