Warning: Roadgeekery of the highest order ahead.
What passed for highways in the 20th century’s first few decades would surprise you. They were usually cobbled together from existing local and farm roads, so they were often unpaved and routinely followed meandering paths or were full of 90-degree turns around property boundaries. As more people bought cars, they wanted their highways paved and straightened, and states obliged. Indiana in particular seems to have started improving its highways in the early 1920s and built a full head of new-highway steam during the 1930s. Very often, these improvements left the highways’ old alignments behind. Regular readers of my blog know that I looooooove to find those old alignments. Sometimes I’m asked how I find them.
I always start with Google Maps. Just by scrolling along the highway, I find all sorts of likely old alignments. Anytime a road branches off at an angle, it may be an old alignment. Sometimes Google Maps even labels them as such, which is about as good as gift-wrapping them. Here, Old US 50 branches away from current US 50. The old highway leads directly to the little town of Dillsboro; the modern road bypasses it.
Sometimes Google Maps reveals road segments that curve around the modern road. Here, as four-lane US 50 leaves Aurora, it is bracketed by Indiana Ave. and Trester Hill Rd. I’ve drawn a green line showing how the former flows right into the latter. I’ll lay money on this being US 5o’s previous routing.
Sometimes the road’s path has been modified so much that its original path is not obvious. Here, US 50 bypasses the little town of Holton. Do you see near the map’s right edge how US 50 curves away from its formerly straight path, yet a road continues straight from that fork? That just screams old alignment. That road is even labeled Versailles St., which is a good sign as that is the next town to the east, and old highways very often were named for the towns they connected.
Versailles St. continues westbound for another mile beyond the edge of the image above, but then it forks widely, and neither fork reconvenes with modern US 50. This is when I get out my old maps and road guides. I have a stack of Indiana road maps going back to about 1920 and a CD-ROM full of even older Indiana road maps that I bought from a collector on eBay. As they cover the entire state, they only show the old highways’ general shapes, but sometimes that’s enough.
When the maps don’t solve the mystery – and they didn’t for the road around Holton – I reach for my Automobile Blue Books. These were published annually from 1901 through about 1930, giving printed turn-by-turn directions between most cities across the nation. The company that published them employed people to drive around the country, find the best ways to get between the nation’s cities and towns, and write detailed directions. This was a real service in the days before auto trails and numbered state and US highways as there were often no direct roads between major destinations, and signs were spotty and inconsistent. The oldest ABBs leaned heavily on landmarks in their directions (such as, “Right past school”); it was often the best that could be done. Over the years, ABB directions got simpler and shorter as more direct routes were built and as roads began to be signed. I own 1916 and 1924 “Middle West” ABBs; the earlier volume has nearly twice the pages as the later book. Numbered state and US highways finally put the ABB out of business as their signs made wayfinding almost trivial.
Back to Holton. The 1916 ABB tells the driver to “cross RR. at Holton Sta. 58.5.” 58.5 is the number of miles from the beginning of this route, which began in Cincinnati. It continued: “59.5. Left-hand road; turn left. 60.0. Cross RR. and immediately turn right. Caution for downgrade, cross bridge 61.6, running upgrade beyond.” The 1924 ABB describes the same path, even calling it “State Highway No. 4.” So after you cross the railroad tracks on Versailles St., you drive a mile, turn left, drive another half mile, cross the tracks again, and turn right. Well, exactly one mile west of the railroad tracks in Holton is that long driveway at the left edge of the map image above. That driveway was once the highway! It continued south of the farmhouse and crossed the tracks. That crossing was removed somewhere along the way.
The 1916 ABB talks about crossing a bridge at 61.6 miles. When I trace the route and count the miles, there’s a bridge on modern US 50 at that point. But Google Maps shows something else just south of the current bridge – an older, abandoned bridge!
I was pressed for time and had not done full research before I made my recent trip along this portion of US 50. I didn’t know about this bridge and so missed the opportunity to photograph it! (Fortunately, a bridgefan passed through here before me, photographed the bridge, and shared his findings at bridgehunter.com.)
In my rush I also missed a great possible old alignment. Back where US 50 leaves Aurora, I had guessed that Indiana Ave. and Trester Hill Rd. were US 50’s old alignment. I still think that, but apparently an even older path lurks. My 1924 ABB sends the driver down US 50’s current corridor, but my 1916 ABB very clearly sends the driver down Lower Dillsboro Rd., a winding drive through the country.
Because the US route system began in 1926, and my 1924 ABB specifies US 50’s current corridor, Lower Dillsboro Rd. was never US 50. But US 50 was originally signed along old State Road 4, which came into being in 1917 when Indiana formed its first numbered highway system. I’d need a 1917 (or maybe 1918) ABB to know for sure whether old State Road 4 ran along Lower Dillsboro Rd., but my gut says it did. Remember how I said that the first numbered highways ran along existing roads? Dillsboro is the next town west of Aurora; it sure makes sense that Indiana signed its highway along the existing road to Dillsboro!
Even the oldest roads were sometimes improved. At 4.8 miles west of downtown Aurora, the 1916 ABB cautions the driver: “Caution for sharp right and left turns across small bridge.” I traced the route to 4.8 miles and found this:
Do you see the old bridge there just above the center of the image? It is now part of somebody’s driveway. Lower Dillsboro Rd. now sweeps smoothly by. Can you see the traces of the original route?
I’ll have to make a return trip to catch Lower Dillsboro Rd. and that abandoned bridge west of Holton. But now you know how I find the old alignments. You can do it too. Even if you don’t want to lay out the dough for the maps and road guides, Google Maps and your wits will get you at least halfway there.
Have you ever wondered how many times a road’s path must change before it’s no longer the same road? I sure have.