History, Road Trips

The nine-foot-wide highway

As you follow the old National Road westward across Illinois, shortly before you reach Martinsville the abandoned brick highway abruptly turns into an abandoned concrete highway. Here’s an eastbound shot of it from 2007, when I first visited it.

Abandoned National Road

This road’s construction is unusual in that it is three parallel strips of concrete. I couldn’t figure out then why it was made that way. But I think I know now.

Consider the map below. If you want to drive into Martinsville from the east, you have to turn off US 40 onto old US 40 and the National Road. The way is paved in asphalt, but behind it lies the abandoned three-strip concrete in my photo above. Where the asphalt road curves, a very narrow strip of concrete continues straight.

IL_NR_Concrete_Map

Imagery © 2014 Google. Map data © 2014 Google.

Here it is. It’s on private property today with a prominent No Trespassing sign posted, so this is as close to it as I got. (If you own this land and stumble upon this post, I’d love to have your permission to walk the old roadway!) When I saw this in 2007, I assumed this was just a private driveway and didn’t bother to stop. But since then I’ve learned from at least one commenter on this blog that this driveway was indeed once part of the highway.

9-foot-wide concrete road

After doing some research, I’ve come to believe that the Illinois Highway Commission built it sometime after 1909 but before 1916. It competes with a stretch of 1914 concrete in Ohio (see it here) for the title of the oldest surviving pavement on the National Road.

ABB-1916-NR

From the 1916 Automobile Blue Book, Vol. 4

The 1909 Illinois Highway Commission annual report (see it here) shows that Illinois was building only earth, gravel, and macadam roads then. I also own Automobile Blue Books from 1912 and 1916, which are guides that give turn-by-turn directions between cities and towns and report on the quality of the roads involved. The 1912 ABB says that the road is “mostly natural dirt.” The 1916 ABB says that the road is “fair to poor dirt with short stretches of concrete.”

What would confirm my theory is to find the actual construction contracts, which would date this concrete precisely. But I’m plenty happy to have narrowed it down this far.

If you’re wondering who in their right mind would think a one-lane highway would be sufficient, I have three answers for you. First, the 1910s were a highly experimental time in road construction and everybody was just trying things and seeing how they worked. Second, concrete was expensive and they didn’t want to use more of it than was strictly necessary. Third, there was very little traffic in the 1910s. I assume the road-builders figured that when a driver encountered an oncoming car, someone would just pull off the pavement to let the other car pass.

I’m sure that when Illinois improved the entire National Road in the early 1920s, they rerouted the road here to avoid the dangerous narrow-angle railroad crossing, which left this one-lane concrete strip behind. At the same time, on the parts of the one-lane highway that would still be used, they added the strips of concrete on either side to make two travel lanes, which was an admission that the single-lane highway hadn’t worked out. This figure from a 1924 annual report of the Illinois Division of Highways (see the report here) shows the ways they were widening the one-lane concrete roads for two-lane travel. The middle diagram shows how this road was widened. The bottom diagram shows an alternate widening method.

1924_IL_Hwy_Rpt_Road_Types

I didn’t bring a tape measure to be sure, but I think this concrete road near Martinsville is only 9 feet wide, and its widening strips bring it to just 16 feet wide. That conflicts with the measurements in these diagrams, but the construction methods are the same.

I love finding stuff like this and doing the research to learn its story!

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16 thoughts on “The nine-foot-wide highway

  1. Lone Primate says:

    Ah, be still, my heart… :)

    What a find. What a detective story. Say, Jim, just a thought, but have you considered printing this post out, photos and all, and leaving it in the mailbox of the owner along with a short note and your contact information? You might strike gold. There was a house here in Toronto that used to be all alone at the end of Woodbine Ave before it became the Don Valley Parkway in the early 60s. It survived! Its front is now its back and to the casual observer it’s just one of dozens of other houses on a residential street. I took photos of it from the street but one of the other guys on Urban Toronto actually approached the couple living there with the story of the place and was given the grand tour of the property. So you never know! You could be squired around in style on the National Road… by one of its OWNERS. :)

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    • It’s a couple hour drive out there – maybe I’d be better off finding a mailing address and relying on the US Postal Service! But you have a good idea there. How grand it would be to walk to the end of the concrete!

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  2. hmunro says:

    I never would have imagined that an old, abandoned road could have such a rich and interesting history. Your writing is so engaging! I hope you do get permission to “cross the threshold” and walk to the end of the concrete. As Lone Primate said, you never know. I also found it very interesting to consider your theory that maybe “… the road-builders figured that when a driver encountered an oncoming car, someone would just pull off the pavement to let the other car pass.” How times have changed. Wonderful post, Jim.

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    • I gather that it was very common in the early days of automobiles that drivers would just drive right up the middle of a road, and when they encountered another car they both moved over to the right to allow the other to pass. Paved roads were typically unstriped! It’s hard to believe it now.

      I have a book called “Overland by Auto in 1913,” a transcribed diary of a family’s car journey from California to central Indiana in 1913 — and out west, they frequently had to blaze their own trails with their car, as there were *no* roads. It wasn’t until they reached about Missouri, I think it was, until they found any sort of reliable road network.

      The road network we take for granted today is a modern miracle, and it did not exist 100 years ago.

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  3. Steve Miller says:

    Here’s another road trip story you might enjoy, Eric Sloane’s “Return to Taos.” Sometime in the ’50s, armed with his sketchbook, Sloane recreated as closely as possible his 1925 trip from Flemington, New Jersey, to points west along the Lincoln Highway and the National Road and, eventually, to Taos and home again.

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  4. Nancy (Roe) Stewart says:

    Very interesting Jim. When my mother was a government nurse on the Rosebud Indian reservation near Rapid City, South Dakota back in the thirties she would drive from there back to Indiana and then back to South Dakota by herself. I wish that I had been more interested back when I could have asked her about how the roads were back then and what she drove. It is fun, isn’t it to research things that you really like ?? Keep at it because those of us who can”t make the trips do it thru you !!

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    • I imagine that such a trip alone was kind of a big deal for a woman at that time. I’ll bet she had some stories to tell about those trips. Thank you for your encouragement!

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  5. Where I live in the 1920’s they built roads like these to connect all the towns in the county. By the time I came along another lane usually of asphalt had been added. Still people tended to drive on the concrete part no matter which way they were going. The asphalt part was just used to yield to other cars. The main problem with these roads before the added lane was that in the muddy season it was pretty easy to get stuck if you were the person who pulled off to yield. I can remember old-timers talking about that and how the driver who stayed on the road would usually stop to help the one who got stuck.

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  6. Ward Fogelsanger says:

    I was home in Casey last week. I went to the 9 foot road just east of Martinsville with a tape measure and my cell phone camera. The center strip is in fact 10 feet wide and the two strips are 4 feet wide bringing the witdth to 18 feet wide. I also measured the single slab west of Greenup at 18 feet wide also. Quite a pucker factor meeting 96 inch wide busses and trucks on 108 inch wide lanes. ( old standard 96 inches now 102 inches). If you would send me an email address I could share my pictures with you.

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