If you take the western, original 66 route, you’ll also pass through lovely Carlinville (pop. 5,912). The seat of Macoupin County, Carlinville is officially part of the exterior St. Louis region. Carlinville is named for former Illinois governor Thomas Carlin (not comedian George Carlin, as some like to joke) and has a town square surrounded by handsome brick buildings. “Circling the square”, you’ll see a number of local restaurants, shops and the Loomis House. The Loomis House opened as a 50-room hotel in 1870 and lived on as the St. George Hotel for many decades. Since 1975, it has been owned a local family and the building houses a number of small businesses, including an Internet café.
The Macoupin County Courthouse (210 E. Main Street, 217-854-2141) lies along Illinois 108 just east of the town square. Completed in 1870, the courthouse’s construction was anything but boring. Originally bonded for $50,000 to handle initial construction costs, by the time the building opened costs had soared to over $1.3 million – in 1870 dollars – earning the nickname “million dollar courthouse” and inviting plenty of scandal around the possibility of misappropriating funds (in Illinois – imagine!). Upon completion, it was the largest county courthouse in the United States and was even larger than the Illinois Statehouse. Forty years later, all bonds were retired. Today, the southeast corner of the Macoupin County Courthouse grounds also holds the county’s war memorial, completed in 1966.
The Macoupin County Jail is notable for looking more like a fortress than a jail. Completed in 1869 and in use until 1988, the jail was built with leftover cannonballs embedded in the walls, a further impediment to escape for contemplating inmates. Tours are available by calling 217-854-2141.
Trivia: Sears Catalog Homes was a popular ready-to-assemble set of kit houses in the early 20th century that gave rise to over 70,000 housing units in the U.S. between 1908 and 1940. Sears found a huge customer in a mining company that ordered thousands of homes to erect for its workers in and around Carlinville. In recognition, Sears named one of its Catalog Home lines “the Carlin.”
At this point, you can follow Illinois 108 east to catch I-55 and the newer Route 66 alignment for speed, or continue on the original 1926-1940 stretch of Route 66 south from Carlinville.
Continuing south on the original stretch, Gillespie (pop. 3,412) is next. Over the Honey Creek Bridge, check out the adjacent original bridge and alignment of Route 66, in use until 1930. Next is Benld (pop. 1,541). Yes, we spelled "Benld" right; it's named for founder Ben L. Dorsey. In Benld, check out the Fassero Oil Company and the Coliseum Ballroom, both Route 66 Hall of Fame members. Benld is also notable for a 1938 incident in which local resident Edward McCain came home to find a 4-inch meteorite had crashed through his garage roof and embedded itself in the seat of his 1937 Pontiac. The meteorite and portions of the car are now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
1940-1977 option: via I-55
Heading south of Springfield, Route 66 follows today’s I-55, so open it up and let ‘er rip! You cross Lake Springfield, a huge reservior that formed in 1935 when the Sangamon River was dammed to provide the city with drinking water and recreation. When people from Springfield say they’re “going to the lake”, this is usually what they’re talking about.
The interchange where I-55, I-72 and Route 66 meet up on Springfield’s south side is Exit 90, and the numbers decrease as you head south. It’s pretty much a beeline to the towns south, as you can use the east Frontage Road, which for a time was the original highway, or the freeway lanes.