One of the "main streets" of the American Midwest, US Highway 51 is one of the original routes created by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO, now AASHTO) in November 1926. At that time, US 51 began in downtown New Orleans, where it was duplexed with another important north-south highway, US Highway 61. The two routes split just north of New Orleans, near what is today US 51’s actual starting point at La Place, Louisiana.
US 51 starts its journey north and leaves Louisiana for Mississippi, intertwined with Interstate 55 throughout the state. Other than the state capital, Jackson, it passes through few cities of note in Mississippi. Moving on, the highway enters Tennessee right at the city limits of Memphis. There, US 51 takes on the name of one of the city’s most famous sons and becomes Elvis Presley Boulevard. Naturally, the highway passes by Graceland, the late singer’s home and now a popular tourist attraction.
The highway continues northward along the western side of Tennessee, gradually veering away from Interstate 55, and passes into Kentucky at Fulton. US 51 spends less than fifty miles in that state before curving left to cross the Mississippi River on a high, narrow two-lane bridge. The bridge lands at the southernmost tip of Illinois, where US 51 turns north to run through the city of Cairo (pronounced “KAY-ro” by the locals).
A few miles north of Cairo, US 51 becomes duplexed with Interstate 57 for about twenty miles, before it leaves the interstate and returns to its own pavement. The highway passes through the cities of Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University; Vandalia, not someone’s name but a former capital of Illinois (1819-39); and Decatur, one of the cities where Abraham Lincoln lived and practiced law.
Continuing on through Illinois, just south of Bloomington/ Normal US 51 is routed on to Interstate 74, and the older highway continues on through the two cities as Business US 51 (Main Street). Mainline US 51 runs around the cities in a ring-road configuration until it again turns north, now duplexed with Interstate 39. It will remain paired with Interstate 39 throughout the rest of Illinois. Just before leaving the state, US 51 and Interstate 39 cross Interstate 90 at Rockford, once a major railroad hub. There, Interstate 90 becomes part of the US 51 and Interstate 39 duplex.
Entering Wisconsin, US 51 and Interstates 39/90 serves the cities of Janesville, home of "Miracle", a rare white buffalo born in 1994, and Madison, the state’s capital. At Madison, Interstate 94 joins the highway, resulting in three Interstate numbers sharing the same pavement (the only other instance is in St. Louis. Some thirty miles north of Madison, near the town of Portage, Interstates 90 and 94 leave the highway and turn west toward Billings and Seattle. US 51 and Interstate 39 continue north, heading to Wausau.
When the highway reaches Wausau, the Interstate 39 designation comes to an end. US 51 continues on for another 120 miles to its northern terminus at Hurley. The total mileage of US Highway 51 at its creation in 1926 was 1,359 miles; with the truncation of its starting point to La Place in 1951, the route was reduced to a total of 1,286 miles. There have been calls for US 51 to be decommissioned north of Bloomington, Illinois, in favor of the Interstate 39 designation, but thus far AASHTO has opted to keep the number in service.
Droz, Robert V., "Sequential List of US Highways", US Highways From US 1 to US 830
. July 2003. <http://www.us-highways.com/us1830.htm> (September 2004)
Sanderson, Dale. "Highway Ends", End of US Highway 51
. 2000-2003. <http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite%2FFalls%2F3369/HwyEnds/End051/end051.htm>. (September 2004).