Can you imagine Revolutionary War soldiers marching down US 50 to save Vincennes, Indiana? They did. Well, sort of.
Vincennes was founded in 1732. You just don’t find European settlements any older than that in Indiana. And it’s not like the French, the first Europeans to settle here, came up with the idea on their own; the area had been populated for thousands of years by American Indians. So it was the Indians first and then the French, and then the British took control in 1763, and finally the Americans took Vincennes in 1778 during a Revolutionary War campaign.
It’s no mistake people settled here; it’s where an ancient buffalo migration route met the Wabash River. What buffalo had tramped smooth, man liked to follow, and so the Buffalo Trace was the most major road in what would become Indiana. American troops in that Revolutionary War campaign followed it to Vincennes. It became an important settlement route, leading Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison to order it improved in 1804 and the new state government to order it improved again in the 1830s (at about the same time the Michigan Road was built). Young Abraham Lincoln and his family, in their journey out of Indiana, joined the Buffalo Trace to reach Vincennes and cross the Wabash River into Illinois. In the early 20th century, the first alignment of US 150 from New Albany to Vincennes was laid more or less along the Buffalo Trace’s corridor. US 150 has, of course, been straightened, widened, and outright moved many times since then and bears little resemblance to the Buffalo Trace’s original path. But since this segment of US 150 is the Buffalo Trace’s direct descendant, efforts are underway to honor it as a National Scenic Byway. US 50 is part of this story because it joins US 150 from the east at Shoals.
The modern US 50 expressway, which begins 22 miles east at Washington, bypasses every town along the way. Following it, you never see Washington or the next town, Wheatland. About three miles of the old road bracket Wheatland; there’s not much to see except a few buildings and lots of empty old highway. You’d think you’d see more of Wheatland on Old US 50, but it only skirts the town’s south edge. That’s because an even earlier alignment of US 50 lurks among the county roads that lead in and out of Wheatland. I’ll share more about them in an upcoming post.
The modern US 50 expressway barely touches Vincennes, but the old road splits off east of town and makes a beeline for downtown.
Where the old road splits off, the scene is typical rural Indiana. Dig that crazy single center stripe. It seems to be colloquial to Knox County roads.
Inside Vincennes, I found one remaining nod to this road’s former glory – this US 50 sign. I puzzled over the white/gray/black scheme on this sign – I’d never seen anything like it, not even in old road photographs. So I visited the AARoads forum, which is the largest concentration of road-sign fans on the Internet. I posted this photo and asked about it. Consensus is that the white portion around the shield faded from black, and that the gray shield would look white if the black border hadn’t faded. After browsing the AARoads Shield Gallery for a while, I decided that this sign dates to the 1960s, maybe as early as 1961. If I’d been standing out in the weather for more than 40 years, I’d look pretty faded, too.
As Old US 50 makes its way into the city proper, it passes by a number of older homes on 6th Street. Many of them are rough, but a few got some real tender loving care along the way, like the knockout in the photo below.
The old road also passes by at least one old neon sign and a few former service stations converted to various purposes. And then it reaches Main Street, where it hangs a right on its way to the Wabash River. But before it gets there, it passes by five blocks of downtown lined with great old buildings, some of which date to the middle and late 1800s. Many buildings appear to be in good original condition or restored. The Pantheon Theatre at 5th and Main looks solid from the outside, but signs on the windows seek donations to have the interior restored.
I especially liked the Second National Bank building on the corner of 2nd and Main.
This wide shot from 1st Street shows downtown’s character.
1st Street is within sight of the Wabash River. This is where US 50 originally crossed into Illinois. I’ll share photos of the bridge that once stood here in my next post.
The National Road (US 40) was also frequently straightened, widened, and moved in Indiana. Check out this example just west of Indianapolis.