The Michigan Road: Indiana’s newest historic byway
Last week the Historic Michigan Road Byway Committee, of which I’m co-chair, received word: Indiana Lt. Governor Becky Skillman signed the order naming the road a historic byway. This milestone culminates three years of effort, and we are celebrating.
I had no idea as a child growing up in South Bend that nearby Michigan Street was historic. I moved to Indianapolis in 1994 and bought a house a mile away from Michigan Road, not realizing the two roads were one. I don’t remember now how I learned of the Michigan Road and its history, but when I realized this road was a ribbon tying together so much of my life, I read everything I could find about it.
One of the things I read was this blog post. Its author, Kurt Garner, lived right on the Michigan Road in Plymouth and was just as interested in the road as I was. At about the same time he found this blog post I wrote about the road, and he left a comment that we ought to work together to see the road honored for its place in Indiana history.
In the mid-1820s Indiana was still new and the capital had just been moved to swampy Indianapolis. Officials wanted to build a road that spanned the state north to south and coast to coast, from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan. They wanted to link Indianapolis to what was then the state’s largest and most important city, Madison, on the river. They also wanted to cut through the dense forests of the north to enable settlement. Funds were appropriated, arguments were waged and settled over routing, treaties were made with American Indians to schnooker them out of their land, and surveys were conducted. Construction commenced in 1830 – if you can call it that, as it consisted only clearing trees in a 100-foot-wide corridor along the route and grinding out the stumps in the middle 30 feet. Such was the birth of the Michigan Road. The road still exists today, and with a couple minor detours thanks to modern reroutings, you can drive it end to end.
Kurt, an architect with experience in historic preservation, attended a conference about historic byways in 2008 and contacted me excitedly: “This is how we should honor the road!” I said, “Let’s do it!” and off we went on our three-year journey. We’ve worked really well together for two guys who didn’t know each other! We held meetings in Michigan Road communities along the route to build a grassroots support organization. These communities became excited as we highlighted the economic development opportunities the road would bring, especially around heritage tourism. We formed a steering committee with two representatives from each county to advise us and work with local officials. We wrote a 93-page application for the Indiana Department of Transportation. We met with metropolitan planning organizations to gain their support. Then last May, INDOT invited us to present our case to them in person, which seemed to go very well. The wheels of state government do move slowly, and Kurt and I and the steering committee sat on pins and needles waiting. And then last week we got the word we hoped for.
The work has only begun, of course. We need to form some sort of legal entity, probably a 501(c)(3) organization, to manage our further efforts. We need to seek grant money so that we can buy and install signs along the route, create marketing plans that will realize the economic benefits we promised, and even install interpretive panels along the route to highlight historic and popular sites. Kurt and I have said all along that when we’re old men we’ll still be working on the Michigan Road. But that will be just fine with us!
In 2008 I drove the Michigan Road end to end, all 270 miles, taking photos along the way. I wrote about it in great detail on my other Web site. Read it here.