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).


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.


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).


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.


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).


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.


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

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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13 responses to “The bridges that carried the National Road and US 40 over the White River in Indianapolis”

  1. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

    What a cool research project. I like your photo from the hotel park, it’s a nice image and the light in it is lovely.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      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!

      1. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

        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!

  2. JoHawkTheWriter Avatar

    I have been to both the zoon and the Eiteljorg Museum several times. I remember thinking the bridge looked like it had seen a different life. Thank you for telling the rest of the story.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yep! A standard-issue Indiana highway bridge.

  3. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    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.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      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!

  4. joshua Avatar

    There are bridge supports to the North of the current vehicle bridge. Are those the supports to the bridge that went to the North- East? I’ve always wondered if there was another bridge in place.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I haven’t seen those supports so I can’t say for sure, but it sure would be exciting if they were for that former bridge!

  5. Ken Bandy Avatar
    Ken Bandy

    Jim, I recently subscribed to your photo blog. I too, and very interested in historic photos. I dipped my toes in the “Indiana Album” rabbit hole you referenced in the blog. I plan to re-visit it when I have more time. I am fascinated by local (Indy and Terre Haute) historic photos!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ken, thank you for subscribing! The Indiana Album really is a rabbit hole – a great one. I love old TH photos too as I lived there from 1985-94 and enjoyed my time there.

  6. Martin E KRIEG Avatar

    Jim, the first Washington Street bridge was built in 1870. It was re-built in 1902 when the original National Road wood covered bridge (of 1834) was dismantled by the state. The flood of 1913 washed the Washington St bridge away and it was rebuilt yet again to open in 1916…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I need to update this post – I found a more detailed history of the crossings here online that I need to use as source material.

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