Joliet (pop. 152,000) is quite the “Crossroads of Mid-America” location: Route 66 of course goes right through, but right downtown you intersect with two major east-west U.S. highways: U.S. 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental paved road in the United States; and U.S. 6, which runs from Provincetown, Massachusetts at the end of Cape Cod to Bishop, California… and it once ended with U.S. 66 right in downtown Los Angeles. On the Interstate side of things, I-80, an east-west highways starts at the George Washington Bridge as you leave New York City and ends right after you enter San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, intersects with I-55, a key north-south freeway from Chicago to New Orleans. They all meet in Joliet. It’s no wonder a big piece of Joliet’s economy deals with transportation.
We’re, of course, taking Route 66, the Mother Road… so let’s follow this mother.
Joliet is a fast-growing area, but its history dates to a cabin built in 1833 along the banks of the Des Plaines River. On the other side of the river, another settler named James Campbell laid out the first streets of a town he would name after his daughter, Juliet. (Romeoville, a few miles back, originally named itself “Romeo” in a Shakesperian nod). In 1845, residents voted to change the name to Joliet, presumably naming itself after French Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet, although they dropped an “l” in the process.
Heading into the city, a great stop is the “Kicks on 66” park , featuring an ice cream stand, a playground and numerous kiosks giving you the back story on this fabled road’s history with Joliet.
Stateville isn’t the only prison factoring into Joliet’s history. From its opening in 1858, the famous Joliet Prison was one of the largest in Illinois. The “Kicks on 66” park actually overlooks the prison. This is where John Belushi’s “Joliet Jake” character was released from prison in The Blues Brothers; TV shows like Prison Break have also used the facility; it’s also been immortalized in a range of songs by artists from rapper Cashis to folk rocker Bob Dylan.
Known as the “Jewel of Joliet”, the famous Rialto Square Theatre opened in 1926 as a vaudeville movie palace and then became a venue for all kinds of shows. The historic list of performers ranges from the Three Stooges, Carrot Top and Bill Cosby to Lawrence Welk, James Brown, Alice Cooper and Taylor Swift. In other words, a wide variety.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Visitors Center (204 N. Ottawa Street (Route 66), 815-723-5201) offers a wealth of information about Route 66’s journey through Illinois, as well as many gift-buying options. The Historical Museum chronicles much of Joliet’s colorful history and provides kids with plenty of interactive opportunities. They include wandering through a life-size replica that shows how the Illinois & Michigan Canal was built, heading down a turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th, not 20th into 21st) historical street with storefronts, virtual rides on a replica trolley and even attempting to land a lunar module.
As we mentioned before, the downtown crossings in Joliet include U.S. 30, which is the Lincoln Highway – the first cross-country highway, connecting New York City with San Francisco. Route 66 is, of course, the most famous. So while the intersection is fairly nondescript (except for some charming old-school gas pumps on the corners), it’s a very significant crossroads in our nation’s history.
Heading south through Joliet, you cross Interstate 80. Just east of the Des Plaines River and up Interstate 55 a few miles, you’ll find the Best Western Joliet Inn & Suites, a 60-room hotel with a conference center that offers plenty of amenities and a great location for launching a day’s ride ahead down into the heart of Illinois on Route 66.
Best Western Joliet Inn & Suites
4380 Enterprise Drive
Joliet, IL 60431-8309
Route 66 stays coupled with Illinois 53 south of Joliet for quite a while.You reach two major motor venues just south of town. One, the Chicagoland Speedway is a major tri-oval 1.5 mile track that opened in 2001. A major stop on the NASCAR circuit, it will host the first race in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup on September 16-18.
Adjacent is the Route 66 Speedway, which hosts a ¼ mile dragstrip and a ½ mile dirt oval track. There’s also a road course on the ground which covers two miles, a one-mile off-road track, and a 35-acre paved driving pad…all adjacent to the 2,400-mile Mother Road.