Philosophical questions along the National Road in Indiana

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana

Many years ago, after I picked up my first new car from the body shop after a fender bender, someone asked me a philosophical question: How many parts must you replace on a car before it’s no longer the same car?

I’ve been wondering something similar about the National Road. Since it was built in the 1820s and 1830s, it has been straightened, leveled, widened, and outright moved many times. So how many times must a road’s path change before it’s no longer the same road?

After driving US 40 from Indianapolis to Terre Haute recently, I’ve concluded that it both is, and is not, the National Road. It is the National Road in the sense that its original corridor is represented almost entirely by US 40 today. Except for a few brief old alignments, US 40 passes through the same towns and countryside that the National Road did. It is not the National Road in the sense that those who built it across the state could never have imagined the high-speed four-lane expressway it has become. The original road was just a path through the wilderness.

Harmony, IN

As I drove, I stopped to photograph every place I know where the road’s path has been altered over the years. I’ll share my photos and some stories with you in my next several posts.

Along the way, if you get the itch to take a drive, might I recommend US 40? It’s as close to the original National Road experience as you can have in Indiana.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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8 responses to “Philosophical questions along the National Road in Indiana”

  1. Scott Palmer Avatar

    A very interesting and thought-provoking post! One partial answer to your question is that things derive their identities not merely from physical characteristics, but from their relations to other things and their associations in our memories.

    The National Road stands in the same relations to other geographical features as it always has: what change has occurred has happened slowly and on a piecemeal basis. The road is also linked with your memories of past experiences: it’s not just the National Road, but “it’s the road where Susie and I drove on a road trip after graduation,” that kind of thing. People, too, derive part of their identities from relations and memories. Jim Grey is not merely the person living in his own skin, he’s also the author of an excellent blog, and “one of Scott Palmer’s friends.”

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ah, what an interesting and thought-provoking comment! One might argue that in some places the geographical features themselves have changed more than the road around it. The suburban sprawl between Indianapolis and Plainfield is one example. Someone transported via time machine from 1909 to today would have trouble recognizing the NR in that area not because of the two road realignments there, but because the farms that used to front the road have given way to endless strip malls. His memories of the geography probably identify the road for him.

  2. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    You are waxing too philosophical for me guys, you are going to have to dumb it down a little ;)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Sorry, man; we’ll try to tone it down!

  3. Rosann Avatar

    My ancestors settled on the National Road c. 1820. The descendants of those original ancestors have lived and worked along it these many years. A gggggrandfather farmed and was buried along the Road. His final resting place unknown because they removed his stone while building that stage of the National Road just west of Belleville. My grandfather worked on the Road when it was concreted. My grandfather and father have been in business on the Road since the 1950’s. I would like to think that the same road that influenced their lives has also shaped mine. I also live and work along the road, with neighbors whose families came to the Indiana wilderness right along with mine. Our lives entertwined because of the Road. Thanks for an afternoon of reminiscences.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Your ancestors must have been some real pioneers, then. No doubt about it, the National Road did shape lives through the opportunities it brought.

      It sounds like you’re saying your ancestor is buried under the modern road! I can’t believe they didn’t move the grave!

  4. Clyde R Cottrell Jr Avatar
    Clyde R Cottrell Jr

    I like to think of it as peeling away layers. The original National Road peeks out in places from under the 1940’s “superhighway” version of US40, and the I-70 layer covers up the US40 layer for long stretches. The places where all three layers are visible at the same time (like at the Indiana-Illinois line) are my favorite.

    We need to take core samples … 🤣

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There’s something to be said for core samples. A couple years ago some work on Meridian St. downtown in Indy cut a strip out of the middle of the road and you could see several layers of pavement, including one that was brick.

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