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Wilmington

Illinois Flag

"The Island City"

Wilmington is a city on Route 66 straddling the Kankakee River, it is the "Island City". It is best known for its 30 foot tall Gemini Giant "Muffler Man" and the Sinclair Dinosaur.
Other classis sights include The Mar Theater, a vintage Neon Sign at Lombardi, the Historic The Eagle Hotel built in 1837, its Historic Water Street Shopping District and the Octogon House from 1865.
The Dam, Island and Mill Race, Van Duyne’s Motel with its neon sign and Nelly’s Restaurant.

Wilmington Illinois

1926-39 US 66 & 1940 -77 ALT US 66

< West     Gardner ¦ Braceville ¦ Godley ¦ Braidwood ¦ Wilmington ¦ Elwood ¦ Joliet ¦ Romeoville     East >

The Main Alignment of Route 66 near Wilmington

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Braceville ¦ Godley ¦ Braidwood

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Plainfield ¦ Willowbrook ¦ Countryside

 

Wilmington IL

Information, facts and trivia

Elevation: Elevation 649 ft (198 m). Population 5,724 (2010).
Time zone: Central (CST): UTC minus 6 hours. Summer (DST) CDT (UTC-5).

Wilmington is a city located on Route 66 in Will County Illinois.Map of Wilmington.

History of Wilmington

The area has been inhabited since the end of the last Ice Age some 11,000 years ago. The Potawatomi Tribe had a camp on the Kankakee River Island.

The first Europeans in the region were French explorers in the mid 1600s. The territory was part of "New France" (Canada) but ceded to Britain after the Seven Year War in 1763. Soon after it became part of United States (1776) and incorporated to the union as the state of Illinois in 1818.

Will County was established in 1836 and named for Dr. Conrad Will, a member of the first Illinois Constitutional Convention and member of the Illinois Legislature.

Thomas Cox staked a claim on the land that same year and used the strategic river as a site for his saw mill. He platted the town and named it "Winchester", however there already was a town with that name in Illinois so he was forced to change it.

Some settlers, who came from Wilmington Ohio, suggested the name of their hometown, and it was approved.

The name: Wilmington

Named for Wilmington, Ohio, itself named for Wilmington, N.C. which in turn had been named after Spencer Compton Earl of Wilmington.

Compton (1673 - 1743) was a British statesman and was Prime Minister from 1742 until his death in 1743. The name Wilmington is that of a place in Kent which means "Estate associated with a man called Wighelm" (or Wynhelm, or Wilhelm).

Cox then built a grist mill and a carding mill (for wool and cotton) The railroad arrived in 1854 and a station was built. The city was chartered in 1865.

A trading city, it also cashed in to the coal boom that began in the 1870s in the area.

State Higway 4 was built and paved through the city in the early 1920s and Route 66 was aligned along it in 1926. In 1940, US 66 moved furhter west and its former alignment was renamed ALT US 66.

Wilmington: Hotels and Motels nearby

Accommodation close to Wilmington

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Hotels east of Wilmington

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Book your Hotels on Route 66

>> See the RV campground nearby, in Braidwood

The Weather

weather in Wilmington, Il

Where is Wilmington?

map of Wilmington Illinois showing where it is on Route 66
Map showing the location of Wilmington, Illinois on U.S. 66

Wilmington's climate is humid and continental; with very well defined seasons: Spring is cool and wet; summer is hot and frequently humid. Winter is cold and has on average 28 inches (71 cm) of snow, while autumn is very mild.

Temperatures: Average high in Jan (winter) 31°F (-0.3°C) and the average low is 17°F (-8.6°C). Average high in Jul (summer) 84°F (29°C), with an average low of 64°F (17.7°C).

Rain averages 36.82 inch (936 mm) per year and it is heighest - 3 to 4.3 inch monthly (78 and 110 mm) from Apr. The rest of the year has an average of 1.7 in. (28 mm) per month.

Snow: In Wilmington you can expect snow from October to April, however usually the first snow falls in Nov. and the last happens in April (usually one quarter inch -8 mm).

Tornado risk

The area around Wilmington gets some 4 tornado hits yearly.

Tornado Risk: read more about Tornado Risk on US 66.

How to get to Wilmington?

You can get to Wilmington using Historic Route 66 or former ALt US-66. US 30, US 6, US 52 and I-80 pass through Joiet, north of Wilmington and I-55 just to the west of it (Exits 241 and 236).

Map of Route 66 through Wilmington, Illinois

Display Wilmington Route 66 Map


  Click Map will appear below
 

Color key for Wilmington:

Orange is the 1926-1930 alignment through neighboring Elwood.
Pale Blue: marks the 1930 - 1939 US 66 and the 1940 - 1977 ALT US 66 in Wilmington.
Red line or gaps in alignment, is I-55, where it overlaps the old alignment.
Green Line: is US 66 from 1940 to 1958. After that date and until 1977 it became part of I-55 through Plainfield
Black are the sections that are missing.

Check each individual city for its specific color key.

Google Maps. Terms. Nicolas Mollet, CC BY SA 3.0 License

Route 66 in Illinois: Historic U.S. 66 in Wilmington

Route 66 logo

Route 66 across Illinois

Route 66 is a Historic highway and has also been designated as a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road in the state of Illinois.

Read this detailed description of Route 66 in Illinois.

The highway from Joliet to Wilmington Listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Below you will find More information on Route 66 in Wilmington.

Wilmington's Route 66 Landmarks and Attractions

What to see in Wilmington

US 66 in Wilmington: historic context

Retro Neon sign at Lombardi in Wilmington US66

Retro Neon sign at Lombardi, Wilmington, Il. Anna K.

In 1946 Jack DeVere Rittenhouse did not mention it in his "Guide Book to Highway 66" published in 1946 because he drove along US 66 (and didn't use ALT 66). The WPA's guide to the state of Illinois published in 1939 does mention it as part of its Route 66 tour pointing out that the city "manufactures roofing and serves as a shopping center for Kankakee River resorts..." and that it had an "Island Park a 35-acre wooded island in the Knakakee River is one of the popular picnicking spots... restaurants, cabins for rent...".

Drive along Route 66 in Wilmington

Begin your tour at then north side of town driving from Elwood. Just after crossing the bridge over Forked Creek, to your left is a Classic Neon Sign:

Neon Sign at Lombardi

Drive on, and to your right is the best known sight in Willmington: The Gemini Giant at the "Launching Pad":

901 E Baltimore St, Wilmington

Lombardi Chevrolet and Buick Inc has a great Neon Sign with a genuine 1950s-60s look to it. There has been a dealership at this place since it was opened by the Butcher brothers (the same who built and ran The Mar movie theater here in Wilmington). They sold it to the Lombardi family.

Gemini Giant

810 East Baltimore St., Wilmington

The famous Gemini Man is a "Muffler Man", which was a popular type of roadside advertising in the 1960s. It is a 30 foot-tall (9.2 m) fiberglass statue, one of several that are located on Route 66.

Gemini Giant close up in Wilmington, Illinois

Gemini Giant close up in Wilmington Route 66
Gemini Giant close up in Wilmington, Illinois. Click to enlarge image

Its name comes from the Gemini Project, a NASA space program:

Project Gemini

NASA ran this program from 1961 to 1966 it employed the Gemini spacecraft which could carry two astronauts (its predecessor, Mercury could only carry one. Apollo carried three).

The 12 missions flew in low Earth orbit trajectories and developed the techniques later used during the Apollo Moon missions such as working outside the spacecraft (extra-vehicular activity), orbital docking and rendeazvous maneuvers.

(EVA), and pioneered the orbital maneuvers necessary to achieve space rendezvous and docking. With these new techniques proven by Gemini, Apollo could pursue its prime mission without doing these fundamental exploratory operations.

The "Space Age" period was one of great excitement and novelty, technology captured everybody's minds. This "muffler man" was a modified Paul Bunyan, who switched the ovesized axe for a 9 foot long silver space capsule.

The shirt, jeans and boots were all painted green (not at all the color of the Gemini space suits - which were a of a metalized silver color). And the space helmet resembles a welding mask, very unlike those used by the astronauts.

It was named by one of Wilmington's schoolchildren, Cathy Thomas who suggested the name "Gemini Giant" in a contest to name it. The Launching Pad closed in 2013 and reopened recently.

The restaurant originally opened as the "Dairy Delight" (or Dair-Delite) and was run by John and Berenice Korele but changed its name in 1965, it adopted a "Space Age" name: The Launching Pad.

It was therefore fitting to have a giant Muffler Man dressed up like an astronaut. It cost $3,500 back in 1965 (about $26,000 in 2018 dollars adjusted for inflation).

See it below and compare its size to the car driving along Route 66.

The Gemini giant from afar in Wilmington, Illinois

The Gemini giant  from afar in Wilmington Route 66
The Gemini giant from afar in Wilmington, Illinois. Click to enlarge image

Muffler Men

Muffler Men are enormous fiberglass and polyester resin statues. They measure between 18 and 25 feet tall (5.5 to 7.5 m). They were advertising props, which attracted customers along highways and city streets.

They first Muffler Man was a "Paul Bunyan" figure created for the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff around 1960; The place later became the Lumberjack Café and nowadays is Granny's Closet. Its giant muffler man is still around, located nearby (See a street view of the "Giant" today).

The same mold was used to make dozens of Paul Bunyans which were usually placed in front of service stations or garages, and holding car tires and mufflers instead of axes, which is where their name came from ("Muffler Men").

Route 66 Muffler Men

There are quite a few of them on Route 66: apart from the one mentioned above in Flagstaff, there is the Chicken Boy in Los Angeles (a Paul Bunyan with a Chicken's head!), the Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog (formerly in Cicero Illinois) and and the Lauterbatch Muffler Man in Springfield, Illinois

Continue your drive into town, ahead, to your right is the other "giant" in Wilmington:

Sinclair Dinosaur

Kitsch and Americana

200 E. Baltimore St, Wilmington

There is a dinosaur on the roof of the former Sinclair gas station, now G & D Tire and Alignment. It is a very interesting story:

Wilmington's Sinclair service station opened in 1963, it was run by Bob and Harlod Stainbrook.

Sinclair Oil Corporation was founded in 1916 when Harry Sinclair merged eleven oil companies into one.

Sinclair used dinosaurs in its advertising back in 1930 as patt of an campaign for their lubricants. At that time oil was believed to have been formed when dinosaurs roamed the earth (200 - 65 Million years ago).

The advertising campaign used several kinds of green dinosaurs but the one that attracted most attention was the "Brontosaurus", a gentle lumbering creature.

Nowadays the scientists have renamed the Brontosaurus as Apatosaurus, but everyone knows the Sinclair dinosaur as "Dino" (Dye-no) whidh was registered as a trademark in 1932.

Life sized dinosaurs promoted Sinclair at the 1933 Chicago and the 1964 New York World Fairs. The small fiberglass dinosaurs appeared in the early 1960s.

The Wilmington Dino was at the gas station when it opened in 1963, but vanished later.

Sinclair dinosaur in 1963 in Wilmington, Illinois

Sinclair dinosaur in 1963 in Wilmington Route 66
Sinclair dinosaur in 1963 in Wilmington, Illinois. Ebay

Sinclair dinosaur nowadays in Wilmington, Illinois

Sinclair dinosaur nowadays in Wilmington Route 66
Sinclair dinosaur nowadays in Wilmington, Illinois. Click to enlarge image

Since 2001, G&D Tire and Alignment occupies the same building of the old Sinclair station. Its owner, Gary Geiss bought a statue in 2006 (on e-bay) bringing it from a Sinclair station located in Chattanooga, Tennesee.

The fiberglass statues were made by International Fiberglass but, they stopped production in 1974 and closed two years later. The original molds no longer exist. But Sinclair had a new one made in the 1980s based on an original dino from Colorado, however the dino on the roof of G&D is 45 years old

The statues came in two sizes 12 and 8 feet long.

According to roadsidearchitecture.com: "This Sinclair Dinosaur statue.... disappeared. Since 1975, this statue has been installed in a residential backyard in Elwood."

Drive up to the main street, facing the Mill Race, Water Street and visit the Historic Water Street Shopping District, the first sight is to your right on the SW corner of Baltimore and Water Streets:

Historic The Eagle Hotel

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

100 N. Water St.

The Eagle Hotel is 90 years older than Route 66. It was built on land owned by David Lizer shortly after the town was founded, ca. 1837, it served originally as a warehouse for goods shipped out by the mills on the Mill Race that is located behind the building. It lodged passengers of the stagecoach route through the town in the 1830s.

When the Chicago & Alton railroad reached Wilmington, travelers stayed at the hotel. Competition appeared with the more expensive Exchange Hotel so The Eagle focused on cheap room rental.

In the 1940s it beame an apartment complex and even though a fire damaged it in 1990 it is still standing, and a museum of the Wilmington Area Historical Society, who owns it.

It is pictured below:

Historic Eagle Hotel in Wilmington US66

Historic Eagle Hotel, Wilmington, Il. Publichall. Click image for street view

The Mar movie theater in Wilmington US66

The Mar movie theater, Wilmington, Il. www.the-mar.com

Historic Water Street Shopping District

North Water Street

The commercial district has many shops selling collectibles and antiques.

Welcome Center

315 N. Water St

Located inside the Island Park District Building.

The Mar Theater

121 S. Main St, Wilmington

Pictured above, the theater opened in 1937 and was owned by the Butcher brothers, local entrepreneurs who built it with air conditioning and heating (at a cost of $50,000 of those days). The Mar seats 300 moviegoers. It has its original marquee, ticket booth and lobby. For more information visit: http://www.the-mar.com/

Continue east along Water Street to visit a very oddly shaped house:

The Octogon House (1867) in Wilmington US66

The Octogon House (1867), Wilmington, Il. ProfDEH

The Octogon House

Will county Historic Landmark

600 S. Water St.

The house was built in 1867 with an octogonal shape (eight sides to it), it is a rare type of building -only 36 have survived in Illinois. It was built by David Aldrich. After 1900 it was owned by the Monteith and then by the Schutten family.

Retrace your steps to Route 66 (now named Bridge St.) and turn left towards "The Island" that gives the city its nickname ("The Island City"):

Dam, Island and Mill Race

A few yards past "The Eagle Hotel" is a bridge across a narrow arm of the Kankakee River. Here was the Mill Race.

In the days before cheap steam or internal combustion engines, when electricity was unknown, water was a source of energy: it was harnessed from a river by diverting part of its flow along a narrow channel known as a "Mill Race", where the water ran with a quick and strong current. This energy was used to move water wheels of mills (grist mills, flour mills or sawmills) to produce meal, flour and cut timber.

The Kankakee River meets the Des Plaines river downstream from Wilmington to form the Illinois River. It is 133 miles (214 km) long and it drained (a now shrinking wetland which was one of the largest in North America). it was known as "Teatiki" by the local Miami natives which meant "it is open or exposed country", name that deformed into "Kankakee".

Beyond the Mill Race channel of the river is the island which Route 66 crosses and most of which is a city park. Here, on the southern side of the Mill Race are three attractions:

Van Duyne’s Motel

107 Bridge St

This motel has an interesting neon sign, once topped by a gigantic catfish. It's self proclaimed claim to fame is on a billboard: "the best motel by a dam site", in allusion to the Kankakee dam.

Neon Sign at  Duyne’s Motel in Wilmington US66

Neon Sign at Duyne’s Motel, Wilmington, Il. Click for street view

Across the street is Nelly's and the Wayside Exhibit:

Nelly’s Restaurant

140 Bridge Street

A well known burger and hot dog restaurant, its patrons can write on Nelly's marker boards or sign the ceiling, flags hanging from the beams come from the visitor's countries.

Route 66 Wayside Exhibit

In Nelly's parking lot, next to the Mill Race

The exhibit is here (map).

It lists the Route 66 Attractions in the Wilmington Region, which we have mentioned here and in our pages on Elwood, Braidwood, Godley, Braceville and Gardner.

Continue west across the island, and on its western side is the main arm of the Kankakee River. Here, just upstream is the Dam:

Kankakee River Dam

The dam was built in 1904 It is a low-head dam, because the water can flow over it. It is only 11 ft. (3.4 m) high. This type of dam is very dangerous: invisible for those coming downstream it seems safe to cross, but It has killed at least 18 people since 1984 and another 23 have been rescued alive.

The current drags you down at the base of the dam so to survive you must drop to the river bed and drag yourself along it to escape the churning waters and then resurface.

The dam, which was not the first across the river supplied the town with water for their fire brigade, extra water flow for the millrace and electricity for the Electric Power Company of Northern Illinois.

Cross the river and the road will take a SW course, passing by the Hitts Siding Prairie Nature Preserve, then comes the former strip coal mining area and at Coal City Road, you can drive west (right) to reach the former US 66 that links Plainfield in the north with Braidwood just south of this point.

This is The end of your tour in Wilmington. You can continue south along former ALT 66 (IL-53) and drive into Braidwood which is only 2.5 miles away.

Historic Alternate Route 66 Wilmington to Joliet

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

What is now Illinois State Highway 53 between Joliet and Wilmington is the 1920s Route 66 which in 1940 became Alternate Route 66.

World War II traffic to and from the Arsenal at Elwood led to a new set of lanes be built, converting the highway into a limited access four-lane divided highway which was constructed between 1942 and 1945.

It was wide and sturdy with a 24-foot wide roadbed with 10-inch thick Portland cement slab.

Historic Route 66 in Wilmington, Illinois

To create better roads, the state of Illinois issued a bond in 1918. One of the highways built with it was known as SBI 4 (State Bond Issue #4). It linked Chicago with St. Louis and passed through Wilmington, Joliet and then northeast through Lockport and Lemont into Lyons.

It was paved completely by 1923 but in 1926 a new road was built north of Joliet through Romeoville which became Route 4, (the former alignment became State Hwy. 4A).

That same year, Route 66 was created and aligned along Route 4's roadbed.

Route 66

US 66 1926 to 1930

The first alignment into Wilmington was rather winding (see this Map with directions), which is marked with an Orange line in the Google map above. It entered town via S Chicago Rd., Mississippi Ave and then left along Douglas St.

1928 Illinois State roadmap

1928 Illinois State roadmap showing US 66 and Routes 4 and 4A.

The 1928 Illinois state roadmap shows the original US 66 and the other highways in the region (IL-4 and Il-4A), it also marks Wilmington beneath Joliet (left of center).

US 66 1930 to 1939

It was straightened out as it approached Wilmington, making it shorter and also safer (less curves).

ALT US 66 1940 to 1977

As the truck traffic grew during the war the road between Wilmington and Joliet was widened to four lanes, at the same time another straighter alignment built to the west, through Plainfield this one was named US 66, leaving the older alignment to become ALT 66.

This ALT 66 alignment ran south from Romeoville through Joliet, Elwood, Wilmington, Braidwood, Godley and Braceville, meeting the Main 66 at Gardner. The Pale Blue line marks these 1926-39 US 66 and 1940-77 ALT 66 alignments.

ALT US 66 remained unchanged until 1977.

US 66 1940 to 1977

The newer alignment was built between Gardner and Plainfield and then NE towards the old US 66 alignment, which it met north of Romeoville.

The new "MAIN" US 66 is marked with a Green Line in the google map above.

US 66 final years: 1958 - 1977

In 1958 US 66 was moved east west to a brand new freeway that now bypassed all the towns including Plainfield, Braidwood and Gardner. US 66 and I-55 shared the freeway until 1977.

Alternate US 66

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) created the "Alternate" designation in 1959, to designate a route that split from the main alignmen and re-connected again with it after passing through certain towns.

If the Main and the Alternate highways had a similar course, the shorter and better built road became the "main" one, and the other was the "alternate".

In 1940 Route 66 north (east) of Wilmington, all the way to present Wellco Corners had been designated as ALT 66.

And the Main Route 66 took a straighter course from Braidwood through Plainfield.

There were only three places along Route 66 where an Alternate alignment existed: this one into Chicago, one in Oklahoma City and the one leading into Los Angeles CA.

Drive from Joliet to Wilmington

Drive 7.5 miles from Elwood to Wilmington: Map with directions and then 4.7 mi. on to Braidwood (Map with directions.

> > See the previous segment Joliet to Elwood (east)

> > See the next segment Godley to Braidwood (west)

Sources

Historic Impressions Volume II, Cean Magosky, P. Seth Magosky. Lulu.com

Banner image: Dead Man's Curve, Laguna New Mexico by Perla Eichenblat.