Pontiac Trail Road Sign
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The Lone Star Route is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Summit to Lockport along Archer Avenue, bypassing Lemont, then on to Joliet. It continued southwest via Morris to Dwight.
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The Mississippi Valley Highway is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Lambert to Lemont on Main, south on State to Archer, then on through Lockport and Joliet. It is shown continuing southwest through Elwood and Wilmington.
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The Southwest Trail mimics the Lone Star Route on the 1922 Auto Trails Map prepared by Rand McNally for the Chicago Daily News.
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Pontiac Trail Road Sign
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
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The Lone Star Route is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Summit to Lockport along Archer Avenue, bypassing Lemont, then on to Joliet. It continued southwest via Morris to Dwight.
HOME
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
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The Mississippi Valley Highway is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Lambert to Lemont on Main, south on State to Archer, then on through Lockport and Joliet. It is shown continuing southwest through Elwood and Wilmington.
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
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The Southwest Trail mimics the Lone Star Route on the 1922 Auto Trails Map prepared by Rand McNally for the Chicago Daily News.
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
CONTACT ME
Pontiac Trail Road Sign
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
CONTACT ME
The Lone Star Route is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Summit to Lockport along Archer Avenue, bypassing Lemont, then on to Joliet. It continued southwest via Morris to Dwight.
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
CONTACT ME
The Mississippi Valley Highway is shown on a 1922 Auto Trails Map running from Lambert to Lemont on Main, south on State to Archer, then on through Lockport and Joliet. It is shown continuing southwest through Elwood and Wilmington.
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
CONTACT ME
The Southwest Trail mimics the Lone Star Route on the 1922 Auto Trails Map prepared by Rand McNally for the Chicago Daily News.
HOME
UPCOMING EVENTS
STORIES/PHOTOS
GIFT SHOP
CONTACT ME

On the Trail of the Named Highways from Chicago to the Southwest

The Mystery of the Pontiac Trail

Primary Sources: Touring Guides of 1914

Primary Sources: 1915 King's Official Route Guide--COMING SOON!

Cover of August 1915 issue of Illinois Highways. Click for larger view.

The Mystery of the Pontiac Trail

Noted Road Scholar, Michael Wallis, introduced me and his other readers to the Pontiac Trail in his great book, Route 66: The Mother Road. It was about 1996 when I first read this book and learned of the roads folks would have used before the highway which connected Chicago to St. Louis was christened US 66. "The main thoroughfare in Illinois was an unpaved road between Chicago and St. Louis. Following a north-south direction, this road went by many names--Burlington Way, East St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago Trail, Mississippi Valley Highway, Greater Sheridan Road, and Lone Star Route. One of the most popular names for the road was the Pontiac Trail."

Michael goes on to quote an article that appeared in the August 1915 issue of Illinois Highways, a publication of the State Highway Department. "The article explained that the Pontiac Trail was 'the shortest route for motor travel between Chicago and St. Louis, with so many large and important towns on its course, and intersecting, as it does, so many important east and west thoroughfares, its rapid development as a highway is easily forecasted. Already it is a well cared for highway, and following, as it does, state aid roads every inch of its length, its permanent improvement will be rapid and certain.'"

The article from the August 1915 Illinois Highways. Click to read .pdf transcript of article.

When my interest in Chicago's transportation history grew from curiosity to obsession, I began digging deeper into primary sources to get a better understanding of the processes and circumstances that shaped the highway network we now know. I had the opportunity in December 2002 to go to the library at the University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign and see the Illinois Highways issue of August 1915. [Click Here to read a .pdf transcript of entire article.]

I noted that the article describes the Trail as going through Summit, Argo, Lemont, and Lockport on its way to Joliet, meaning that the Trail did NOT follow the familiar route of 66 out of Chicago along Joliet Road (although the exact routing is not given). Also noted was the reference to a passage through Morris, southwest of Joliet, before a turn straight south to Dwight. "The trail follows stone roads the entire distance from Chicago to Morris, a distance of about 60 miles, and at Morris there are about 2 1/2 miles of concrete road. South of Pontiac, there are 5 miles of asphalt, stone and concrete road, and about 4 miles of concrete and crushed stone through Funk's Grove. At Lincoln there are 2 1/2 miles of concrete road, and at Springfield 3 or 4 miles of the same." I expected future research would indicate the specific alignment of the Trail. This has proven untrue. Besides the Illinois State Highway Department's February 1917 "Map showing Marked Through Routes in Illinois," I have seen no other references in primary sources to the Pontiac Trail.

Map showing Marked Through Routes in Ilinois, detail. Click for larger view.

The Illinois Highways article mentions that the Trail was "opened to travel, the name plates marking the course of the Pontiac Trail, the connecting highway between Chicago and St. Louis, having been placed in position on the guide posts which were erected at intervals of a mile along the highway by the Goodrich Tire Co., showing the mileage to Chicago and St. Louis, and the nearest local towns."

"It is but justice to say that these name plates are paid for and put up at the expense of the live business men of the city of Pontiac, who are appreciative of the compliment paid their city by the naming of the trail, and who are also appreciative of the benefit their town will derive from being on the line of this splendid highway." The article also mentions that "It is planned to form the Pontiac Trail Association, with a vice president in each township and an officer in each county through which the trail passes, for the purpose of improving the dirt roads along the route, and of hastening the coming of a permanent highway." In addition to erecting guideposts, the Goodrich Company was "preparing a road log of the route, copies of which can be had, when completed, from the company at Akron, Ohio, from the garages at the towns along the road, and from the superintendents of highways of the counties through which it passes."

This information suggests that further research would reveal details in the form of printed material from the Goodrich Company, and perhaps accounts from Pontiac newspapers concerning the financial involvement in the promotion and signing of the highway by local businessmen. It also seems that if a Pontiac Trail Association was formed, some record of it would present itself in a library archive or other written account. However, as of this writing [November 2005], no further information has been found concerning the Pontiac Trail. I must state that I have NOT YET pursued the research in the local Pontiac newspaper archives from the period--this is an avenue I hope to follow when time permits.

What I have done to date is (1) search in vain for any further reference to a Pontiac Trail Association in the catalogs of Illinois libraries, and (2) search with some results for Illinois travel and touring information from the period published by the Goodrich Tire Company. Strikingly, the Goodrich literature gives DETAILED information concerning motor travel through the state, but FAILS to MENTION the Pontiac Trail!

As time permits, I will continue the saga of the public highways and thoroughfares that connected Chicago to the southwest via St. Louis. From the Goodrich Route Book of 1917, the Chicago Daily News Motor Guide of 1922, and from Official Automobile Blue Books of 1914, 1920, and 1923, I have seen how the route to the southwest evolved in the years before Route 66. The lack of information on the Pontiac Trail remains a mystery, but the road to discovery often takes the unexpected turn!

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Map showing West Park locations and Boulevards. Click for larger view.

Primary Sources: Touring Guides of 1914

In the first decades of the 20th century, most people who traveled long distances, such as from Chicago to Joliet, Bloomington, Springfield, or St. Louis, did so via railroad. Travel by water was also possible, but mainly used for shipping and cargo rather than passengers. Roads were mainly used for local travel within municipalities, or in rural areas to travel from farms to the nearest rail depot or commercial harbor.

As early motorists went touring, they encountered pathways of dirt or mud, with few signposts or markings to help them find their way. As an aid to the pioneering auto enthusiast, several private companies published touring guides with maps and turn-by-turn routings to and from popular destinations. Most of these guides were regional and would describe in detail how one would travel from the main population centers of the subject region to destinations within the region. Most of these guides would also cover a few routes from the subject region to popular points beyond. One such guide in the collection of Chicago's Newberry Library is the Good Roads Tour Book--1914, © 1914 by the Automobile Club of Buffalo. The directions for the Buffalo-to-Chicago route indicate a distance of 575.7 miles and guides the motorist from "Buffalo to Chicago via Erie, Cleveland, Toledo and South Bend." Once in Chicago, the tourist was guided as to how to get to and from Milwaukee, but there was no mention of any directions to or from St. Louis.

The Newberry Library also has another 1914 directional guide: The Official Automobile Blue Book, an annual multi-volume publication. Each volume of the Blue Books was dedicated to a certain region, and the particular 1914 volume in the Newberry collection covered the upper midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri.

Like most of these motoring guides, the Blue Books featured an overview map near the front of the book which illustrated the number key for the detailed routes to be found in the volume. The overview map in the 1914 midwest volume showed the directions for a Chicago-to-Bloomington trip as route 20, and the reverse Bloomington-to-Chicago directions was shown as route 121. Bloomington-to-Springfield was route 127, and the reverse route was 161. Route 164 guided the tourist from Sprifield to St. Louis "via the Alton Way," and 164A used the road through Litchfield. The reverse from St. Louis to Sprinfield via Alton was handled in route 191 and via Litchfield in route 191A.

Postcard view of Michigan north from Jackson ca. 1916. Click for more!

One of the questions that often comes up in discussion about Route 66 in Chicago is, "why was the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue chosen as the eastern terminus of the route?" The 1914 Blue Book gives an answer as to the importance of this Chicago crossroad: "Route Center--All routes starting from Chicago are begun at the intersection of Jackson and Michigan Boulevards, for this is not only the central point north and south, but Jackson Boulevard, in connection with Washington Boulevard, is the only street offering suitable exit east and west through the city, therefore practically all travel in any direction must use either Jackson or Michigan Boulevard. In addition to this, it is within two blocks of the heart of the city and still away from the rush of business traffic and within easy reach of all of the principal downtown hotels." [Click Here for postcard views of the "route center" area circa 1907-1923]

Postcard view of Garfield Park Golden Dome Building. Click for more!

Route 20 from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois is described as starting at Jackson and Michigan Boulevards, taking Jackson west to Garfield Park, then continuing west on Washington Boulevard, Ausin Avenue, Madison Street, and Des Plaines Avenue to LaGrange. The directions continue through Lockport to Joliet, where the travel is described along Collins, Cass, Chicago and Exchange Streets, across the Des Plaines River and the Illinois & Michigan Canal, then through Minooka to Morris, Illinois. The route guides included mileage readings, and in Morris, the directions guided the motorist along Washington Street, then at 70.6 miles along the journey,"turn left across long bridge over Illinois River. Road is almost straight south over 17 miles" although jogs/curves are noted at the 76.3, 76.6, and 79.5 mile readings.

"88.2--End of Road; jog left and take first right across RR 89.0.
89.2--4 corners; turn left and take first right onto Prairie Street.
89.6--DWIGHT--RR straight ahead. Avoid RR crossing by turning right on Chippewa Street.
89.8--Washington Street, turn left and bear right just beyond along RR. Follow along tracks into ODELL 97.5"

Into Bloomington, the routing is given along Willow Street, Oak, Ash, Beaufort, then left on Main to Jefferson. In most cities and towns besides Chicago, the beginning and ending points of the routes usually were oriented at the local courthouse, as is the case here with the ending point of Route 20 at the McLean County Courthouse at Jefferson and Main.

The reverse trip of Bloomington-to-Chicago is detailed in Route 121, where we learn of the "Road Condition--via Pontiac, Dwight, and Joliet. First part to Morris good dirt roads in dry weather. Rest of way mostly gravel and macadam." Route 127 from Bloomington to Springfield is described as "via Lincoln and Williamsville. Good natural dirt roads in dry weather." From the courthouse at Main and Washington in Bloomington the driver is directed west on Washington, left on Morris, "bear right at 6 corners, left at 4 corners, left before RR to SHIRLEY STA."

At the 69.0 mile point nearing Springfield, "Caution for sharp down grade across Sangamon River bottoms, over 3 bridges running upgrade."

"71.4--Curve right and left just beyond, under RR 72.9
73.9--At far side of State Fair Grounds turn right across tracks on brick pavement.
74.3--At western edge of fair grounds turn left on 8th Street; cross RR 75.1 to
75.3--Grand Avenue; turn right on pavement 3 blocks, recrossing RR
75.6--5th Street small church of right; turn left across RRs 75.7 & 76.3 to Court House.
76.5--SPRINGFIELD, Washington and 5th Street."

Route 164 from Springfield to St. Louis is described as "via 'The Alton Way' over mostly good dirt with some stretches of gravel." "Just south of Alton the route passes through the closely allied cities of Granite City, Madison and Venice. These are located almost opposite to St. Louis and are all important manufacturing towns." "The new McKinley Bridge offers convenient means of transportation across the Mississippi River."

An advertisement on page 208 of the Blue Book exhorts the reader to "Travel 'The Alton Way.' Follow the White-Black-White Markings." "Chicago Springfield St. Louis." "Better Roads, Better Hotels, Better Garages & Better Cities. A really attractive trip with fewer grades than any other route between Springfield & St. Louis." A map in the ad shows the Alton Way passing through Springfield, Chatham, Auburn, Thayer, Virden, Girard, Nilwood, Carlinville, Chesterfield, Challacombe, Medora, Piasa, Brighton, Godfrey, Alton, E. Alton, Oldenburg, Granite City, Madison, Venice, and St. Louis.

Route 164A took travelers from Springfield to St. Louis "via Litchfield and Edwardsville over level country on Natural Dirt Roads." (Curiously, the text indicates "see route 165 for complete option via the Alton Way." This might be a typo, with actual intention to reference route 164, as described above. Route 165 adds considerable distance to the trip, running through Quincy with a longer route along the Mississippi down to Alton, so it is difficult to understand why this would be given as an "option" for driving from Sprinfield to St. Louis.) 164A indicates a drive through Cotton Hill, Litchfield, Mt. Olive, Staunton, Hamel, Edwardsville, Marysville, and Collinsville. The directions indicate Missouri Avenue into East St. Louis, then 3rd and Broadway to a river crossing on the Eads Bridge into St. Louis.

SUMMARY--The 1914 Blue Book gives a fascinating look at travel conditions in the period twelve years prior to the creation of 66 and the other US Highways. Jackson and Michigan in Chicago is already the "Route Center" due to the superiority of the Chicago Boulevard system and lack of viable alternatives for through-traffic. The roads from Chicago to Morris are described as "mostly gravel and macadam," which matches with the Illinois Highways August 1915 description of the Pontiac Trail following "stone roads the entire distance from Chicago to Morris." Illinois Highways goes on to indicate conrete road "at Morris," and 5 miles of "asphalt, stone and concrete" south of Pontiac. The 1914 Blue Book only indicates "good dirt roads in dry weather" between Morris and Bloomington. Natural dirt roads continue south into Springfield in the 1914 description, while the August 1915 Pontiac Trail account indicates "4 miles of concrete and crushed stone fhrough Funk's Grove," "2 1/2 miles of concrete" at Lincoln, and "3 or 4 miles" of the same at Springfield. Clearly, road improvements were in a dynamic state in the state of Illinois! Interestingly, the only named trail mentioned in the 1914 Blue Book along the Chicago-St. Louis corridor is the Alton Way.

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Map showing West Park locations and Boulevards. Click for larger view.

Primary Sources: 1915 King's Official Route Guide

Recently I was able to acquire a well-preserved copy of a book titled King's Official Route Guide: Section Four--Automobile Routes of Illinois and Iowa, published in 1915. Organized in much the same way as the Blue Books, this guide sought to set itself apart from its better known competitor with a personal touch: All routes were "personally inspected by Mr. Sidney J. King," publisher. "In presenting this 1915 edition to you we feel that we have reached the pinnacle of perfection and although we will strive to make each edition more perfect, yet in introducing this book to our patrons we think that it will adequately meet the demand of the touring public."

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