Happy Route 66 Birthday Week! And happy birthday to Route 66: today is the 89th anniversary of the day our favorite U.S. Route opened for business, providing all us roadies with that most iconic American road trip … but not right away. It took years for the route to reach all the way to Los Angeles. Illinois was the one place in which Route 66 was actually up, running and being driven on Day One. In other states, the route was mostly theoretical, a line on a map and not much else. Even two months later at year’s end, only about 800 miles of the route were paved, and half of those were here in Illinois. So it seems only fitting that we celebrate the man who made Route 66 possible in Illinois – and helped to bring the rest of the route system into being.
How is it that Illinois alone was 100-percent operational when the route came into existence on November 11, 1926? It was largely one man’s doing: state highway engineer Frank T. Sheets. He had already been engaged in a very active program of road building within the state for several years by the time the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) asked the feds in late 1924 to help create a real network of interstate and transcontinental highways. Sheets would be a key figure in that process, too.
You might say that planning and building roads was the family business for Sheets. Frank Thomas Sheets might have been born in Ohio in 1890, but he soon moved with his family to Springfield, IL after his father, Edgar, accepted the position of superintendent of the Illinois State Highway Department. Some of that interest in transportation engineering must have rubbed off on young Frank, because he took a job as a clerk in the State Highway Department at the age of 17. That would have been either in late 1907 or in 1908. In 1911, he left to study engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from which he graduated in 1914, at which point Sheets returned to the highway department.
By 1916, Sheets had been promoted to assistant maintenance engineer of the Highway Bureau of Maintenance. It gave him an excellent grasp of exactly what shape the state’s roads were in and why more of them needed to be paved. That was also the year that the federal-aid highway program began, presaging the era of government-supported interstate and transcontinental road building. His supervisor at that point was B.H. Piepmeier, who within a few years would be the chief of the Missouri Highway Department. The two men would be reunited in 1925 as AAHSO delegates to the Joint Board on Interstate Highways – and as members of the board’s all-important Committee of Five, which would develop the system for numbering the interstate highways of the U.S. Route System. They would also take the heat for dissatisfaction with the numbering choices – and there would be plenty of that before the route system was finalized enough to become official.
In 1920, a barely 30-year-old Sheets became chief of the highway department just as the possibility of federal aid for highway building was starting to surface. There wasn’t that much federal funding to go around at first, but the following year saw the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921, which had two main requirements: first, that at least three-sevenths of the mileage that would be receiving the federal aid in a given state would be “interstate in character” and second, that the system receiving the funds would represent at least 7 percent of each state’s road network. It wasn’t what we today would consider generous federal funding, but compared to the next to nothing that the feds had spent on roads since Thomas Jefferson’s day, it was considered a ‘golden age’ of road building. Even so, Sheets didn’t look to the feds for most of his funding. He had ambitious plans, and that required more money than he could get from Washington.
As it turned out, between 1920 and 1932 Sheets was an aggressive, prolific road builder, especially during those early years. Because the roads he built were largely funded by state bond issues, they were initially designated as SBI routes. One of the first major roads he tackled was the old stagecoach road between Chicago and St. Louis, one of the oldest – if not the oldest – roads in the state. It was paved in sections but not hard paved, meaning not with material that could withstand a steady onslaught of cars and trucks. SBI 4, later renamed IL 4, ran along that old stagecoach road between Chicago and St. Louis, part of which had been briefly known during the early 20th century as the Pontiac Trail – but it began at the Chicago city limits on Ogden Avenue, which as a de facto boulevard was already paved within the city (so was Jackson Boulevard). It would be those same three roads – Jackson, Ogden, and SBI 4 – on which Route 66 would be superimposed, because the route planners wanted as much as possible to use existing roads that were suitable for carrying the expected heavy traffic. And by late 1926, all of IL 4 from Chicago to the McKinley Bridge across the Mississippi River would be hard paved, thanks to Frank Sheets (it was, in fact, mostly paved earlier in the year anyway).
Sheets was president of AASHO in 1925, the year that the Joint Board on Interstate Highways was appointed in February by the Secretary of Agriculture to create the U.S. Route System (there was no Department of Transportation back then). Not only was Sheets appointed to the Joint Board, but he was also on the Committee of Five appointed in August that year to create the numbering system for the initial routes, which had already been tentatively mapped. Appointed by E.W. James, chief of the federal Bureau of Public Roads’ Division of Design, Sheets, Piepmeier of Missouri, and Route 66 proponent Cyrus Avery of Oklahoma were all on the committee, along with Roy Klein of Oregon and Charles H. Moorefield of South Carolina. Thus, three of the states through which the as-yet-unnamed curving Chicago-to-L.A. route would go were in the group that would number the routes. This would not go unnoticed as disputes arose. Nevertheless, these three helped to make Route 66 a reality. How the route got its particular number, however, is a tale for another day this week.
Under Sheets’s command, the Illinois Division of Highways continued to improve roads within the state and to grant Route 66 wider pavements and grade separations, along with its first altered alignment by 1928. By the time Sheets left the department in 1932, the state’s road system had had a significant overhaul that brought it into the modern age – specifically, the automotive era. It was a big change that would benefit commerce and travelers alike and bring farmers and their city markets ever closer together. The state was never the same again.
When Sheets left the highway division, he didn’t leave the business of road building. In 1933, he became a consulting engineer for the Portland Cement Association (then based in Chicago, today in Skokie, IL) and was the trade group’s president from 1937 onward. Always interested in improving public highways, he wrote several books and monographs on road construction and remained involved in discussions about the planning of interstate highways. Interestingly, he was also a Freemason (like George Washington, John Hancock, Harry S Truman, and many other celebrated public servants); while he lived in Springfield, Sheets was a member of St. Paul’s Lodge No. 500 and later became Knight Templar and past potentate of Ansar Shrine Temple in Springfield. Sheets died November 3, 1951, nearly 25 years to the day after Route 66 officially came into existence. Like a true route roadie. Thank you, Mr. Sheets, for helping to give us the best road trip ever.
BTW, except for public domain or historical images, all photos in this blog (unless otherwise indicated) are copyright 2011-2015 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved, which means if you want to use them, even for a tweet, you have to get written permission from yours truly to do so. No borrowing! Intellectual property protection; please be kind and understand. Thanks in advance. ;D
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We’ll have more route history later. Until then, keep your windshields clear and your maps handy, fellow roadies!
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