Road Trips

A new historic marker for Sycamore Row, on Indiana’s Michigan Road

Word reached me late last year that this historic marker at Sycamore Row had been destroyed by a car that went off the road.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row is an old alignment of the Michigan Road, about an hour north of Indianapolis in Carroll County. Bypassed in the 1980s by the new alignment you see at right in the photo below, the trees that line the road here make it unusually narrow. It was a hair-raising spot to encounter oncoming traffic, especially something large like a school bus or a semi. I wrote more about it, and shared some historic photos from when this alignment was still in use, here.

Sycamore Row

The text on the sign reflects a legend that some have long questioned. It was a common practice two centuries ago to use logs to create a firm road surface where the land was usually wet, as the land here is said to have been in the mid-1800s. Also, it’s not impossible that new trees could have sprouted from sycamore logs laid here. But the truth is, nobody knows for certain how the trees came to be here.

On behalf of the Historic Michigan Road Association, I reported the destroyed sign to the Indiana Historical Bureau, which manages Indiana’s historic markers. They took the opportunity to make a new sign with more information about how the Michigan Road came to exist here, and acknowledging that the sycamores’ origin is uncertain. While the old sign had the same text on both sides, the new marker tells half the story on one side, and the other half on the other side. I was pleased that the IHB chose to tell more of the story of the road itself, including touching on how the Indian people who lived on this land were pressured to give it up for the road. I was especially pleased that the IHB let the HMRA review the proposed text and offer feedback. We suggested a couple small changes, which they accepted. Here’s the new marker.

Bonnie Maxwell photo
Bonnie Maxwell photo

What’s really cool is that the IHB lists their sources for this text on their Web page for this marker (here).

Bonnie Maxwell photo

It struck me at first that this sign was posted backward, as the back side faces you as you stand at the entrance to Sycamore Row. But I’m sure that the IHB’s standards require them to post signs so that they face traffic on the adjacent road. People traveling south on the Michigan Road will see the front of this sign as they pass.

Nearly every time I drive up this way I stop to visit the sycamores. I usually have a camera with me. Here are a couple photos I made of the old marker over the years. I made this one in September, 2019, with my Yashica-12 camera on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros film.

Sycamore Row

I made this photo in May, 2013, with a Canon A35F camera on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 film. As part of the IHB’s program to keep markers in good condition (details here), a volunteer repainted this marker sometime between my 2013 and 2019 photos.

Sycamore Row

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8 thoughts on “A new historic marker for Sycamore Row, on Indiana’s Michigan Road

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Good on you Jim for making sure and notifying them of the wrecked sign! Your reward was getting an even better sign as a replacement!

    Always weirdly interested in early roads that were “paved” with wood. I always wondered how long that lasted, or if it didn’t start sinking immediately. In my area, we still have modern roadways referred to as “plank” roads as their early construction was wooden planks. I still have a road near me referred to as “Watertown Plank Road”, which runs from the west side of Wauwatosa Wisconsin, and terminates into Highway 18/Bluemound Road in Brookfield. It must have, at one point, veered north again off of Highway 18 to Watertown, which lies 13 miles north of current Highway 18, and actually originally followed State Street from downtown Milwaukee in the 1800’s. I wonder how many times they actually had to replace the wood on these roads?

    • Roads were planked generally when the land below was marshy/swampy. If memory serves it wasn’t the only reason, but it was the primary reason. I can think of a few roads in Indiana I know were planked at one time. Every now and again you’ll hear of a road rebuilding project where they find old logs when they tear out the road.

  2. Plank roads were a fad of sorts similar in my point of view to interurbans and roundabouts today. There was another such mode of transportation from Delphi to Frankfort co-contracted by Canal Contractor Reed Case in the late 1840’s which became known as the Prince William Road. Eventually the planks wore out and by the 1880’s the road was gravelled. The road was used to direct produce to the packing house and grain terminal in Delphi at one time. –Mark A. Smith, Carroll County Historian.

    • What the IHB tells us is that the driver’s insurance said they’d pay for a whole new marker, so they took the opportunity to do this!

  3. Roger Meade says:

    I still occasionally run over short sections of corduroy roadway on rural gravel or dirt roads here in northern Michigan. I think one reason for them would be to allow a little water to flow between the logs while keeping the right of way passable. I would guess that the logs are anchored in place with long spikes or perhaps webbing on the bottom side to hold them together. The ones I have seen are in swampy spots with little appreciable current.

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