Route 66 in Illinois begins near the shore of Lake Michigan, in Chicago. Connecting the Midwest with the golden state of California, the road from Chicago initially followed State Route 4 from Chicago to East St. Louis. This original gravel road was built before Route 66 even existed and was first called the Pontiac Trail in 1915. In 1918, Illinois began to pave the road, and by the time Route 66 was instituted, it was entirely paved. This piece of the Mother Road was the first fully paved highway in Illinois and was quickly recognized as the shortest distance between Chicago and St. Louis. By 1927, Route 66 signs were visible all along the Illinois route.
The route provides a rich history of Native Americans, fur trappers, explorers, waterway adventures, and Chicago gangsters. Not to mention that Abraham Lincoln started his career in Springfield, practicing law, and stayed there until he left to serve as President of the United States during one of the worst times in U.S. history. When Lincoln was assassinated, his remains were returned to Springfield, and his tomb and former home are among the state’s most visited attractions.
Route 66 through Illinois provides everything from culture and sophistication, to winding roads with seemingly endless rows of corn, to small towns with numerous vintage gas stations, motor courts, and cafes.
The vintage highway generally follows Interstate-55 to St. Louis, Missouri, crisscrossing the interstate and meandering into the many small towns along the route. The State of Illinois has done a good job of posting Route 66 with clearly marked signs, directing travelers when the road turns in the small towns and country roads. Many of the signs include both the new and old alignments. You will notice along your journey several sections where traces of no longer travelable old alignments appear on either side of the interstate. In other places, there are portions of the original road that are gravel but are still passable.
On January 17, 1977, the original signs came down along the Mother Road in Illinois, replaced by the super-highway Interstate 55. But, as we all know, this piece of Route 66, as well as all of the rest, was not that easily forgotten.
Begin your journey of the Mother Road at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in Chicago and see the many historic sites of this principal municipality. Like many large cities along Route 66, urbanization has taken over, and you will have to search hard for vintage icons of the era. On your way out of Chicago, you will pass through the suburb of Cicero, once a stand-alone town outside of the city that was riddled with tunnels and hidey holes utilized by Al Capone and his gang of bootleggers.
Head on to Joliet, where you can see the Rialto Square Theatre and Union Station. In nearby Wilmington, don’t miss the Gemini Giant, and in Braidwood, the Polk-A-Dot Drive-In provides a peek at life-size statues of James Dean, Elvis, and the Blues Brothers.
Along this stretch are several abandoned coal mines on your way to Gardner, where the 1928 Riviera Restaurant once stood before it burned to the ground in June 2010. Also here is a two-cell historic jailhouse.
In Odell, you can see a 1930’s Sinclair station that continued to serve travelers of the Mother Road until 1975. Today it has been restored by the Illinois Route 66 Association and serves as an information center. In nearby Pontiac are the Old Log Cabin Inn and Restaurant and a Route 66 Museum housed in the old firehouse.
Further down the road at Bloomington, you can still see the Cotton’s Village Inn, and some 15 miles beyond is the ghost town of Funks Grove, where maple sirip (yes “sirip”) has been made since 1881. Here, you can also see an old general store and an old train depot. Near McLean, you will find the Dixie Truckers Home, the first truck stop in the United States founded in 1928, and further along at Atlanta, a large “muffler man” holding a giant hotdog.
Lincoln is home to the old Mill Restaurant that started business in 1931, serving its famous schnitzel to the many travelers of Route 66. Long closed, this old building is a sight to see and many other historic places where Abraham Lincoln once walked.
Continuing, you’ll enter the small village of Broadwell, where the popular Pig Hop Cafe did business for more than 40 years. Unfortunately, it too has burned to the ground. You’ll then pass through the historic towns of Elkhart and Williamsville before coming to Springfield. Here, in the Illinois State Capitol, are Lincoln’s former home and tomb and the Cozy Drive-In, a Route 66 icon.
From Springfield, two alignments are still intact today. The post-1930’s four-lane alignment zigs and zags over and under I-55, passing through the small towns of Glenarm, Divernon, Farmersville, and Litchfield, a Route 66 enthusiast’s dream. Litchfield provides several great photo opportunities with an obvious focus on the Mother Road. Check out the Ariston Café, in business for years and still kickin’. The older pre-1930 two-lane alignment resides to the west of I-55, traveling through Chatham, Auburn, Virden, Carlinville, and numerous other small towns before the two alignments rejoin south of Staunton. Both paths provide several vintage peeks at the Mother Road.
Be sure to check out Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton before continuing your journey south through Edwardsville and Mitchell and on into Missouri. Don’t miss the Chain of Rocks Bridge before you enter St. Louis and a whole new state of Route 66 wonders.
While you’re in this area, a couple of great side trips can be found at Collinsville, where you can see the largest catsup bottle in the world, and at Cahokia Mounds, the largest archaeological site in America.