Seeing Route 66 by air in Illinois:  Romeoville to Springfield-Decatur, part 1

Route 66 is known around the world as the iconic American road trip – so why, you wonder, would anyone want to see it from the air?  The truth is an aerial viewpoint can give you a much better grasp and appreciation of the surrounding terrain, as well as a different perspective on our favorite road.

In northern Illinois, March is that dead space between the end of winter and the real start of spring, when the weather goes haywire and you never know what it’ll be like from day to day (never mind the calendar:  we locals know all too well that just because the thaw starts in March, that means nothing; we can get unexpected snowfall right up into May sometimes, even after the traditional April showers have brought out May flowers).

Nevertheless, it’s a better time to travel the route than you might think.  Even though March weather is highly changeable, March is, paradoxically, also when you might get a better view of the land itself (the same applies to early April; don’t let the rain stop you).  The fields and trees are barren, sure, but the lack of foliage lets you see the contours of the land and the rivers and streams more clearly, especially from the air.  Then there’s the fact that – let’s face it – flying low enough to see the layout of the ground beneath you in beautiful detail is just plain fun.  That is, assuming you don’t have a fear of flying (we do not).


Such a flight can be especially rewarding in early spring after the first rains have turned the land green again and the trees are just starting to sprout leaves, still allowing you to see through the branches, or in autumn as the trees and shrubbery are turning gloriously burning colors.  However, you can make a trip by air any time of year, even winter, though you’ll see a lot less detail with snow covering the ground.

Our fearless wanderer, Keith Yearman

Our fearless wanderer and fellow author, Keith Yearman

A flight above Route 66 doesn’t have to be expensive, either, as our colleague and collaborator, geographer Keith Yearman, discovered last week.  With airfare, car rental and lunch, Keith’s impromptu jaunt barely totaled a hundred dollars, if you don’t count the parking at O’Hare, which can quickly get expensive (and you can easily avoid that by taking the CTA subway to O’Hare from one of the stops just down the line from the airport:  there are Park and Ride lots at some of those stops that certainly cost less than airport parking).

Sound like fun to you?  It did to us!  So, on to Keith’s account of the trip; please note that all of the photos here are his and copyright 2015 by him, which means that neither reproduction nor distribution of any of them are allowed without express written permission of Prof. Yearman.  That includes the photos in the slideshow and in the second part of this story.  (Editor’s note: for purposes of full disclosure, I’ve added a few minor details here and there about precise locations and what else of interest to travelers is in the area that Keith visited; but this is Keith’s trip and his story, so we’ll let him tell it his way).  Take it away, Keith!

 
Greetings, fellow travelers!  If you’re looking to see some of Route 66 in Illinois from a different angle, allow me to propose an interesting and cheap way to do so by air (and rental car):  Air Choice One.  Flying under the Essential Air Service, which is federally subsidized, Air Choice One flies from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Decatur, then on to St. Louis.  Unlike larger commercial airplanes, which fly at much higher altitudes, the eight- and nine-seat Cessna Caravans make the Chicago to Decatur run flying at a mere 8,000 feet – offering great views of the landscape along the way.  I recently did the Chicago to Decatur run on Air Choice One, then rented a car and moved on to Springfield.

1 – Our Cessna Caravan loading up at dawn, O’Hare Airport  (photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

1 – Our Cessna Caravan loading up at dawn, O’Hare Airport  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

The trip took place on Wednesday, March 18th.  We left O’Hare that morning on Flight 3E-2501.  Originally scheduled for a 7:35 a.m. departure, we were airborne just after 8 a.m.  Our flight had four passengers and one pilot.  Heading in a south-southwesterly direction, we caught up with Route 66 above the intersection of Interstates 55 and 355 near Darien and Argonne National Laboratory (see photo 3 in slideshow below).  At that point, we began following the route – and the Des Plaines River, both of which were west of our flight path – southwest from the Romeoville area.  Besides the I-55/I-355 interchange, the most notable points of reference there from the air are the Des Plaines River (seen at the far left edge) and the Sanitary & Ship Canal; you can’t miss them.  Argonne National Lab and the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve surrounding it also would have been conspicuous if I’d been looking out of the other side of the plane, as we were flying right over the western edge of the lab campus and Lemont Road (Waterfall Glen is where Canyon Creek, the little stream we got to officially name last year, is located).

(Editor’s note:  For those who are unfamiliar with the Chicago metro area, the wide Sanitary & Ship Canal flows between the narrower Des Plaines River on the north/west and the much smaller Illinois & Michigan Canal on the south/east.  The three waterways parallel each other like that all the way from suburban Lyons to just short of Joliet.  The Des Plaines and the Sanitary & Ship Canal join just below Lockport, with the I&M Canal to the east of them, and flow together until Morris, where the confluence of the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers marks the start of the Illinois River.  The I&M Canal, however, takes a strange turn and actually crosses the Des Plaines/Sanitary & Ship Canal at the south end of Joliet, near the Brandon Lock and Rockville.  From there, the I&M Canal flows on the north side of the larger waterway until it joins the Illinois River at La Salle-Peru.)

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Some of the best views all day of Route 66 were on that early stretch from Romeoville to Joliet (see slideshow above for photo 4).  Major points of interest that were visible from the air early on included Isle a la Cache in the middle of the Des Plaines near Romeoville; the NRHP-listed Lockport Powerhouse, Lock and Dam; downtown Joliet; and Joliet’s auto racing complex south of Interstate 80, the Chicagoland Speedway (an oval racing track well known to NASCAR fans) and Route 66 Raceway (a straight drag-racing strip immediately south of the oval track).  The Romeoville-Lockport stretch made for particularly good viewing because IL 53/Route 66 was clearly visible beside the three waterways.

4a – Detailed view of Romeoville area from Romeoville High School (far right), past three quarries, Lewis University (upper center left) and Lewis Airport (upper left) to Renwick Road/IL 7 intersection (far left).  (photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

4a – Detailed view of Romeoville area from Romeoville High School (far right), past three quarries, Lewis University (upper center left) and Lewis Airport (upper left) to Renwick Road/IL 7 intersection (far left).  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

However, some detailed views of that stretch that we examined later show much more (see photos 4a–4c in the slideshow for a larger, more detailed view).  In photo 4a, Romeoville High School is visible at the far right, along with three quarries immediately south (left) of the school.  The quarries are a revelation, as a drive down IL 53/Route 66/Independence Boulevard at that point gives you no clue that they’re there; but their presence certainly lends credence to the claim that the nearby historic Fitzpatrick House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built from Joliet-Lemont limestone quarried on site.  Note how Route 66 runs between the two westernmost quarries (the two top ones in photo); the squashed-triangle shape of the middle quarry sits between Route 66 and a railroad track running alongside the Des Plaines, whereas the easternmost quarry (lower) is between the Des Plaines and the straight line of the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

In comparison, the I&M Canal is a thin, meandering thread immediately east of (below) the Sanitary & Ship Canal; it periodically vanishes among trees along its banks.  Lewis University (upper center left) and the runways of Lewis Airport (upper left) are easily seen in photo 4a, as is the Renwick Road/IL 7 intersection with Route 66 (far left) and the IL 7 bridge across the three waterways.  You have to look harder, though, to spot Fitzpatrick House:  it’s that light spot completely surrounded by darker trees, immediately to the left of the industrial area across IL 53/Route 66 from the Lewis U. campus and just above a big bend in the Des Plaines River.  Just to the left (south) of IL 7 and above the river is the northern section of Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve.

Detailed view of Crest Hill-Lockport area with the Lockport Powerhouse, Lock and Dam on the Sanitary & Ship Canal.  Note the Des Plaines River flowing immediately west of (above) the powerhouse complex; it and the canal merge just downstream (left) of the island on which the powerhouse stands.  (photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

4b – Detailed view of Crest Hill-Lockport area with the Lockport Powerhouse, Lock and Dam on the Sanitary & Ship Canal. Note the Des Plaines River flowing immediately west of (above) the powerhouse complex; it and the canal merge just downstream (left) of the island on which the powerhouse stands.  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

In photo 4b, the IL 7 bridge and the IL 53/Route 66/Renwick Road intersection are in the far lower right corner; you can see the edge of a Lewis Airport runway at far center right.  The most obvious thing besides the waterways, however, is that big square complex at center left, just south (left) of Renwick Road – that’s the infamous Stateville Penitentiary, now known as Stateville Correctional Center.  Stateville is directly across Route 66 from Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve.  The prison grounds and outbuildings extend outward from the walled prison itself and include a surrounding prison farm.  Route 66 here is seen as a curving diagonal running from the far lower right of the shot to nearly far center left, just above the river, with the entrance gate and long driveway to the prison on it.  You can also see Division Street running along the north (right) side of the prison grounds, past the water tower on the opposite side of the road, as well as the intersection of Division and IL 53/Route 66, where a state police outpost sits conveniently nearby in case of a prison break.  What you can’t see are several signs along Route 66 near the prison that warn motorists absolutely not to pick up any hitchhikers in the area (and they’re dead serious about that, lest one of them be an escapee).

Detailed view of Lockport-Crest Hill-Joliet area looking west, with the Sanitary & Ship Canal and Des Plaines River along bottom of photo  (photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

4c – Detailed view of Lockport-Crest Hill-Joliet area looking west, with the Sanitary & Ship Canal and Des Plaines River along bottom of photo  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

Finally, the Lockport Powerhouse, Lock and Dam are visible between the river and the Sanitary & Ship Canal in the lower left corner of the photo, as they are in the lower right corner of photo 4c.  In photo 4c, at the opposite (left) end of the island to which the powerhouse complex is connected, you can see the confluence of the Des Plaines River and the Sanitary & Ship Canal.  Just below that, along the lower edge of the canal is a freight train crawling along a railroad track that parallels the canal.  A diagonal track crosses it and leads across the western bank of the river through southern Crest Hill.  That diagonal track is the Rockville Junction line, and its viaduct on IL 53/Route 66 (lower center) marks the beginning of greater Joliet.  The major street that begins in the lower left corner just above the river and runs up on an angle toward the right is Theodore Street, which is the city limit and dividing line between Crest Hill and Joliet.  The I&M Canal, on the other hand, is barely and only occasionally visible here along the bottom edge of the shot, even without foliage obscuring it.

5 – Fallow fields full of wind turbines near Coal City, IL  (photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

5 – Fallow fields full of wind turbines near Coal City, IL  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

Just south of downtown Joliet, the route and the river part ways.  The Des Plaines flowed west-southwest toward Morris, Marseilles, Ottawa and La Salle-Peru, while we and Route 66 proceeded southwest over the dormant late winter landscape through rural Will, Grundy, Livingston and McLean Counties.  Below us were the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery to the west of Route 66 and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie to the east, both on land that once belonged to the Joliet Arsenal in Elwood; Wilmington on the Kankakee River; and Coal City and Braidwood flanking I-55 on either side, with the white wind turbines near Coal City standing sharply defined against the brown earth (photo 5).  Also here were dry stream and creek beds that should have been flooded by now, and would have been, had there been more snow cover earlier in the winter; as it is, they will remain dry until the spring rains arrive.

Next time: part 2 – Braidwood to Decatur; Springfield; and the trip home

 
Until next time,
Keith (and Marie!)

 

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