Monday, January 21, 2019

Motorcar travel through Illinois: On the old Pontiac Trail, the precursor to Route 66.

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 the railroads. Travel by water was also possible but mainly used for shipping cargo rather than passengers' use. 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.

The main thoroughfare in Illinois was an unpaved road between Chicago and St. Louis. Following a northeast-southwest direction. The Pontiac Trail was born out of the "Mississippi Valley Highway," marked from Chicago to Springfield and the "Lone Star Route," which started in Springfield and led to St. Louis.
       
The "East St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago Trail" and the "Burlington Way," both roads intersected at Edwardsville, Illinois, were also incorporated into the Pontiac Trail.  

This trail had been officially christened and opened to travel as the "Pontiac Trail" in 1914. The nameplates (signs) marking the course of the Pontiac Trail, the connecting highway between Chicago and St. Louis, were placed in position on the guideposts which were erected at intervals of a mile along this highway by the Goodrich Tire Co., showing the mileage to Chicago and St. Louis, and the nearest local towns.

These nameplates bear, in addition to the name, “Pontiac Trail,” the full-length figure of an Indian upholding a map of the State of Illinois. 
The significance will be grasped at once, for this trail inevitably became Illinois Route 4, the great thoroughfare of the State, connecting as it does, its largest city with the metropolis of its western border, and passing through its capital as well as many other prosperous cities and villages, and the heart of the corn belt.

The appropriateness of the Indian figure to the name is likewise at once apparent, and for this great highway the name is doubly significant, for the famous chief whose name it bears, in the later years of his life, often crossed its course, since near its southern terminus he spent his last years and met his death, and his name was commemorated by the christening of one of the prettiest, and most prosperous and energetic of the many towns, through which the trail will pass.

These nameplates were paid for and put up at the expense of the businessmen of the city of Pontiac, who are appreciative of the compliment paid their city by the naming of the trail, and who is also appreciative of the benefit their town will derive from being on the line of this splendid highway.

The naming of the trail after Pontiac, the great Indian, who was able by his genius and the power of his personality its midst and almost encircling the grounds of its famous Chautauqua, probably second in importance only to the parent institution in New York. Pontiac is primarily a city of homes and has infinite attractions as a residence town, although it also is celebrated for its shoes and is the site of the Illinois State Reformatory.

From Pontiac, the trail pursues its way through the world’s garden to Chenoa, just across the line in McLean County, where it intersects another newly named and established road, “The Corn Belt Route,” from Logansport, Indiana, to Peoria.

Beyond Chenoa the trail passes between beautiful waving fields of oats and corn, through the prosperous agricultural towns of Lexington and Towanda, to Normal and Bloomington, contiguous cities, the former the seat of two State institutions, the Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home and the Illinois State Normal University, the latter especially, with its wide and beautifully shaded campus, is well worth visiting.

Bloomington is the queen of the corn belt. Devastated by a great fire on June 12, 1900, which burned over 10 acres of its business district, including the courthouse, with a loss of more than $2,000,000, the city has come to regard the fire as its greatest blessing, and today, its business district is devoid of those ramshackle, prehistoric structures which disfigure most cities, and Bloomington has no competition in the matter of looks among cities even twice its size.

At Bloomington are located the great car shops of the Alton Railroad, and here also is the Illinois Wesleyan University, a Methodist school of importance. Bloomington, with the adjoining town of Normal, also boasts many beautiful residences, miles of perfect pavement and some beautiful parks, and is well worthy of a special visit, and a day or two’s stopover by the motoring tourist.

Leaving Bloomington, the trail still continues through the heart of the corn belt, and a short distance south passes through the famous Funk farms near Funk’s Grove, with their thousands of acres of perfectly tilled land and model farm buildings and farm methods. Pioneers in progressive farming, the Funk family were also early and firm believers in good roads and they did all the road work in their township at actual cost, making use of their farm tractors for the purpose.

Still southwestward, the trail takes its way through McLean and Atlanta, and Lawndale to Lincoln, the county seat of Logan County and an important railroad center, having important mining interests. Lincoln also has the State School and Colony, an institution for the feeble-minded, and the Illinois State Odd Fellow’ Orphans’ Home, a Presbyterian College, and it also has a Chautauqua, situated near the trail, and about two miles southwest of the city.

After Lincoln, the next large town on the trail is Springfield, the State capital, whose historic associations with the personality of Lincoln are too well known to need enlargement. His homestead and his grave are here, and the streets he walked in life, and here came at one time or another every conspicuous figure in the public life of Illinois. Here are the State House and many other public buildings, and here is located the State Fair, past whose grounds the trail enters Springfield, also passing the huge plant of the Illinois Watch Co.

At Springfield, the trail was crossed by the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway {{PP-OO begun early in 1912 the route went from New York City to Los Angeles. PP-OO has fallen into obscurity, virtually unknown even to residents of the cities and towns along the old route.}}, and here another interchange of travel was thought to eventually be developed.

From Springfield, still in the main following the Alton Railroad, the trail leads to the historic old town of Carlinville, the capital of Macoupin County, named after a former governor. From Springfield, south, fields of corn and oats have largely given place to wheat, and the towers of coal mines frequently break the horizon, for here the trail passes through an important coal-producing region, and here it has reached the ancient hunting grounds of the chief whose name it bears.

From Carlinville, the road bears nearly due south, and at the important mining and manufacturing town of Collinsville, turns nearly west into East St. Louis and across the Mississippi to its destination.

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. It was a well-cared-for highway, and following, as it does, State aid roads every inch of its length, its permanent improvement was rapid. The trail followed stone roads the entire distance from Chicago to Morris, a distance of about 60 miles, and at Morris, there are about 2 ½ 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 ½ miles of concrete road, and at Springfield 3 or 4 miles of the same.

It was 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.

The Goodrich Tire Co., in addition to erecting the guideposts, prepared a road log of the route, copies of which can be obtained from the garages at the towns along the road, and from the superintendents of highways of the counties through which it passes.

Visit Our Pontiac Trail Souvenir Shop.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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