The numerical designation for the famous Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway was given on April 30th 1926, making it 90 years old! We think it’s only fitting to celebrate the start of the iconic route’s name with the history of the beginning of the route itself, Chicago! Read all about it in this excerpt from Route 66 Encyclopedia.
Native Americans resided by the rivers here centuries before initial exploration by the French and settlement by the Americans. However, the accepted date of origination is 1829, the year the Illinois State Legislature created the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission to link the Chicago River with the Mississippi River and retained James Thompson, a civil engineer, to lay out the original town site. As a town, incorporation came in 1833. Incorporation as a city followed four years later.
The city’s link to Route 66 predates that highway’s designation by almost 100 years. Of two county roads commissioned in Cook County in 1831, one served as the course for Route 66after 1926. Additionally, in 1834 this roadway became part of the first stagecoach line to connect Chicago with St. Louis.
Canals and the railroads negated this initial lead in the development of a roadway system in the state of Illinois when the funding for the former left little money for the construction or maintenance of roads. On March 4, 1902, nine auto clubs met in Chicago to create an organization that would address this shortcoming from a political standpoint as well as from an educational one and to add a voice to that of the Wheelman, an organization of bicycle enthusiasts that initiated the modern good roads movement. After the election of a board of directors, the first order of business for the new organization, the American Automobile Association, was to initiate plans for the creation and funding of a transcontinental highway designed specifically for the needs of the motorist that would link New York City with California.
During the next decade, various associations would form to campaign for the development of all-weather roads and to develop established highway corridors. Of particular note with regard to Route 66 history were the endeavors of A.L. Westgard who, in the employ of the Touring Club of America, mapped a route to California from Chicago designated as the Trail to Sunset in 1910. As was that of Route 66, the eastern terminus for this trail was at Jackson and Michigan Boulevards in Chicago. Emily Post would utilize this route west from Chicago to Iowa in her 1916 transcontinental adventure chronicled in By Motor to the Golden Gate.
In 1916, the Illinois General Assembly passed an act to construct hard-surfaced roads with special funding from $60 million in bonds. State Bond Issue Route 4 provided for the development and improvement of a roadway to connect Chicago with East St. Louis. By December 1926, with paving from Jackson and Michigan Boulevards in Chicago to the McKinley Bridge in Venice on the Mississippi River complete, the designation as U.S. 66 on January 15, 1927, resulted in Illinois being the first state in which the highway was fully paved.
The history of Chicago and Route 66 is full of iconic buildings, businesses, and people. For example, John Raklios was a pioneer in the chain restaurant business, and by 1930, there were more than twenty Raklios restaurants in the Chicago area offering standardized fare, service, and design. Four of these restaurants were located directly along the course of Route 66 in the city, and the remainder were located within two miles of that highway. The harsh economic climate of the Great Depression led to a reversal of fortune for Raklios, however, and by 1937, he was bankrupt and the restaurants were sold to competitors. His son, Hercules Raklios, opened a restaurant under the Raklios name on Clark Street in 1940.
Another pioneering business associated with Ogden Avenue (Route 66) was Warshawsky and Company, a wholesaler of rebuilt components for automobiles established in 1915. By 1930, the company had expanded to include four retail stores, with one at 3924 Ogden Avenue. In 1930, under the J. C. Whitney name, the company introduced a widely circulated mail-order catalog.
The evolution of urban traffic needs necessitated changes to the path of Route 66 in Chicago. The most sweeping of these occurred in 1953 when Adams became the westbound one-way corridor to Ogden and Jackson became the eastbound one-way corridor from Ogden to Lake Shore Drive.
Route 66 in Chicago is a corridor bordered by historic structures representing more than a century of American architectural and societal evolution. Route 66 in Chicago, written and researched by David Clark, provides excellent detail about many of these buildings.
For the Route 66 enthusiast who will not consider a trip on this storied highway complete without driving it from end to end, the journey begins at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, the eastern terminus of Route 66 until 1937. Historian and author John Weiss, in his book Traveling the New, Historic Route 66 of Illinois, notes, “As mentioned, Chicago is a worthwhile stop, but unfortunately, there is really nothing much worth noting after you leave downtown Chicago except heavy industrial [businesses] and traffic.”
In the downtown section of the city, attractions of particular interest include one tied directly to Route 66 and another that predates the highway by more than a quarter century. The former is Lou Mitchell’s at 565 West Jackson, established in 1923, and the latter, the Berghoff at State and Adams Streets, opened in 1898.