Route 66 has been described as an authentic impression of the “Real America.” In Joliet, this is no exception: Route 66 history is Joliet’s history! The original 1926 alignment passes through the heart and soul of Downtown Joliet, Chicago Street. “The Route” as it is simply known beckons travelers from all over the world with a promise of a new discovery around every turn and a true “DIY” travel experience.
When you enter Joliet, a 1950s ice cream parlor situated on a greenway invites you to stop for a frozen treat. You can almost see the 1950s era pastel, finned cars in the parking lot. Across the Ruby Street Bridge, the twin spires of St. Joseph’s Church marks the neighborhood once known as “Slovenian Row.” This neighborhood was once the site of a massive steel mill and factories which employed waves of Eastern European immigrants in search of a better life in the late 19th century. A small unassuming store front on Chicago Street markes the spot where entrepreneur Sherb Noble opened the first Dairy Queen in America in 1940.
At the Joliet Area Historical Museum, get your bearings in the facility’s expansive Route 66-themed welcome center where you can plan your trip, and learn how Route 66’s ancestor, the I&M Canal, moved goods and people nearly a century before the highway was established. The museum’s modern, fully interactive galleries offer a big-city museum experience while paying homage to the 1909 Ottawa Street Methodist Church by retaining its beautiful stained glass and architectural features.
At the center of it all in Joliet is the magnificent Rialto Square Theater. This incredibly lavish theater, modeled in part after the Palace of Versailles, was opened just months after Route 66 was established. The ostentatious Rialto hosted the most significant Vaudeville acts from the area while was also accommodating newfangled “talkies” that appeared across the country. Saved from the wrecking ball, the beautiful theater is an internationally-renowned source of pride for the community and an architectural treasure on Route 66.
Architecture abounds in Downtown Joliet. The famed “White City” architect, Daniel Burnham, built the city’s stately public library building in 1903, and over a half dozen buildings by Burnham’s architectural firm can be found in the City Center. On Chicago Street, the Woodruff Building was designed by Willam Baron Jenney, known as the Father of the Modern Skyscraper.
Joliet’s Union Station is also a must-see for Route 66 travelers. Al Capone was arrested here in 1927 just before Christmas on a “gun-toting” charge. Capone was attempting to allude authorities in Chicago by disembarking his train early in Joliet and driving back up to Chicago. It is said that the entire Joliet police force apprehended Capone and that it was the only time he was taken by authorities at gunpoint. When he went before a judge, Capone promised, “I’ll never tote a gun again. … in Joliet.”
Just off the route, visit the iconic Old Joliet Prison. Built in 1858 by architect W.W. Boyington – the same architect who built the Chicago Water Tower – the prison became even more famous in 1980 as the home of “Joliet Jake” Blues, portrayed by John Belushi. While the prison remains closed to the public, a pocket park and interpretative signage allows for a Route 66 visitor photo op!
South of Joliet, the former site of a World War II era munitions plant now blooms as Midewin, America’s only restored National Tallgrass Prairie. Walk scenic trails and experience what the area looked and felt like centuries before European settlement, including native species of bison.
Route 66 in Joliet offers an experience that rivals any community along the Route. In addition to a wealth of history, modern gaming, lodging, dining and entertainment are just located steps off of the “Mother Road” and will ensure your time on the road in Joliet is memorable!