Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Found: Hidden old National Road alignment

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One of my favorite stretches of road anywhere is US 40 and the old National Road in Putnam County, Indiana. To get there, head west from Indianapolis or east from Terre Haute – it’s about in the middle. Indiana’s best old National Road alignments are all there, including a brief brick segment, a gravel segment, a few strips of 1920s concrete, a rolling section on the grounds of a prison (which therefore you can’t drive), and three concrete arch bridges.

In particular, an old alignment just east of Putnamville keeps me coming back because I’ve heard reports that an even older alignment lurks nearby. I have searched for it on several occasions to no avail. But on a recent trip I think I finally found part of it. Here it is from the air, with the approximate location of the segment I found marked in green.

Imagery © 2012 Digital Globe, Geo Eye, IndianaMap Framework Data, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data © 2012 Google.

I normally take my road trips during the warm months, as Indiana winters are usually hostile to man and beast. But this winter has been the mildest of all 44 I’ve experienced here. It was sunny and 40 degrees when I made a trip to Terre Haute recently, so I took the leisurely route along US 40 and drove all the old alignments in Putnam County.

And with the leaves off the trees, there it was, plain as day.

National Road path

What you’re looking at here is the approach to a bridge. This photo shows the abutment still in place.

National Road path

Remarkably, the 1891 iron truss bridge that once stood here still serves. When the newer alignment and its concrete arch bridge were built in 1925, the iron bridge was moved around the corner to carry County Road 25 across the same creek. Here it is, with my frequent road-trip companion Dawn taking it in. I wrote about this bridge once before – go read about it.

Cooper Iron Bridge

On this trip I was wearing clothes not well suited to exploring through the brush, so I’m looking for another unseasonably warm day this winter where I can get away and go back. I want to know where the road went on the other side of the creek!

How do old alignments get left behind?
When the road is straightened, widened, or moved

14 thoughts on “Found: Hidden old National Road alignment

  1. ryoko861

    This makes me all think of the road I live on. From what locals have told me it used to meander through the farms. In the 70’s it was straightened and built farther away from the creek that it used to pass next to because it would flood out every early spring due to the melting of ice and snow. And the dangerous corners it used to have. There is an old house down by the creek that is totally dilapidated, You can’t see it from the road, but I’d like to know where the driveway was at one time. There’s also a home that used to be a one room school house on my road. Curious as to what it looked like in its hey day. I guess I have some research to do.

    You remind me of my parents who went on a exploration of all the lochs on the Laxawanna canal. My father has to have at least 1 hour’s worth of slides. I find this stuff fascinating, I hope to see them sometime.

    Isn’t it exciting when you find something like this after hearing about it? I wonder how many other abandoned bridge abutments are still lingering in towns around you?

      1. ryoko861

        Thanks! I guess my best start would be Google then! There’s a very short section of Rt. 191 Nazareth/Bethlehem Pike called “Old Nazareth Pike” that just sort of arches around the new road for about a 1/2 mile. People use it, but there’s nothing on it. Not sure why or what the attraction. Maybe there are entrances to the rears of some of the small businesses that are situated on the Rt. 191. One more thing to check. Now you have me hooked!

        1. Jim Post author

          I’d lay money on “Old Nazareth Pike” being an old alignment. Nazareth Pike is probably a very old road, from before PA numbered its highways. As roadbuilding technology and capability grew, it was possible to improve the road to make it straighter and/or wider, and so PennDOT did that, leaving sections of the older road behind. Old alignments exist for a couple reasons, as best as I can figure: (1) Access to something, or (2) because it’s expensive to remove the old roads.

  2. Scott Palmer

    Holy mackerel! What a find. You’re basically doing archaeology, but with much more recent sites.

    How deep into the woods is that old bridge site? I might even like to go see it myself.

    1. Jim Post author

      Scott, with the leaves off the trees I saw this while passing by in my car. It was that obvious. I took these photos from the edge of the 1925 road. Approximate lat/long is 39.57738, -86.85040.

  3. Lone Primate

    Once again, Jim… :)

    This is the kind of thing that really fascinates me. The sight of something lost, overgrown, almost forgotten, that had once been a part of daily life. How many tens of thousands of people passed down that road, crossed that bridge there, clear and wide? And now it’s merging again with the forest, almost imperceptible. If you walked right by it, there’s a good chance you’d overlook the road course and just see it as more rain-sculpted terrain. Luckily you went there knowing what you were looking for, and approximately where.

    Great weather this weekend here, and I imagine that means there, too. Good luck making both ends meet, as it were. :)

    1. Jim Post author

      I’m so with you on that. And even more, it makes me wonder what happened here before that bridge was built, as the road was completed through here in the 1830s. Was there another bridge here before, perhaps on another old alignment? Were travelers expected to ford the stream?

      I’m considering stealing away Saturday to go look at this again. I also want to go see an abandoned bridge on US 36. I also hear that Raccoon Lake’s levels have been lowered down the road on US 36. They built Raccoon Lake over the road’s original alignment. I’ve been dying to know whether you can see the old road when the lake gets lowered.

      I have the usual litany of things to do at home, plus I seriously need to complete the Historic Michigan Road Association’s 501(c)(3) (nonprofit status) paperwork, so we’ll see how it all goes.

    1. Jim Post author

      Ah persistence. “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” – Calvin Coolidge

  4. dennyg

    Great stuff. I’m guessing (and the photo seems to support) that the abutments are stone. I’ve already learned through other sources that the bridge and lake lost out to paperwork yesterday. That was undoubtedly the right choice even though it keeps us waiting for closer shots of the bridge site.

    As you may know, I was on the other (west) side of Raccoon Lake recently and seriously considered a detour to see it in its lowered condition. I didn’t make it so hope you can get some pictures of that, too.

    1. Jim Post author

      Denny, at the rate I’m going it’ll be April before I can get out there — and spring will be well underway, again obscuring the stone abutments, and likely leading the Army Corps of Engineers to raise the water levels on that lake. There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do!

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