Road Trips

The original beginning of US 36, except it’s not

I was in error when I began my US 36/Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway trip that May morning in 2007. I put US 36’s eastern end in the wrong place.

It’s true that US 36 originally began its westward journey along Rockville Road in Indianapolis. That road begins at a fork from Washington Street (US 40, the National Road) on Indianapolis’s Westside.

The trouble is, the road currently signed as Rockville Road there didn’t exist in 1926, when the US highway system was created and US 36 was commissioned. It was built later, in about 1933, in a Works Progress Administration project. It eliminated a dangerous railroad crossing.

The original Rockville Road began about a quarter mile farther west on Washington Street. It still exists, though you can’t turn onto it from Washington Street anymore, and it’s called Rockville Avenue now. On this map snippet, the green circle shows where Rockville Avenue begins, and the magenta circle shows where current Rockville Road begins.

Imagery ©2020 Indiana Map Framework Data, Maxar Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data ©2020 Google.

But I didn’t know that when I made this trip. I photographed where current Rockville Road forks from Washington Street as if it were the real thing. It still sort of counts: when this road was finally built, US 36 was rerouted onto it. Here’s the fork, with Washington Street going under the railroad bridge on the left.

US 36, Indianapolis

Here’s a closer look at what US 36 travelers faced as they began their westward journey.

US 36, Indianapolis

I walked along Rockville Road a little to make this eastbound shot of where the road meets Washington Street. This neighborhood looked pretty sketchy, so I didn’t intend to linger. But a nice, proper older gentleman out trimming his hedge remarked to me about the weather and wondered whether it would rain today.

US 36, Indianapolis

As I drove west along Rockville Road, the tiny houses with their tiny front yards were pretty tidy for this depressed part of town.

Quickly I reached Rockville Avenue. Rockville Road curved to the right and resumed its original alignment.

From there, Rockville Road widened a bit. Homes were set farther back from the road, and businesses started to appear. At Lynhurst Drive, the road widened to four lanes lined with businesses and stores.

The road had curbs, which isn’t too unusual in the city, but is pretty unusual for a highway. In August, 1978, when I was still a kid, three teenage girls died when a van struck the rear of their Ford Pinto while it was stopped along US 33 in Elkhart County so the driver could retrieve a lost gas cap. The resulting fireball burned the/ girls to death. The infamous placement of the car’s gas tank did make it vulnerable to fire in a rear-end collision. But a little-touted fact of that case was that the driver could not pull fully off the road because US 33 had curbs. I remember in the years following, curbs were slowly and quietly replaced with shoulders on highways near my South Bend home. I don’t know if these events are related, but it sure seems like more than coincidence to me. US 36 was rerouted along I-465 in 1974, and so perhaps that’s why these curbs remain on this old highway.

Shortly, I-465 appeared. The curbs disappeared just east of the interchange. Just west of the interchange, the first reassurance marker appeared.

US 36, Indianapolis

Across the street, facing the eastbound lanes, a button-copy sign directs drivers to follow I-465 South to reach US 36 East again. No US highways run through Indianapolis anymore; they all follow I-465 around the city in what is called the “mega multiplex.” But only I-74 is co-signed with I-465 along its route. You have to watch the exit signs to follow your US highway.

US 36, Indianapolis

Beyond I-465 along US 36 I saw some nice older homes of brick and stone set far back from the road, surely built when this part of Marion County was way out in the country. The road widened to five lanes, including a permanent center turn lane, and stayed that way into Hendricks County.

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16 thoughts on “The original beginning of US 36, except it’s not

  1. I never knew about Rockville Avenue. I have been on Rockville Road many times, though. I was a “west sider” during my law school years and got familiar with most of the main roads out that way.

    • As you head east on Rockville Rd. you can see the fork where Rockville Ave. veers off to the right. It goes under the railroad in a weird jig-jog. It’s no wonder this was bypassed.

  2. Lone Primate says:

    I soon as I read “Ford Pinto”, I went “Uh oh…” Fascinating ironic entry. I’m used to thinking of curbs as a small safety feature… something intended to keep pedestrians safe from cars leaving the road. Never imagined them as something that could present a danger. So interesting how a pleasant story of a highway alignment can add to one’s fundamental understanding of the world.

      • TK says:

        After the Pinto crash, the curbs remained along US 33 in Elkhart County, but “Emergency Parking Bays” were added periodically. They remain to this day.

  3. Interesting. It almost looks like the present start of Rockville Road could have connected with Tibbs at one point. I don’t have any great Indy map resources to look.

    • It didn’t, ever. It was built in…I want to say the early 1930s? Give or take. I believe this matches when the bridge just east of there over Eagle Creek was built. I believe but am not certain that before that S. Tibbs ended at a T with Washington St., but was curved away from Eagle Creek with this new construction.

        • Check this out. 1941 aerial map. You can see that the Eagle Creek bridge is freshly built and you can see that Washington St. had previously gone straight rather than curved, and crossed the tracks at an odd angle. It looks like Tibbs is freshly reconfigured to its current location.

          Here’s the same scene in 1937, it looks like the bridge is being built.

  4. TR says:

    Seems like an odd place to start the route…seems like it would have duplexed with US 40 into downtown. I see on a 1956 Shell Street Map of Indy that 36 and 40 were indeed duplexed by that time. Do you know when 36’s eastern terminus was extended to downtown, along Washington?

    • US 36 did indeed begin at Washington & Rockville until 1931, when the highway’s eastern terminus was moved east to Cadiz, Ohio. Then 36 was extended east along Washington to West, north on West to Michigan Rd (aka Northwestern Ave and later Dr. MLK Jr Blvd) to 38th St, east to Mass. Ave., and then on from there.

  5. To expand on TR’s comment: the intersection of Rockville Av. and Washington was certainly where US 36 and 40 diverged, but it would have been unusual for the US 36 designation to actually terminate at that junction. More likely US 36 overlapped with US 40 eastward, terminating downtown at the junction with US 31.

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