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Chicago And Route 66: America’s Main Street

Sep 20th, 2023

Hey, wanna drive to L.A. really quick? Just hop on Route 66!

Route 66 is a popular destination for tourists and motorists alike, connecting small towns to national parks, the Pacific Ocean and more all from its humble two-lane asphalt. 

And, it starts right here in Downtown Chicago!

Here’s a little bit about Route 66 and its impact on the culture and economy of the rural American West.

What is Route 66?

Let’s start with some quick facts and figures, shall we?

Affectionately known as the Mother Road, Route 66 is approximately 2,448 miles long and connects the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles.

It starts in Downtown Chicago (at 99 E Adam St. on the northwest corner with Michigan Avenue, to be precise) and ends at the intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and Ocean Boulevard at Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. 

The route crosses three time zones, eight states and the lands of over 25 tribal nations. It passes by hundreds of historical sights, parks and unique roadside attractions, and the road has itself become a prominent figure in American culture, featuring in dozens of books, movies and music even to this day. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the more popular pieces of literature written about Route 66.

There's so much to love about this fascinating route that there’s no way we could list all the cool spots along the route. You’ll just have to see them all for yourself!

The History of Route 66

An automobile boom

In the early 1920s, the United States was experiencing a boom in automobile travel, creating major social and economic impacts that drastically changed the way of life for ordinary people.

The introduction of mass-produced cars, such as the Ford Model T, made cars more affordable for the average person, and we all know that the Midwest was a powerhouse for the automobile industry!

More people began to use cars for pleasure, so the tourism industry grew beyond urban centers and local sights. Local and federal governments invested in road and highway infrastructure, making it easier and safer to drive long distances. Automobile travel eventually led to the growth of suburbs, as people moved out of cities to take advantage of the open spaces and affordable housing that were available.

All that to say that the 1920s was a turning point for automobile travel and transportation, and the number of registered cars in the United States increased from 8 million in 1920 to 23 million in 1929! 

Establishing the Mother Road

Ultimately, Route 66 was born out of the need for a better way to connect the Midwest and the West Coast in the early 20th century.

In 1926, the United States Bureau of Public Roads created the first federal highway system which standardized the numbering of highways across the country. Route 66 was one of these original highways in this system, and it quickly became a major route for people migrating west from Chicago to Los Angeles.

A few years after its conception, Route 66 played an important role in the Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930s, after millions of people were forced to leave their homes due to drought and economic hardship. The highway was a lifeline for these people, and it provided them with a clear-cut way to escape to California and other parts of the West.

At the height of its popularity in the 1930s and ‘40s, Route 66 did far more than transport people from one side of the country to another — it created a boom in tourism, economy and culture for the hundreds of little towns along its route. 

The highway provided a way for people to travel and see new places, which led to an increase in tourism that benefited businesses such as motels, restaurants and souvenir shops. It also helped connect small towns and rural areas to the rest of the country, promoting economic development and making it easier for people to get goods and services. The construction and maintenance of Route 66 created jobs, as did the businesses that sprung up along the route. 

And, of course, it helped to preserve the culture of the American West and kept small communities alive. 

The towns and landscapes along Route 66 even contributed to a culture unique to the route! Quirky restaurants and unique motels worked hard to draw people in, and colorful signage dotted the roadsides for miles before a town. Neon signs and odd roadside attractions served as landmarks of their own, and the many necessary gas stations provided a place to rest, relax and enjoy the community of fellow travelers. 

Decline in popularity

Route 66 evolved into its own tourist destination, but unfortunately its popularity peaked just a few decades after it was first established. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Route 66 began to be bypassed by the newer, more efficient interstate highways and, as a result, it fell into decline and was officially decommissioned in 1985. The small two-lane highway was no longer the default route to connect the Midwest and the West, and the drastic decline in motorists severely impacted the local communities that had been built around the route.

Restoring Route 66

However, Route 66 has since been revived as a nostalgic tourist destination for those who prefer the scenic routes over the efficient ones, bringing the historic route back to new life. Many of the original buildings and landmarks along the route have been restored to their neon-covered glory, and there are now a number of businesses that cater to travelers interested in experiencing the history and culture of Route 66.

In 1990, Route 66 was designated as a National Historic Trail, officially recognizing the highway's historical significance and helping to protect it from over-development. The revitalization of the route is an ongoing effort led by a number of organizations like the National Park Service, the Route 66 Association and the Route 66 Alliance — all of whom work to restore landmarks, maintain roads and preserve historical landmarks. 

Today, Route 66 is still a popular tourist destination for motorists. Millions of people visit the route each year to experience its unique history and culture, and all the small towns along the scenic road benefit greatly from the economic and social growth. 

If you live in or near our luxury Chicago apartments, then you don’t need to travel far to experience being on the historic highway — just swing by Downtown Chicago and check out the terminus for yourself! 

Drive safe!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/12019

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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