Discovering where the old road used to go

When you like to follow the old roads as I do, you need ways to know where the old roads went. Modern roads have often been straightened, widened, or outright moved from their original paths.

This is where old maps and road guides come in. I have a bunch of them; they take up most of a bookcase shelf. My collection earned me an interview for an article in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star that published this week; read it here. It is about how maps are still relevant in this age of GPS-driven map apps and their turn-by-turn directions as you drive. The article also mentions map collecting as a hobby.

I collect, but entirely so I have sources of old-road information. Here are some of my oldest maps, mostly from the 1920s. The one in the upper left is from 1904, long before there was any sort of formal highway network or system for marking roads.

My favorite old-road publications, however, are not maps but rather turn-by-turn guides. The granddaddy of them all is the Automobile Blue Book, a multi-volume set published annually from 1901 to 1929. Here’s a page from the Middle-West volume of the 1912 Automobile Blue Book, which begins to explain how you’d drive from Terre Haute to Indianapolis. I love how it briefly describes Terre Haute as it was in 1912. Notice how the directions that follow describe landmarks, railroad crossings, and bridges. There were no regular route-marking signs on this road, not for several years yet as the state and US highway systems were still in the future. Describing the roadside scene helped you check whether were still on the right road. The guide also notes that the road is “good gravel all the way” — a big deal at a time when most roads were dirt, and became impassable mud bogs in the rain.

I also like the Hobbs-Mohawk Grade and Surface Guides, which described various major routes turn by turn. This page is from the 1924 guide to the National Old Trails Road, which was essentially what is now US 40 from the east cost into Illinois and then what would become US 66 to California. This page describes the section of the road between Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Notice how by 1924 sections of the road were paved, sometimes in concrete, sometimes in brick, and near Indianapolis in asphalt. Notice especially in these directions all the places mentioned where travelers could camp. If you couldn’t reach the next city, camping was the way you had to lodge in those days. There were no motels, not for about another ten years yet.

Even though this route is a modern four-lane divided highway today, as shown below, some sections of that old brick and concrete road remain. You can still drive on the old concrete sections, which were built in the 1920s; see one here. The one remaining brick section is on private property, so don’t trespass; see part of it here.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana

I’ve let my old-road hobby go fallow over the last few years as other aspects of my life have crowded it out. But my heart still wishes to explore a new-to-me old road every year about this time. When I have the time to get back to it, I have all the materials I need to know where the old road used to go.

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11 responses to “Discovering where the old road used to go”

  1. J P Avatar

    Cool stuff. I have become a GPS guy but kind of miss printed maps. Big-picture stuff like “there will be a place with gas and some food in another 75 miles” is hard to do with GPS.
    But then I can also avoid arguments with my dear wife like the time we drove all the way around the beltway of an unfamiliar city after missing an exit. Her map-reading prowess was discussed. 😛

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Love this stuff Jim…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Me too! Wish I had more time for it.

  3. Bob Revor Avatar
    Bob Revor

    Great stuff. I hope that I see more of this in the future. You have gotten me into this “unique” hobby that compliments my road map collecting too. Thank you

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I love this stuff and don’t need much encouragement to share more!

  4. Dan James Avatar

    Any old books are interesting, but when it’s maps and there’s that extra historical element of how the roads and settlements were back then, they’re even more intriguing. I love the look too, colour schemes that now seem quaint and primitive, and fonts that also seem to be from a bygone era.

    In my day job we work with maps extensively. Our mapping system (like an in house Google maps with extra layers of information) has quite a few historical OS (Ordnance Survey, who create all street maps here) layers, the oldest going back to the late 1800s. Fascinating (and frightening) to see how much the landscape has changed.

    We have a large map (perhaps 0.75m high by 2m wide) of the district framed in glass too (not sure if its original or a copy, but looks very old) that’s from I think around 1760. The entire district looks like it was made up of a a couple of dozen farm or country estates and even the larger settlements only had a handful of houses in a street. Currently there are something like 70,000 properties, and rising almost daily… Unbelievable…

    Anyway, look forward to more old maps and roads from your side of the pond!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That sounds super cool, actually. I’d love to find historical records that detailed for Indiana.

      I once wrote (for my old site) about a particular road and how it used to run through a particular county. The county engineer found my post and sent me scans of all sorts of maps and documents to confirm most of my theories and correct a few others. That was wonderful!

  5. Marcus Peddle Avatar
    Marcus Peddle

    I remember travelling on gravel roads up the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland all through my childhood. My mother is from a very small fishing town at the tip of the island and asphalt didn’t reach them until the 90s. The quality of the road depended on the season and if the Department of Highways had gotten up there with their graders or not. If you kept a decent speed the suspension would get a good workout but the ride would be fairly smooth inside the car. Until you hit a particularly deep pothole and got a shock to the posterior. This would always prompt my mother to shout, “Terry! Watch your speed!”

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Great story! That’s how roads all were in the early 20th century in the US — where they even existed. I have a book called “Overland by Auto in 1913.” It’s a transcribed diary about a family that drove from California to Indiana that year and found no roads from about Nevada to about Missouri.

  6. peggy Avatar

    I too hope you’re able to get back on the old roads soon. The posts are always a pleasure to read and are a reminder of the old roads and bridges I grew up with in Minnesota many decades ago.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was just talking with my wife about it yesterday. We think that if we get a road trip in this year it will be a “hey we have a free Saturday unexpectedly” kind of thing.

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