Old-road archaeology: finding the old infrastructure on Indiana’s Dixie Highway

For most of history, roads had to wind, rise, and fall with the terrain. Straight, flat roads meant cutting into the earth, and that was either too costly or simply impossible. Through the 20th century, constantly improving technology changed that. Good thing, too, because as people increasingly relied on motor transport, narrow, winding roads became insufficient.

Indiana began improving its important roads in the early 20th century. At first, it simply improved the road surface, converting dirt to gravel, crushed stone, brick, or concrete. Later, it straightened many highways, made them bypass small towns, and widened them to make them safer and allow speedier passage. For example, Indiana repeatedly improved the Dixie Highway between Martinsville and Bloomington (along the way changing its name to State Road 37.) It’s now a divided four-lane expressway – straight, smooth, and speedy. Indiana isn’t done improving this road; it is slated to be upgraded to Interstate standards and become part of I-69. These three map segments, from 1937, 1970, and 2005, tell the story.

1937 Rand McNally1970 Rand McNally2005 Indiana DOT

These improvements left several segments of the original winding road behind. As is sometimes the case, some infrastructure from days gone by was left behind, as well.

This three-span pony truss bridge was built in 1925. It’s narrow by modern standards, with a 19-foot-wide deck. Oncoming cars can pass, but it feels a little tight. (Click here to see it on Google Maps.)

Pony trusses

A bit south of the bridge, on another left-behind segment of the old road, we found this slab of concrete. (Click here to see this location on Google Maps.) When you drive over a truss bridge, you know it’s old because nobody builds them anymore. But concrete is still sometimes used to pave highways. Besides, who really pays any attention to the road surface?

Concrete road

I do, of course! And I’ve been exploring Indiana’s old roads long enough to know that this is mighty old concrete. Notice all the cracks? Early Indiana concrete highways had no expansion joints. As temperature changes expanded and contracted the concrete, it had little choice but to crack. I’ve found other similar concrete highways in Indana that I’ve dated to as early as 1923.

But there’s a chance that this concrete is even older than that. A buddy on my favorite roadgeek forum dug into his extensive collection of historic maps and road guides and found evidence that this road could have been paved in 1917! But I think 1925 is more likely. That’s when the bridge shown above was built, and it’s less than two miles from here. Also, 1925 is consistent with the other seamless concrete roads I’ve found.

This was the only concrete segment we found all day. Over time, Indiana covered its concrete highways in asphalt; along the rest of the Dixie, this concrete is buried under one or more layers of the stuff. This segment was left in its original state because it is not through; it provides access to one house, where it dead ends. There was once a small bridge here.

End of the line

A short segment of abandoned concrete road lies beyond the creek. That’s modern State Road 37 at its end.

Abandoned concrete

When I next write about the old Dixie Highway, I’ll show you a 15-mile old alignment that leads through beautiful country, ending in Bloomington.

The oldest concrete highway I’ve found was on Ohio’s National Road – from 1914! See it now!

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20 responses to “Old-road archaeology: finding the old infrastructure on Indiana’s Dixie Highway”

  1. Kaitlin Avatar

    Jim, I love reading your posts about old roads. I’ll be an old road buddy — but those midwest states have many more old roads than New England (at least for what can be found). Thanks for writing about your old road adventures.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Kaitlin! More’s coming from this trip. And when I’ve been to New England, I could see that all the roads were old — but that there just wasn’t as much room to realign them as there is here in Indiana.

      1. Kaitlin Avatar

        Excellent point — the lack of realignment space. Our mountains and rivers prevent that, and many of our roads are built in valleys.

  2. traveller858 Avatar

    Love your blog. It is so interesting to hear and see little bits about our past. Keep it up.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thank you! Glad to have you virtually along for the ride.

  3. davidvanilla Avatar

    Why did those road engineers not understand the need for expansion joints? Guess we learn by experience.

    1. Jim Avatar

      It’s hard to fathom now, but concrete was considered an experimental road surface in 1920! There were entire magazines for the road-building industry devoted to sharing the latest discoveries in road-surfacing technologies.

  4. ryoko861 Avatar

    My road used to be windy (not to be confused with windy as in “very breezy” :) )It supposedly wound its way down by Monocacy Creek then over to Rt. 191. I guess when it stormed heavily it would flood out or in the winter it would freeze and many accidents would occur. So in the 70’s they straightened it out and moved it about 1/4 mile up from the creek. I’m still looking for a map that has a layout of the old road on it. There’s an old, rundown farmhouse down by the creek that has no access to the road, so I’m thinking that the road used to run by it at one point in the early days. Where ever the road was is now all corn fields and part of it is the rod and gun club. No trace of it whatsoever. Of course, the road is cut in half by a north/south road and my road stops, you have to make a right and then a quick left to continue on it. So my part is known as “The other S—– road”. I would just assume they call it “West S—– Road” because it’s west of the north/south road that divides it. But that’s the way these people think out here.

    Those maps are interesting though. It’s amazing how much it has changed over the years. And it will probably continue to change, adding new roads, by passing old ones that will no longer be needed making “bypasses” to accommodate the ever growing population. That’s what they’re doing here and they’re making a mess of the place! Oy, if you had several hours……I could tell you the crap they’re doing out here!

    1. Jim Avatar

      I find it remarkable that they tore out the old alignment of your road. That’s expensive. It’s why I find so many old and abandoned alignments here!

  5. Jennifer S Avatar

    I love old roads! Our house is right on an old highway. Pictures from different eras tell such a story of growth and progress. Ours was built in 1926 and has been paved over many times. This is an interesting way to look at history through transportation.

    1. Jim Avatar

      If they ever repave your road, go out and look as they scrape off the surface. You may find the previous surface under there — brick, concrete, whatever. Maybe even an old streetcar track will still be there.

  6. Ted Kappes Avatar

    One thing that is interesting to me is that much of these road changes have happened within the space of one lifetime. I remember my grandmother telling me how most of the roads were dirt when she was a child. She lived to see the completion of the interstate system and even long enough for the “super” highways to become taken for granted. I do wonder sometimes though if all our investment in roads is miss-placed. I read the other day that if our per capita energy consumption was the same as Europe’s that we could be energy independent right now. Maybe going the route of more trains and such would have been better.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I love riding the train. Whenever I go to Chicago I like to drop my dog off with my parents in South Bend and ride the train. But the challenge is that this country is so vast. Sure, GM did everything it could in the 20th century to undermine public transport, but even barring that, this country’s size makes large-scale public transport challenging.

      1. Ted Kappes Avatar

        Although most of the trips that people take are fairly short and could be done well with good public transit.

        1. Jim Avatar

          Well, good point.

  7. Carla Smith Avatar
    Carla Smith

    Having kept a 365 project for years, I’m thinking of putting together a blog of my journeys in and around the state. I happened upon your blog today while doing some web surfing for a place to state. I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed reading many pages of your blog as it seems that we have some of the same interests. Thank you for your words, your pictures, and your insight. Blessings.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Carla, I’m glad you enjoyed this. And thanks for visiting the archives; they get so lonely! What is a 365 project?

      1. Carla Smith Avatar
        Carla Smith

        I’ve had a busy week….I’m just now getting to replying.

        A 365,project is where you take a picture a day. I’ve used a wonderful free site st 365project.org/. It’s been fun, and I’ve kept it up for three years…but it’s time to move on.

        1. Jim Avatar

          Something about this made me stop. And check. Turns out some time ago I made you a Flickr contact because you were photographing bridges. Always looking to connect with other bridgehunters!

  8. Carla Smith Avatar
    Carla Smith

    Now that is funny! i just now made the flickr connect too. Yes, I do photograph bridges and barns and anything rural. It’s nice to meet you on your blog now.

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