Revealing the bricks on the National Road in Indianapolis

Work on an old road sometimes reveals old surfaces. A project in Downtown Indianapolis along Washington Street, the city’s east-west main drag, cut this groove into the center of the road and revealed a former brick surface, and perhaps an even older surface beneath it.


Washington Street has quite a history. It was part of Indianapolis’s original plat upon the city’s founding in 1821. It was made part of the National Road when that historic early highway reached Indiana in about 1829. In the early 20th century, things really heated up for Washington Street: it was made part of the National Old Trails Road in 1912, part of Indiana State Road 3 in 1917, and then part of US 40 in 1927. All of those designations are historic now; this road’s only name today is Washington Street.

It’s hard telling for sure when those bricks were laid, but my experience has been that the 1910s were brick’s pavement heyday. Those revealed bricks are probably 100 years old.

What lies immediately beneath those bricks, though? Could that be an even earlier surface, perhaps macadam? Or is it a base layer installed to support the bricks? I’d love to know more about Washington Street’s improvement history.

I took this photo from the window of my car, eastbound while stopped at the light at East Street. Indianapolis’s original plat was a mile square, bounded by North, South, East, and West Streets. So I took this photo at the edge of Washington Street’s oldest portion. Oh, the stories this pavement could tell!

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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12 responses to “Revealing the bricks on the National Road in Indianapolis”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    A fascinating picture. Now you have me wondering what is under those bricks too. It almost looks like the remains of some logs or planks are (or were) part of that road base.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I am deeply curious too. What I’ve heard is that the National Road was macadamized (an early form of pavement) in many places in Indiana, and I’d think the stretch through Indy would be among those. So I wouldn’t expect to see evidence of a plank road. But this is all speculation.

  2. Jason Shafer Avatar
    Jason Shafer

    Slicing into old roads definitely reveals a lot of things, both good and bad. Last week I had need to excavate the outer road adjacent to I-70, a segment that was old US 40. The hole wasn’t very large, but we were able to find clay tile used for drainage, a material that hasn’t been used around here for highway drainage in generations. Of course it was immaculate, highly contrasting with the asphalt coated metal pipe near it that was installed in 1963.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I would find it endlessly fascinating to be called to construction sites on old roads to see what lurked beneath. About 20 years ago, the city widened the Michigan Road, fmr US 421, in my part of town. Took it from 2 to 4 lanes. My inner roadgeek hadn’t awakened yet. If they were doing that today, I’d camp out on the road to watch.

  3. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    Could the wood bits be the remains of railroad ties from streetcar or interurban tracks?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder that too, but I wouldn’t think they’d be two layers below the bricks. I dunno!

      1. Dan Cluley Avatar
        Dan Cluley

        I couldn’t find any specifications for streetcar rail, but regular rail seems to run between 4″-6″ so two layers of brick sounds about right to put the top of the rail flush with the street.

  4. Richard Scholl Avatar
    Richard Scholl

    I recall when East Washington Street had streetcars in the late 1940s (or perhaps into the early 50s). The pavement between the rails was brick (perhaps the entire width of the street too). Side streets were also paved with brick. For instance, the brick pavement on East Michigan, east of Ritter, was not covered with asphalt until at least the mid or late 1950s.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Because of all the reconfiguing of Washington St. on that side of town over the years, it’s hard to tell whether the bricks I found could have been related to the interurban tracks. But that’s certainly a wrinkle I hadn’t considered!

  5. DennyG Avatar

    Why are you wasting time on the internet? You need to get back there and find out what’s under those bricks.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Drove through there today. Unfortunately, the gap is sealed with concrete now.

      1. DennyG Avatar

        Bummer. Don’t you wish the road crews worked that fast on the big pothole in the middle of your daily commute?

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