History, Road Trips

Building the Illinois National Road

Remember several years ago when I wrote about exploring the abandoned brick National Road across Illinois? Maybe you don’t; I made that trip in 2007 when this blog was new. The short story: In the 1950s sometime, Illinois built a new US 40 alongside an older road paved in brick and concrete, which it abandoned. It’s still there, plainly visible, paralleling the newer road for about 60 miles west from the state line. Here’s my car on the abandoned bricks.

Abandoned National Road

In some places, the old road is in terrible condition. Here’s my old friend Michael contemplating the entropy.

Abandoned National Road

Amazingly, I just purchased seven photographs that show this road being built! This photo shows a contraption in which some sort of hot tar or asphalt is being mixed.

Building the Illinois National Road

The next photo is the most critical in the set in terms of dating and placing this work. First, placement: The seller of these photos told me that they were of the Illinois National Road from near Marshall, Illinois. In the photo, the sign behind the tractor says that Brazil is 32 miles away. That would be Brazil, Indiana, which is 32 miles west of Marshall, Illinois along modern US 40.

Now, dating. The tractor is a Caterpillar Sixty. If you blow up the photo to full size you can see partial letters of the word SIXTY down the side of the radiator. Tractors of this design were made by the Best Tractor Company starting in 1919, but became Caterpillars when Best merged with Holt Manufacturing Company in 1925 to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The Sixty was made until 1931.

I went to this cache of historic Illinois road maps to try to narrow the date down. Usually, old road maps tell whether roads were dirt, gravel, or hard surfaced. The 1924 map is the first to show the National Road as hard surfaced. Now, there’s no way this photo is from 1924 given that the Caterpillar Sixty dates to no earlier than 1925. I think it’s likely that the map was printed in advance and the plan was to have the road hard-surfaced by the time it was distributed, but that the paving project was delayed. So I’m saying that these photos are circa 1925.

Building the Illinois National Road

Above, notice the concrete pad on which the Caterpillar sits. It is shaped like a wide U. The crew is spreading hot tar or asphalt across it. Below, they lay bricks onto the black surface. I assume the hot goo helped set the bricks, which were set without mortar.

Building the Illinois National Road

More bricklaying, up close. When I first explored this road in 2007, I met a woman who lived on it. She said that her neighbor, who had died a few years before, was on the crew that laid these bricks. I wonder if he’s in any of these photos!

Building the Illinois National Road

Next we see the crew spreading some sort of shiny stuff, which I presume is some sort of sealant, onto the bricks.

Building the Illinois National Road

The sealant is complete on this section of road.

Building the Illinois National Road

Here’s a 2007 photo from a bit west of Marshall, for comparison. While these bricks haven’t been US 40 in probably 60 years, this segment still gets a little traffic as it is used as a farm road.

National Road

Here’s what the bricks look like up close. You can’t tell in the old photos that the bricks’ colors vary!

Abandoned National Road

Back to about 1925, here’s some of the crew taking a break.

Building the Illinois National Road

And with that, we’ll take our leave of these hardworking men.

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See 1920s photos from the National Road
in Maryland and Pennsylvania here.

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18 thoughts on “Building the Illinois National Road

  1. 62Skylark says:

    Wow Jim. Bricks with shiny sealant on top of them must have been like driving on glare ice when they were wet. Especially with the brakes and tires of the 1920s. Did they use brick because it was more durable than concrete or asphalt alone? It seems that this system might handle well the expansion and contraction that occurs with temperature. This method did obviously fall out of favor.

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    • The 1910s and 20s were a time of experimentation in roadbuilding. We didn’t know what would give the right balance of durability and driveability! So we tried all sorts of things until we figured it out.

      Every once in a while you’ll come upon an old road still in use. This post shows a concrete road probably poured in about 1923. The photo shows heavy cracking in the road — because we hadn’t figured out yet that you need to put expansion joints in. It was one continuous ribbon of concrete. Post: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2012/10/26/old-road-archaeology/

      I know someone whose dad built roads for a living. Our hometown has many brick streets still in its older sections. My friend tells me that the brick streets may wear like iron (seriously — those streets are about 100 years old and look great) but they are murder to plow (that northern IN town gets lots of snow) and inherently super slick when wet. Her dad’s company was sometimes contracted to put a new surface down on old brick roads. They had to tear out all the bricks first. She said her family home’s yard had walkways everywhere made out of old road brick.

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  2. Jan Caloia says:

    Love this post. I grew up west of Marshall and drove “new” Route 40 several times a week. Still look for patches of “old” 40 when I’m driving in the area now. Thanks for the memories!

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    • I met a fellow who lives on the old highway east of Marshall, and he remembers the old road before current US 40 was built. He described it as dangerous! He said that the curves and hills led to a lot of people getting impatient behind trucks and passing when it was unsafe, with predictable results.

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      • Jan Caloia says:

        I can tell you many, many times when we were in a long line of cars and semis on the “new” US 40 east on Marshall on our way to Terre Haute. It was 10 miles of terror for me because my father was not very patient and would try to pass. There were (and are) blind dips where cars were not visible. Driving that route to TH today is much more pleasant and one can actually enjoy the scenery.

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        • One of the great things about the Interstates is that they made the old two-lane highways a lot more lightly traveled and therefore more pleasant to drive on.

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  3. Steve Miller says:

    The color variation in the bricks may reflect repairs made over the years. Sometimes the bricks deliberately tell stories, as with Zionsville’s (IN) brick Main Street.

    Not too long ago, community volunteers helped repave the old brick street. When you visit, you’ll notice that the length on the street is paved in three well-delineated strips; the center is darker than the two outer. The story? The center strip is where the Interurban tracks once ran. So the repaving re-tells the story of a street repair made when the tracks were ripped out.

    As your friend noted about her family’s brick walkways, you will find many in Zionsville’s “old” village neighborhood. I can guess where the bricks might have come from.

    A thought on your comment about experiments in roadbuilding and materials: bricks might be a midwestern analog to cobblestones. Cobblestones wear forever, but it takes a lot of work (and a plentiful supply of suitably sized material) to square up cobbles. One thing we have in central Indiana is plenty of clay… and we used to have plenty of wood to fire the kilns.

    Even in Bloomington and Bedford, the heart of the building limestone industry, you’ll find lots of brick buildings!

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    • Yes, true, bricks did need repair sometimes, and it’s hard to match brick color if the original brick stock has run out. And really, it’s a road not a monument to the ages; as long as the color is close it’s good enough.

      Cobblestone was, I don’t think, ever used during the automobile era because it didn’t provide a smooth road surface. There’s one cobblestone street in Indy, near downtown, and driving on it is a noisy, rumbly affair.

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  4. Ward Fogelsanger says:

    One other clue to dating of this section. George Stewart says he travelled this section of the National Road in 1919 after WW1 and while Indiana’s road was paved the bottom just totally dropped out at the Illinois line. Also since the old road has continued in use from the west side of Casey( where I grew up) to a couple of miles east of Martinsville the original bridges were still in use when I started driving. The date plates had them built in 1920. It was interesting on the old 16 foot wide pavement to meet the daily Greyhound bus on that road. Just east of Martinsville old 40 makes a swing to the north and goes under the PA RR. East of this you can see where the original National road went straight west towards Martinsville and had a 9 foot wide concrete slab. East of where old 40 rejoins “new”40 you can see that they added concrete strips on either side of the 9 foot strip for several miles to widen it to probably 16 foot wide. It’s funny that around 1955 “new “40 was completed and they still call it that… But then in Casey the high school gym was built in 1927 and is still referred to as the “new” gym.

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    • Ward, you really helped me piece together some history here. I knew about that old segment of the National Road by those tracks near Martinsville but when I was last there, a gate closed it off and I couldn’t see in to see what the old road was made of. But I am aware of the concrete sections elsewhere and how they are in three strips — the wider middle strip and the narrower edge strips. I always figured it was some funky way of building in expansion joints but it makes sense that the middle strip would be older and the side strips newer, as a way of widening the road. A fellow I know who’s even more into this road history stuff than me says that Illinois let roadbuilding contracts in about 1920 for that road, and we were puzzling over how the brick portion would have been from 1925 based on the Caterpillar tractor in that one photo. But if they built a 9-foot-wide section of concrete in about 1920 and then built the wider road later, that would certainly explain it. Perhaps the portion from about Martinsville east to the state line was still gravel after 1920, which explains the bricks being laid there later.

      And yes, I can imagine meeting the Greyhound bus on the old brick road would have been quite hair-raising.

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  5. Awesome photos: great score buying these! Saginaw, Michigan has just under a mile of old brick streets remaining. They are all in horrible condition due to repairs, frost heaving, and traffic weight, but the bricks are still in great condition.

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  6. Jennifer S says:

    Wow, loved this post. The historic images are amazing… how did you find them? They’re so full of history!

    We went to Sarasota a few weeks ago and visited the impossibly extravagant Ringling Mansion… only to learn the accuracy of its recent restoration was made possible in part by a batch of fifty construction photos that had coincidentally popped up on eBay! They showed men pour concrete, building the foundation, putting in original beams. It’s like finding hidden treasure when you come across pictures like these!

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    • Thanks Jennifer! I got these on eBay. I have a saved search there for “national road.” eBay sends me an email every day showing new listings with that keyword. I’ve subscribed to that search for years now, and have found a handful of really interesting National Road items that way.

      Last year I bought several ca. 1921 glass negatives of another road, a pleasure trail that looped Indianapolis. Here they are: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2012/05/31/vintage-dandy-trail-photos/

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  7. Mike Fortney says:

    To answer in a nutshell why Illinois was big on brick road construction in the early 1920s, the then-governor was heavily supported by brick manufacturers in the Metro East and Central IL areas. When he was removed from office, highway construction reverted back to concrete. IL did pioneer in concrete highways on what became US 54 west of Springfield in 1910 and a wealthy farm family paving seven miles between their main farm and Bloomington also in 1910.

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