Carl Johnson grew up traveling part of historic Route 66 in central Illinois as a child, but it wasn’t until he stumbled upon a weathered highway placard on a deserted strip in New Mexico that the road’s significance struck him.
The 57-year-old Johnson, a land surveyor from Hillside, Ill., is consumed by the Mother Road, even sporting “ROUTE 66” on his license plates. That’s why it bothers him so much that, according to him, part of the famous road’s original path is mismarked in Springfield.
Johnson believes that U.S. Route 66 originally traveled down part of Sixth Street in Springfield, not along a more western route that is currently credited as part of Illinois’ Historic Route 66 Scenic Byway. The confusion over different routes comes from the fact that Illinois Route 4 and U.S. Route 66 often shared the same path, but not always.
Johnson bases his claims on state tourism road guides, called “Road Bulletins,” published from 1927 through 1932, which he found at the Illinois State Library. The Road Bulletins don’t show Route 66 until 1932, but they do show an early alignment of Route 4 going right down Sixth Street. Johnson says the two routes did share the same path through Springfield from 1926 until 1929, but the currently accepted path for the original Route 66 in Springfield is actually a realignment of Route 4.
The common wisdom is that, from 1926 to 1930, Route 66 traveled into Springfield from the north on what is now known as Peoria Road, then turned west on Taintor Road along the northern border of the State Fairgrounds. The accepted path has Route 66 wrapping around the Fairgrounds’ western border, then traveling south on Fifth Street past Lincoln Park.
It then turns west onto North Grand Avenue for three blocks to Second Street and heads south past the current State Capitol Building until it reaches South Grand Avenue, where it picks up what is now MacArthur Boulevard and heads out of town.
But Johnson says the real Route 66 never turned at Taintor Road by the Fairgrounds. Instead, he claims Route 66 originally traveled south on Peoria Road and Ninth Street, then headed west on Enos Avenue for three blocks before turning south on Sixth Street. Route 66 then traveled west on Capitol Avenue, turning south on Second Street at the State Capitol Building until reaching South Grand Avenue, Johnson claims.
This zig-zagging path would have taken Route 66 past several of Springfield’s main tourist attractions, Johnson notes, and the Road Bulletins indicate it remained that way at least until 1928. The Illinois State Library has no Road Bulletins in its collection for 1929, but Johnson fills in that blank with information about yet another highway.
When Illinois Route 126 from Beardstown to Litchfield was completed in 1930, Johnson claims, Route 66 joined with that newer road, staying on Sixth Street from Enos all the way out of town. Meanwhile, he says, Route 4 continued its diversion from Sixth Street at Capitol Avenue.
In 1932, both Route 66 and Route 4 were diverted out of Springfield’s downtown, Johnson says, with Route 66 taking Ninth Street and Route 4 taking the western alignment currently designated as the Route 66 Scenic Byway.
John Lucchesi, the Sangamon County representative on the board of the Illinois Route 66 Association, isn’t fully convinced. It’s possible that Johnson is right, he says, but Lucchesi claims to have seen maps in the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library, 326 S. 7th St., that definitively show the path of Route 66 year by year.
Illinois Times located a copy of a map in that collection published by the Springfield Automobile Club, which shows Route 66 traveling down Sixth Street most of the way through Springfield. The map is apparently mislabeled by archivists as originating in 1922, because Route 66 didn’t exist until 1926. A short, handwritten note in the margin indicates the map may be from 1931.
Asked how it’s possible that maps from the very same era could show different routes, Lucchesi said highway construction was still so new at the time that temporary routes often shifted again and again until a permanent route was finished.
With volumes of maps and historical research on Route 66 existing already and more in the works, it’s tough to tell who is right. In the meantime, Route 66 continues to offer treasures for those who look in history books or on the open road.
To view a map comparing the official Route 66 path and Johnson’s path, visit www.goo.gl/maps/6PK64.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.