New Carlisle is a cheerful Indiana small town about 15 miles west of South Bend on a triply historic road: US 20, the longest US highway; the Lincoln Highway, our nation’s first coast-to-coast road; and the Michigan Road, which has linked the Ohio River to Lake Michigan since the 1830s. The town has been there since 1835, not long after the road was built.
As you enter New Carlisle from the east, you take a tight S curve under a railroad bridge and along a retaining wall that greets you cheerfully.
Until 1926 the road ran straight, crossing the tracks at a dangerous angle that was the scene of many accidents. Four rail lines passed through: two owned by the New York Central Railroad; one by the Chicago, South Bend, and Northern Indiana Railway; and one by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad. The South Shore tracks were a few feet lower than the New York Central tracks, making for an uneven crossing and increasing motorists’ challenge.
Negotiations with the railroads to build a viaduct and reroute the road for safer passage dragged on for several years but kicked into high gear when New Carlisle passed an ordinance limiting trains to eight miles per hour. That got the railroads’ attention. Terms were worked out, the bridge was built, and the road was curved.
After you negotiate that curve, New Carlisle unfolds before you, tidy and cheerful. Little has changed, at least cosmetically, in this town since before World War II. Check out this mural of the town as it was in about 1941, painted on the side of one of downtown’s buildings.
Downtown New Carlisle has changed little since those days! You’ll have to take my word for it to some extent, as I made these photographs in 2008. Margaret and I drove through on our late-December Michigan Road trip, but heavy rain made it a poor day for photography. But we could see it: New Carlisle still looks very much like this.
I’m always curious why some small Indiana towns remain well-maintained and others don’t. Money obviously makes the difference. But where does New Carlisle’s come from? There’s no real industry here, to speak of. It’s too far away from Chicago to be a commuter town. I suppose many residents commute to South Bend to work; is that enough?
Regardless, everywhere you look in New Carlisle’ downtown, the buildings are in good condition. Something must be going right here — unlike so many Indiana towns of similar size, New Carlisle is growing. Its population remained flat at about 1,400 for several decades, but between 2000 and 2010 it swelled to over 1,800.
As you keep heading west you soon leave the downtown area and pass many lovely older homes.
This church is right on Michigan Street. The sign says, “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts.”
Memorial Park is on Michigan Street, too. It’s a lovely spot to rest on a lovely street in a lovely town.
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.