You might have driven on it: US 52 between Indianapolis and Lafayette. Or if you’re local to the Indianapolis area, maybe you sometimes travel Lafayette Road in Marion County and Indianapolis Road in neighboring Boone County. You might not have guessed that this is one of Indiana’s oldest roads, dating to the 1830s.
The fledgling state of Indiana went on a road-building jag in the 1820s and 1830s to connect its most important cities and towns. To pay for them and other transportation improvements, in 1821 Indiana began setting aside three percent of all federal funds it received. These “three percent fund roads,” or State Roads, were all named for the towns to which they led.
The Lafayette State Road was a latecomer to this party, having been surveyed in 1831 (though some sources claim 1829). It was surveyed by George Kinnard, who also served as Marion County assessor, as a state legislator, and as a U.S. congressman.
Kinnard placed the road’s southern terminus at the White River near what is now 16th Street in Indianapolis, and ran it to the northwest out of Marion County, through a sliver of Hendricks County, and into Boone County. There it reached the town of Lebanon, which he and James Perry Drake founded in 1830 in hopes it would become the seat of justice in the newly formed county. What better way to aid in that cause than to place a major transportation route through it? From Lebanon, the Lafayette State Road made a beeline directly to Lafayette to the northwest. Its northern end is on Main Street in Lafayette, probably at the Wabash River.
The Lafayette State Road was certainly no more than a dirt trail in its early days. I wouldn’t be surprised if low tree stumps were left in the road, as this was a common practice. As long as wagons could clear the stumps, it was all good! The road was probably privatized and improved to a gravel surface in the 1850s, as was the fate of so many State Roads. But with the advent of the automobile in the 20th century, Indiana founded a new numbered State Road system in 1917. The Lafayette Road became State Road 6, at first as far as Lebanon, and by 1925 all the way to Lafayette. The state immediately began to improve its highways; State Road 6’s turn came in about 1925, when it was paved in concrete in at least Marion County and probably in Boone County as well. Then in 1926, with the advent of the U.S. route system, the road was made part of US 52, which stretched from Bluefield, WV, to Fowler, IN. Improvements continued. In about 1935 it was widened to four lanes in Marion County. And then at some point no later than the 1950s a four-lane divided bypass of Lebanon was built, and two additional travel lanes were built the rest of the way to Lafayette.
The Lafayette Road was a heavily traveled artery until I-65 opened near it in the 1960s. Today, almost all of the Indianapolis-Lafayette traffic follows that high-speed route, leaving the Lafayette Road a lightly traveled, pleasant drive through the Indiana countryside.
On an unusually warm Saturday afternoon at the end of January, Margaret and I took a spontaneous road trip along the Lafayette Road. We went primarily in search of old and abandoned alignments, several of which remain. But we also stopped to see some roadside sights along the way. I’ll share photos and stories from that trip here and there over the next few weeks.