History, Road Trips

The bridges that carried the National Road and US 40 over the White River in Indianapolis

Today it carries only pedestrians in White River State Park in Indianapolis. But this seven-span concrete-arch bridge was built in 1916 to carry the National Road across the White River. It was the latest of several bridges that carried the National Road and US 40 here.

Former US 40 bridge

It opened a year before Indiana formed the State Highway Commission, which would become the Indiana Department of Transportation. In 1917 that body formed a small network of highways out of existing major roads. The National Road was one, bearing the name “Main Market Highway No. 3,” or, later, State Road 3. In 1926, with the creation of the national highway system, it became US 40.

And so it remained until the mid-1980s, when a new bridge was built to the south and US 40 was routed onto it. The old bridge and the land on either side of it would become White River State Park. The first park attraction was the Indianapolis Zoo, which opened west of the bridge in 1988. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art opened next, in 1989. An IMAX theater followed in 1996, and the Indiana State Museum in 2002. The NCAA relocated its headquarters to the park in 1999. These two map excerpts, courtesy MapIndy, show the area before (in 1979) and after (in 2017).

US40IndyWhiteRiver1979US40IndyWhiteRiver2017

Here’s a view of the park from the JW Marriott hotel, which abuts it. The 1916 bridge is at far left, and the NCAA complex at right. But notice the tree-lined walking path that borders the NCAA buildings? Remarkably, it is the original alignment of the National Road.

White River State Park

Here’s a ground-level view that shows it.

NCAA

This 1852 map of Indianapolis, part of a larger Indiana map I found at the Library of Congress, shows this alignment clearly. It’s always less expensive to build and maintain a bridge built perpendicular to a river’s banks, and that’s almost certainly why the road angles slightly north here.

1852 Indianapolis map - Library of Congress

The bridge here was a wooden covered bridge. The only images I can find of it are drawings; this is the best of them, from History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, by B. R. Sulgrove, published 1884 (available here).

WhiteRiverNRCoveredBridgeIndy

Remarkably, I find later maps showing two bridges here, one on the original alignment and one on the later. Below are two snippets of maps of this site, the first from an 1889 atlas and the second from 1903 by Rand McNally. I wonder whether the upper bridge carried westbound traffic and the lower bridge eastbound.

WashingtonStWhiteRiver-1889AtlasWashingtonStWhiteRiver-1903RandMcNally

But I was puzzled. It is well known that the Great Flood of 1913 destroyed the bridge here — and some resources say it was the wooden covered bridge. But photographs from the day of the flood show a deck-truss bridge (a bridge with metal trusses below the bridge floor) — and only a deck-truss bridge. A second bridge, if it existed, would have been so close to this one it certainly would have made it into some of the photos! Here’s one photo of that bridge, taken an hour before it collapsed in that flood. Image courtesy The Indiana Album, Barbara Stevens Collection (viewable here).

WhiteRiverNRBridge1913

So I asked the fabulous Indiana Transportation History group on Facebook. The founder, Richard McLelland Simpson, found this article from the June 29, 1901, issue of The Indianapolis News, which shines some light.

IndianapolisNews29Jun1901

This doesn’t look like the bridge that was eventually built, which the group thinks opened in 1904. But the article does confirm the existence of two bridges, and a plan for this new bridge to replace them both.

The 1916 bridge has clearly been the hardy one, standing firmly for more than 100 years.

Former US 40 bridge

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7 thoughts on “The bridges that carried the National Road and US 40 over the White River in Indianapolis

    • Thank you so much for this comment. I try hard to make my odd transportation-history hobby interesting to this blog’s primary audience of photographers and your comment tells me I’ve succeeded!

      I had to process that park shot because I shot it through thick glass, which messed with the light. I’m happy to know my Photoshop work succeeded!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s funny because I mentioned this blog post at dinner to my oldest, particularly the Facebook group you referenced and how there is a group for everything. She worked briefly on a project mapping abandoned mines and she told me I would be surprised at the number of blogs she referenced in her work. That to me is one of the fascinating things about the internet.
        The processing of that photo was very successful!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. My most memorable time on that bridge was the day I parked a car on it as part of a car show around 1988. I had a decrepit project 1961 Thunderbird that I parked in a line of beautiful gleaming restored cars. Hey, they invited “all Fords”, so I was entitled.

    I don’t know if traffic can reach it now but it still could at that time.

    Like

    • You can get cars to it via the grassy area behind the JW but there might be a little curb jumping involved.

      Now that I think of it I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a car that crossed that bridge!

      Like

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