The “Mother Road” that helped define America’s love affair with the road trip is now decommissioned, but key parts of historic U.S. Highway 66 remain, and aficionados still trace the route from its origin near the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago to its unofficial terminus in Santa Monica, California. And though it’s always been understood as a journey heading west, it does go both ways, both beginning and ending in Chicago on the Midwest Coast.
U.S. Highway 66 was officially created by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads in 1926 as one of the highways that would make up the network of America’s first Federal highway interstate system. The new system redesignated existing roads in many areas to piece together a coordinated interstate system.
According to the Route 66 Association of Illinois, Route 66 began in Chicago in 1926 at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. This initial portion of the highway was renamed Illinois State 4, which ran from Chicago to East St. Louis. With this pre-existing state highway, the Illinois portion of Route 66 was the first to be completely paved and was also the first to replace the existing road with the U.S. highway. In the mid-1950s, the starting point of Route 66 was moved over a block due to a change in Chicago traffic patterns that made Jackson Drive a one-way street.
Today, Historic Route 66 begins in front of the Art Institute of Chicago, with a sign on the south side of the street that is almost completely covered in stickers. It ends where it originally began at East Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue with a sign on Jackson Boulevard that is less covered in stickers and much more easily identifiable.
As exemplified in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the route is about more than transportation, it’s about people, their stories, and our collective history.