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Along Route 66–The Landscape–The Chicago Portage National Historic Site

The Chicago Portage

The Chicago Portage National Historic Site

“We could go with ease to Florida in a bark and by very easy navigation. it would be necessary to make a canl, but cutting through a half league of prairie, to pass from the foot of Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River.” –Louis Joliet, 1673

The only impediment to navigation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River was the Chicago Portage, a low continental divide just west of Chicago.

Native Americans recognized that the Chicago Portage was the shortest route between the St. Lawrence River, which drains to the Atlantic, and the Mississippi, which drains to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet returned to Lake Michigan after their discovery of the Mississippi, a trip which took them as far south as the Arkansas before they turned back. They began their trip in Green Bay, which took them to the Fox River, across a divide to the Wisconsin, and down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

They returned to Lake Michigan via the Illinois River, the Des Plaines River, and the Chicago Portage.

The Des Plaines is the northern branch of the Illinois and flowes from southern Wisconsin south parallel to and five miles west of the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan. The river turns south west two or three miles east of a swamp known as Mud Lake, which fed both the Des Paines and the south branch of the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan at the future site of Chicago.

Native Americans and pioneers in canoes could portage from one river to the other across Mud Lake, but travelers in larger boats could not. When Marquette and Joliet crossed the swamp in 1673, Joliet noted that a canal could connect the two rivers and make passage to the Mississippi from Lake Michigan easy. Several, years later LaSalle, who traveled down the Mississippi to the Gulf, noted that the upper reaches of the Illinois River were unnavigable to Peru, Illinois and any canal that connected the Illinois to Lake Michigan would have to bypass that section of the Illinois.

In 1848 the Illinois and Michigan Canal did just that.

The canal that connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi cut a channel through solid rock from the south branch of the Chicago River to the Chicago Portage, which separated water which flowed to the Atlantic from that which flowed to the Gulf of Mexico. It crossed Mud Lake and ran parallel to the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers.

If you are traveling Route 66 out of Chicago, Ogden Avenue runs west to Illinois 43, which travels south to Joliet Road, where 66 picks up again. A little south of that intersection is the entrance to the Chicago Portage National Historic Site, which sits on the divide between drainage to the Mississippi and that to Lake Michigan.

A Lock and Dam at Lockport, sluice gates at Chicago Harbor,  a Lock and Dam on the Calumet River, pumps at Wilmette harbor control the flow of water through the system.

In 1900 the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, 28 miles long, replaced the Illinois and Michigan Canal and connected Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River. Before its construction, Chicago dumped its sewage into Lake Michigan, from which the city also drew its drinking water.

In essence, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, made a second cut through the divide, and sent Chicago’s sewage to the Mississippi. In 1907 it was extended to Joliet. In 1910 a second canal, the North Shore Channel, was added to the system, and a third, the Cal-Sag Channel was added in 1922.

I have this fantasy that should any or all of the dams failed, the Great Lakes would drain to the Gulf of Mexico.


Route 66 Landscape: The Bloomington Moraine

Lake, Moraine View State Park, east of Bloomington, Illinois

Lake, Moraine View State Park, east of Bloomington, Illinois

Two weeks ago I traveled up I-55, the road the replaced U.S. 66 though Illinois with plans to visit Moraine View State Park, just east of Bloomington, which sits on the highest elevation in Illinois.

When a glacier pushes south across a landscape it scrapes up soil, breaks down rocks into cobbles and gravel, and flattens the terrain. When it reaches its southern extent and the climate warms, it stops and drops the sand, clay, and rocks it has carried south and builds a morain, that rises above the flat landscape. As it withdraws, it stops and starts, stops and starts. With each stop it lays down a recessional moraine. In between the land is flat, wet, and marshy.

The Bloomington Moraine, about 20 miles east of Bloomington, Illinois, while not the southern extent of the Michigan lobe of the Wisconsinan ice sheet, tops out at 920 feet.

The park is lovely, its forest soothing, its lake pleasant, though artificial.

The big surprise is the wind farm that marks the northern edge of the park. Of course, high and windy, the Bloomington Moraine is ideal for a wind farm.

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, Illinois

Twin Groves Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, Illinois

So, if you travel down Route 66 from Chicago or north from St. Louis, get yourself to LeRoy, Illinois and go north. Stop and have a picnic in the Moraine View State Park, and then continue north on McLean County Road 36.

And, should you not want to take the time to detour to the park and wind farm, there is a second one under construction up Route 66 near Odell in Livingston County.

Twin Grove Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, Illinois

Twin Grove Wind Farm, Bloomington Moraine, Illinois

Route 66 Bike Trail, St. Louis to Chicago

Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis

Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis

Between August 29 and September 3 there will be a bike tour to promote the development of a Illinois Route 66 bike trail between Chicago and St. Louis. For those of you in St. Louis, it will start at the Chain of Rocks Bridge across the Mississippi, the old bridge that has been converted to a biking/hiking bridge. The ride will end at the beginning of Route 66 on Jackson Avenue near the Art Institute in Chicago. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is developing the trail with the help of the League of Illinois Bicyclists.

The Bloomington Pantagraph has an extensive article on the section in McLean County, Illinois, which includes abandoned sections of the old route at Chenoa, Lexington, and Towanda.

For more information go to http://www.bikelib.org/route66/2009ride/ for information about food, lodging, and route. This last comes in a 14 page users’ guide.

For a great read-aloud guide to Route 66, check out my book Along Route 66 and my history of Route 66, Route 66: The highway and it people, with Susan Croce Kelly.

Lester Dill and Stanley Marsh

They are two Route 66 characters who, today, are better known for the artifacts they left on the roadside than for who they are.

Barn in Oklahoma

Meramec Caverns Barn in Oklahoma

Lester Dill owned and operated Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri. And he promoted his cave with signs painted on barns all along Route 66 and throughout the Midwest. He painted his first barn on the Ohio Turnpike in the thirties: See Meramec  Caverns, U.S. 66, MO.

Meramec Caverns Sign, Missouri

Meramec Caverns Sign, Missouri

Travelers saw the first barn, then the second barn. With each sighting the anticipation became intense. Children clamoured to see the cave. Parents caved when they got to Stanton. And, in the days before air conditioned cars, it was a steady 58 degrees in the cave, a place to cool off from the summer heat.

Read the full story about Lester and his cave and his barns in Route 66: The Highway and its People, Photographs by Quinta Scott, Text by Susan Croce Kelly. Its available at the Along Route 66 Bookstore.

Lester Dill had a public face, a familiar character on late night television.

Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

Stanley Marsh is not. No barns announce the Cadillac Ranch, a sculpture just west of Amarillo, more on I-40 than U.S. 66. There is no anticipation. If you don’t look north from I-40, you just might miss it. But travelers somehow get to the side road, clamour over the fence, and risk picking up chiggers in the grassy field where ten Cadillacs are planted nose down in the soil.

Cadillac Ranch Amarillo, Texas

Cadillac Ranch Amarillo, Texas

The ranch is a work in progress. Graffiti artists change it weekly. Every photograph of it is different. When I made photographs of it, it was not nearly as colorful as it is today.

Chain of Rocks Bridge Turns 80

The Bend in the Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Bend in the Chain of Rocks Bridge

Two projects came together on the Chain of Rocks Bridge. I first crossed this eccentric bridge in the 1960s on a return trip from Peoria, Illinois. My father, always intent on broadening my horizons, drove me across this bridge at the northern edge of St. Louis. I returned to it many times before it was closed in the 1980s. We celebrated its 80th birthday last week.

I began learning the history of the bridge in the 1980s when I was working on Route 66, The Highway and its People, Photographs by Quinta Scott; Text by Susan Croce Kelly. I told the story of the bridge in Along Route 66, the Architecture of American’s Highway:

“In 1929 John R. Scott and Tom J. Scott, brothers, completed four miles of roadway from Mitchell to the east bank of the Mississippi where they had constructed a most eccentric toll bridge. It was narrow, only twenty feet wide. It had a right turn in the middle, and a remarkable view of the Chain of Rocks, a major obstruction to shipping in the Mississippi, and of the little castles which housed the pumps for the St. Louis waterworks.

The Scott brothers and a group of investors began planning the Chain of Rocks bridge in 1924, two years before U.S. 66 was designated. They wanted to provide a way into St. Louis that by-passed Granite City, Madison, and Venice and cut eight to ten miles off the trip between Chicago and St. Louis. A bridge at the northern extreme of St. Louis would do that.

They started construction on the Missouri side before they had found the bedrock anchor for the pier on the Illinois bank. They never did, at least not in the place they needed it for a straight bridge. So, the Scott’s engineers poked around along the Illinois shore until they found bedrock 200 yards up stream, and built a 22 degree left/right turn into the bridge.

When the Scotts opened the bridge on July 20, 1929, Missouri and Illinois failed to mark it on their official maps. After the initial publicity, traffic dwindled and so did income from tolls. The bridge went into foreclosure. The Scotts reorganized, laid an additional 600 feet of road from the west end of the bridge to connect with Lindbergh Boulevard which became the 66 by-pass around St. Louis, and renewed their efforts to encourage drivers to use the bridge. Discouraged, they sold the bridge to the City of Madison, Illinois in 1939 which turned it into a “Golden Goose” until the Interstate-270 bridge replaced the narrow, two lane bridge with the right angle in the middle where two trucks, going in opposite directions, could not pass.”

Baxter L. Brown was the engineer that designed the bridge. The Union Bridge and Construction Co. of New York and the American Bridge Co. were the builders.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Confluence Greenway and Trail Net have leased the bridge from the City of Madison and have gone a long way to restoring the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and the wetlands and islands that surround its Illinois approach. On a pleasant summer day, it is a good place to walk or bike.

Popular Mechanic’s Auto Court Bungalow on Route 66


Shady Rest, West Tulsa, Oklahoma

Shady Rest Cottage Camp, West Tulsa, Oklahoma

In 1935, with an eye on the growing popularity of auto camps, Popular Mechanics published a set of  plans and specifications for a 10  x 12 foot frame cabin, finished with the sheathing of the owner’s choice–clapboard, log siding, or stucco–on the outside and fiber board on the inside.

It was a front gable cabin constructed with a seven foot high frame of 2 x 4 inch studs set on a 4 x4 inch sill plate. The gable was three feet to the ridge. The roof could be roll tar paper or shingles. Standardized barn windows in the walls provided cross ventilation. It was big enough to accommodate two people in a standard double bed. 

Maurice Colpitts, a plumbing inspector for the city of Tulsa, hired a contractor to build the Shady Rest in 1936.

The contractor may have built the little 10 x 12 foot 9 inch clapboard shacks at the Shady Rest from a prefabricated kit purchased at the local lumber store or from the Popular Mechanics cabin design.

Colpitts’ contractor finished the cabins in clapboard and constructed car ports in the space between the shacks. When the Shady Rest was completed, Colpitts moved his family to the auto camp where they all had a hand in maintaining the site while he continued to inspect plumbing for the city of Tulsa.

Charles Lee Cook, manager of the Shady Rest Motel in Tulsa, measured one of his cabins for me to see if it conformed to the plans and specifications of the Popular Mechanics cabin . Close enough.

Bungalow Court, Kingman, Arizona

Bungalow Court, Kingman, Arizona

Three years later, Jack Sapp built a series of similar cabins in Kingman.

In 1938, Duncan Hines recommended to tourists arriving in Kingman, “While it may be hot up here, it is nothing to what it is down in Needles. So better hang around until ‘long about sunset.”

It was good advice, and the people of Kingman supplied plenty of motels to hang around in. The December 22, 1939 issue of the Mohave County Miner announced, “Auto Courts Becoming One Most Important Businesses Here, Huge Sums Invested.” By the end of 1939 Kingman had accommodations for 800 visitors.

Jack Sapp added twenty-four cabins to Kingman’s stock of overnight housing. Sapp built simply, possibly using the design for the ten foot by twelve foot cabin published in Popular Mechanics four years earlier. Sapp added a larger building to house his office and residence, and finished the whole in stucco.

Cucamonga Gas Station


Cucamonga Gas Station

Cucamonga Gas Station

Cucamonga, a Jack Benny joke and a city of orange groves when Henry Klusman built the old gas station at Foothill and Archibald.  The City of Rancho Cucamonga says the station was built in 1914. I have it dated as 1934, when the Spanish Mission style was all the rage along U.S. 66 and the oil companies were using Spanish Mission to establish their identities.

No matter the city has given it historic landmark status, making it harder to raze. The big billboard company, Lamar Advertising which owns the building, is not happy about that. The buildings historic status might reduce its property value, making it harder to sell it. It is roadside building standing from the heyday of Route 66, which means Meyer’s Service Station is gone.

Meyer's Service Station, 1950

Meyer's Service Station, 1950

Meyer’s station was at the Cajon Cut-off, which allowed travelers to Las Vegas could avoid San Bernardino in order to go north.

New use of the old buildings along 66 is problematic. I haven’t been out on the road for over ten years, but in 1998 hopeful people had set up shop in the old roadside buildings and invoking the magic name, “Route 66,” in order to lure customers. Sometimes it worked. More often it didn’t. 

I’m not sure anybody has cracked the nut of making a living from the old buildings, certainly not the living the buildings provided their original owners.

There are a handful of motels that could be turned into bed and breakfasts if they were well managed and well advertised. But, old gas stations, I’m not sure.