Route 66Once known as the Main Street of America, U.S. Route 66 was the first year-round cross-country highway connecting Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, Historic Route 66, a national scenic byway is a history-filled journey into America’s love affair with the automobile. One of the best ways to acquaint your children with its history is a day trip to see the public art along the original 1926 path. With our Google map, the kids can read up on the artworks as you visit, using a smartphone or tablet PC/iPad.

Route 66 began in Chicago at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard, went west on Jackson to Ogden Avenue, took Ogden southwest to Joliet Road in Lyons, then took Joliet Road straight south to Joliet before angling off to Springfield, Edwardsville, and seven other states.

View Map of public art along Historic Route 66 in metro Chicago in a larger map

The Art Institute of Chicago is the perfect place to start – it was already there in 1926, as was the Fountain of the Great Lakes. The fountain’s 1913 bronze sculpture is by Lorado Taft; the basin is by the same architects who designed the original section of the Art Institute: Shepley Rutan & Coolidge. It was the first project commissioned by the Ferguson Monument Fund. Lumber tycoon Benjamin Franklin Ferguson, who lived at 1501 W. Jackson Blvd. in the Jackson Boulevard Historic District, left $1 million dollars for the creation of public art in Chicago. Many famous Chicago statues and fountains we enjoy today were the result.

Touring Route 66 in Chicago and Beyond

From Jackson and Michigan onward, art on Route 66 goes from the sublime to the ridiculous and all points in between. The Chicago Board of Trade features one set of ‘lost and found’ sculptures and another that couldn’t be misplaced unless you tore up the building. In the Illinois Medical District are statues of two famous physicians.

Rotue 66 2A stop in Cicero brings both spirituality and notoriety at a church, with offbeat design four blocks away. Berwyn has the first four Route 66 wayside markers, placed by the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway Association; Countryside, Willowbrook and Romeoville get one each (note: the one in Countryside is stored indoors for the winter). The Countryside marker commemorates the Marx Brothers’ chicken farm – honest! – which was pretty much a comedy by itself: the longer the brothers tried to work the farm, the more often they left to watch Cubs baseball instead of raising chickens for the WW I war effort. And if you think that’s crazy, there’s a giant chicken awaiting you in Romeoville.

Route 66 also features a national historic site commemorating the Chicago Portage (Lyons-Forest View), the world’s largest religious wood carving (Darien) and the greatest concentration of outdoor murals in one city, possibly in the country (Joliet).

A tribute to the Mother Road – which is what author John Steinbeck called Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath – stands beside the Route 66 Welcome Center at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. This sculpture and Joliet’s murals are by Friends of Community Public Art, a Joliet-based collective of painters, sculptors and mosaic designers that has created nearly 100 public works of art in Joliet alone.   All that walking and learning will make you hungry, however, so check out where to eat on Route 66 between Chicago and Joliet.

Please note: Repairs are to begin soon on the Ruby Street Bridge in Joliet, which will change slightly the route you take south of Ruby Street. So, instead of turning east onto Ruby Street at Broadway and Ruby, you’ll have to go a few blocks further south and cross the river at the Jackson Street Bridge. In that case, you’ll also end up visiting site #40 before you do, as it’s back on the west side of the river after your trip downtown. Of course, if they haven’t blocked off Ruby Street yet at the bridge (or your read this after the bridge repairs are done), never mind …
Maria R. Traska is an independent journalist, blogger, amateur historian, and happy traveler. This article is partially excerpted from the upcoming book The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago, by Maria R. Traska, Joseph D. Kubal, and Keith Yearman.

Photos copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska