Our primary highways series continues today with a visit to the state of Illinois.
Throughout this series, I have been drawn to many of the large cities of the Midwest and Great Lakes. And none of these looms larger than Chicago. And none is taller. Chicago is home to the tallest building in the United States, the Sears Tower (officially, it is now called the Willis Tower but I doubt too many people call it that).
Downtown Chicago is a true vertical city, with not just a few tall buildings, but the densely packed skyscrapers that form deep canyons, much like Manhattan. But the presence of the Chicago River cutting a channel through the middle of downtown is quite unique. The buildings seem to come up to the water’s edge.
The Chicago River connects to Lake Michigan, but thanks to the miracles of human engineering, it actually flows in the other direction away from the lake (UPDATE: thanks to an astute reader on DailyKos for the correction!). US 41, Lake Shore Drive crosses at the mouth of the river in this unusual double-decker drawbridge. (The Aon Center is the tall building in the background. It reminds me a bit of something else.)
US 41 / Lake Shore Drive continues north and south of bridge as a scenic expressway with city buildings to one side and beaches along the lake to the other. The south end of the expressway is in the Hyde Park neighborhood, home of a certain Barack Obama.
Back in downtown, we find the complicated Circle Interchange, where I-90 and I-94 intersect with I-290 and the Congress Parkway. This interchange, which is often considered one of the worst bottlenecks in the country, connects the downtown to the lakefront and to the suburbs south and west of the city.
If we take I-290 west from this geometric oddity of an interchange, we come to the suburb of Oak Park. It was here that Frank Lloyd Wright began his storied architectural career. His home and studio in the town is a landmark, and there are numerous early examples of his prairie-style houses. Looking at his home and studio, one can see the elements that would be later refined in prairie style.
There is so much in Chicago I could go on about with regards to art, architecture, music and culture, but space is limited. I do have to give a shout-out to the Art Institute of Chicago, however. It’s collection is large and encyclopedic, but they do have sections that focus on both American and contemporary art. I would particularly like to see the new modern wing, both the building and the art contained within. For music, I invite readers to share the ideas and suggestions of what to explore in the city.
Back at the Circle Interchange, we head south on I-90/I-94, the Dan Ryan Expressway., one of the widest and busiest highways in the country. It has wide sections for both local and express lines, and a line of Chicago’s “L” runs down the center. I-90 veers off onto the Chicago Skyway, but I-94 continues south (though designated as “east”) on the Dan Ryan Expressway until the junction with I-57.
Continuing south on I-57, we pass by our friend I-80 in the southern suburbs of Chicago and eventually come to Champaign and Urbana after crossing I-74 – it does seem that Illinois has a lot of interstate highways. This cities are home to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the flagship campus of the University of Illinois. It hosts the NCSA (The National Center for Supercomputing Applications) that created the first graphical web browser Mosaic.
It’s hard to imagine life without this technology now, it is ubiquitous and integrated into so much of information, communication and entertainment. Of course, without it you would not reading this article, and I would probably not be writing it. Earlier in its history, the University was home to ILLIAC. At the time it was activated in 1952, it was the largest computer built and owned by an American university. This huge vacuum-tube based machine had 5 kilobytes of main memory and 64k of drum memory. For perspective, consider how much more memory and computation is in an iPhone now.
Before we overdose on computer history, we exit Champaign-Urbana on I-72 heading westward. (Did we mention that Illinois has a lot of interstate highways?). This view along the highway suggests just how flat the landscape is in this region, with the road completely straight.
Continuing on I-72, we come to Springfield, the state capital.
Springfield is steeped in the history and mythology of Lincoln, probably more than any other city in the state. He lived there for 24 years and launched his political career there. And his final resting place, Lincoln’s Tomb is in Springfield.
[Lincoln's Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois, 2006. Robert Lawton (self), via Wikimedia Commons.]
We also find another well-known Frank Lloyd Wright home in Springfield, the Dana-Thomas House. It has rather large and often considered a “prairie mansion”. It does contain the horizontal forms and low angular ceilings characteristic of prairie style, but the most notable features that distinguish are the windows.
We head south from Springfield on I-55, on another incredibly straight stretch of highway through very flat landscape. For those who have lived among hills our entire lives, these flat plains are a novel experience. It’s not only the land, but also the sky.
There is a significant break in the flat landscape of western Illinois along the Illinois River. Illinois Route 100 runs along the the west bank of the river amidst trees and bluffs. It then crosses a bridge and continues along the east side until the Illinois River meets the Mississippi River.
IL-100 continues along the Mississippi as part of the the Great River Road. As one can see, the landscape here is no longer flat.
The Great River Road continues past the end of IL-100 and into the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. As the landscape along the river becomes more suburban and then urban in St. Clair county, the road bounces around many other designations, including I-70 in East St. Louis. From here we can continue across the Mississippi to St. Louis itself, or continue southward on the Great River Road as IL-3.
We opt for the latter, passing through towns with Egyptian sounding names until we come to Cairo, at the southern tip of the state, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet. We meet I-57 again and then continue into the town itself on US 51. Cairo (pronounced KAY-RO) was once a significant center of trade along the rivers. But it has been in a long decline, and now has a population of about 2,800. Indeed, some views of the town make it look nearly abandoned.
The photo almost looks like something from Doug Rickard’s series. It’s sad, but also quite interesting in a way. It’s a long way between Chicago and Cairo, but it would be great to see and photograph both of them in one big trip across the state.