Finding the original US 31 in northern Indiana

On September 15, 2007, one of my oldest friends and I went in search of the original alignments of US 31 in Indiana from the Michigan state line to Indianapolis. I wrote about this trip on my old Roads site. But I’m slowly bringing all of those articles to this blog so I can repurpose that URL for another project I have in mind. This is the first of many posts about that road trip.

A silver bus rolled along a narrow Indiana highway, a wanted man aboard: Richard Kimble, in the TV series The Fugitive. The bus turned a corner as the camera dollied away, revealing a US 31 shield on the road.

Still from The Fugitive, Season 3, Episode 4, “Trial By Fire”

I leaned forward in my chair, wondering when US 31 had ever been just two lanes in Indiana. All of my trips down US 31 to that time more than 20 years ago had been on the dull four-lane divided highway to Indianapolis. But there it was, a two-lane US 31 on an episode of The Fugitive, shot in the 1960s.

I didn’t know that much of US 31’s original two-lane route in northern Indiana still existed. I also didn’t know that the road had a long and important history before Richard Kimble stepped onto it on TV. But during the years I drove back and forth to college along US 31, I sometimes noticed road signs marked “Old US 31.” I told myself I ought to explore them one day. I tried once near Rochester, and I promptly got lost. I was daunted. But even though I stuck to the well-marked roads for many years after that, my curiosity never abated.

US 31 and I go way back because I grew up four blocks from it on South Bend’s south side. I used to ride my bike those four blocks to a little grocery when my family ran out of milk. Dad always called the road Dixieway, despite the US 31 shields every few blocks and the Michigan St. signs on every corner. Dad said that in the old days you could follow Dixieway all the way to “the South.” Turns out he was right. At a time before highways were numbered, this road was part of a small network of roads called the Dixie Highway that did indeed stretch to the South, to points deep in Florida.

1925 Rand McNally Junior Auto Trails Map of Indiana

This road has had other names. In the 1920s, Indiana created a state highway system and gave this road the number 1. Also, the portion of this road from downtown South Bend to Rochester was originally part of the Michigan Road, which the state built in the 1830s from the Ohio River at Madison, through Indianapolis, and to Lake Michigan at Michigan City, to stimulate migration and commerce through the state.

The excerpt at left from a 1925 Rand McNally map shows all three designations along this stretch. State Road 1 is marked by a circled 1, the Dixie Highway is marked by the number 25 in a dark square, and the Michigan Road is marked by the number 26 in a dark square.

Then in 1926, the federal highway system came into being. US 31 shields appeared along the highway to reflect its new number, and the old names eventually fell into disuse.

I don’t know just when, but it was probably in the 1960s and 1970s that US 31 was widened to four divided lanes and rerouted to bypass several towns. I’m sure the road was a welcome relief for travelers. But I grew to dislike the four-lane US 31 for being so boring to drive, and I tried to avoid it. I discovered the network of state highways, which usually added a little time to my trip but were a prettier and more engaging drive. Still, sometimes I ended up on US 31, where I was still curious about the original route. Then I discovered that old routes are often labeled on online maps. And then I found some old state maps and learned about the old Automobile Blue Books of the early 20th century and their turn-by-turn directions along the old routes. It was pretty easy to determine the route.

I was telling my old friend Brian, with whom I grew up in South Bend, about wanting to explore US 31’s original route in northern Indiana someday. He enthusiastically recalled that trips to visit family in southern Indiana as a small child always began on the old two-lane US 31. He remembered that somewhere along the way it merged into the newly built four-lane. The more we talked, the more we knew we had to schedule a road trip as soon as we could. We managed to make our trip on September 15, 2007, a crisp and sunny early-autumn day.

At the time I made this trip, there was serious talk of upgrading the entire route to freeway standards as part of Governor Mitch Daniels’ Major Moves initiative. The new road would bypass every town between South Bend and Plymouth, create a bypass of the bypass around Kokomo, and possibly even replace the existing intersections through Westfield and Carmel with depressed roundabouts, allowing through traffic to sail overhead. It all happened, changing US 31 permanently. This road trip shows US 31 before these projects started and, as such, is a historic record.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


17 responses to “Finding the original US 31 in northern Indiana”

  1. loneprimateinto Avatar

    I’ve been a big fan of The Fugitive ever since I “binge watched” it (80s style) nightly in late night summer reruns in 1981. I’d always assumed that they shot the whole thing in southern California and just had various places stand in for others around the US. Is that an actual shot from Indiana? If so, I’d be fascinated if you were able to track that location down and do a then-and-now comparison.

    It did remind me of something that made me smile this morning when I read it. Back in the 90s, RoboCop was shooting here in Greater Toronto (Mississauga City Hall’s Council Chambre was OCP headquarters). I was driving to work downtown on the Gardiner Expressway one Saturday morning and was astonished to see a big I-75 shield on the Dufferin Street overpass—Interstate highway signs being something of a rarity in Canada. I always tried to keep an eye out for that shot on the show and my little red Civic, but I never spotted it. Still, from The Fugitive to RoboCop; the sublime to the ridiculous indeed. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It had to be shot entirely in SoCal. This scene in particular — that ain’t US 31, no sir, no how, as that is not an genuine US 31 sign. It’s clearly one they made and posted for this shot.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Route 66, on the other hand, was entirely shot on location! From wiki:

        “Route 66 shot each episode on location around the country. Writer-producer Stirling Silliphant traveled with location manager Sam Manners to a wide range of locales, and wrote scripts to match the settings. The actors and film crew would arrive some time later. Locations included a logging camp, shrimp boats, an offshore oil rig, Riverside Raceway and Glen Canyon Dam, the latter while still under construction.[citation needed]

        The show had little connection with the U.S. Highway providing its name. Most of the locations were far from “The Mother Road”, which passed through only eight states while the series was filmed in 25 American states plus (one episode) Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

        Route 66 is one of few television series to be filmed entirely on the road. People, their accents, livelihoods, ethnic backgrounds, and attitudes varied widely from one location to the next.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ve watched a handful of shows in that series, and it’s apparent that they shot on location. It’s too bad that the show’s storylines just weren’t that interesting to me!

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    This brings to mind the “hill-billy” highways of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I’ve read more than a few articles that talk about highway routes that people from Kentucky and Tennessee took to work in Chicago and Detroit. Not all people actually relocated to those cities, many electing to keep their families home in the “holler”, and they would leave those northern manufacturing towns on Friday night and drive all the way back home, and then head back Sunday afternoon! Many did this for years. Most of these roads were colloquially referred to as “highways back to Dixie”, some actually taking on the name when they hit the south. Worth trying to find the stories on-line, a very interesting read!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes. My family followed one, US 33, through Ohio to South Bend, to find work.

  3. George Bulthuis Avatar
    George Bulthuis

    As a kid taking trips with my parents many decades ago, US 31 was the only way to get from West Michigan to Mammoth Caves/Pigeon Forge/the Everglades. Once older and driving on my own, US 31 was the great “marketplace” for a used car, boat, trailer, camper, lawn tractor, you name it, it was all out there for sale. Now 6+ years into retirement, it’s nice to nostalgically think about the small towns you used to drive through – Lakeville, La Paz and others – with their churches and grocery stores, gas stations and cemeteries as you glide along the newer four lane road to Indy. But – every now and then, you just have to veer off the 4 lane and drive through Kokomo just to see if you’ve become old enough and wise enough (and calm enough) to handle a traffic light every quarter mile (or less).

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I didn’t make my first trip south on 31 from South Bend until about 1983, by which time it was already the road I’m documenting in this trip. I need to do this trip again, because so much has changed in Indiana. They’ve really transformed the road.

  4. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    Of course I’m old enough to remember trips on old two lane 31 from Rochester to South Bend, thru Argus, Plymouth, Lapaz and Lakeville. And of all those stoplights in Kokomo. Made a trip down to Carmel for one of the grandkid’s band competitions a couple years ago and encountered all those crazy roundabouts …. going from one right into another and then another. Thought I was going to need a Meclizine for dizziness !! My parents never cared for the new highways … they preferred meandering down the quieter country roads when time allowed for it, and so do I.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I guess I was alive before the four-lane road was built, but all of my memories involve the four-lane road.

      I love the roundabouts! I worked in Carmel before they were installed. The traffic back-ups at the 4-way stops were crazy long. Then the roundabouts went in and traffic flowed so much more smoothly. No more long lines at the stop signs.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Carmel was recently featured on “Freakonomics” on NPR as “Home of the Traffic Circles”, with interviews with all the city people responsible for the decision. My only complaint about American traffic circles is that they’re about half the size of the ones I’m used to driving through in Europe! In order to enter and exit correctly, you need much more space to move to the interior and than back out, based on how far you’re trying to go around. American cities, including Carmel, try to jam them into an area not much bigger than a regular cross street. No doubt about improving traffic flow, tho, even the undersized ones! Cheap too, if I remember the program correctly, a “light controlled” intersection can cost over a million bucks!

  5. Michael Avatar

    I am 70 and I remember a one lane bridge around Plymouth.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I know there was one over the Tippecanoe River north of Rochester.

  6. George Greene Avatar
    George Greene

    I grew up in Tipton and can tell you that 31 was dual laned between Indy and Kokomo in the early 60s. The road was not rerouted until it got to Westfield.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      North of Kokomo there are a few places where the original two-lane road still exists as a frontage road. I don’t think that’s true about the road south of Kokomo though. Looks like they built the four lane right over the old two lane.

  7. Scott Keith Avatar
    Scott Keith

    31 went 4 lane south of 16 in 1968 , the section Rochester to Plymouth in late 73 final section 16 to Rochester in early 74. My Dad worked for Mc Mann-O’Connor. Sorry to say he was involved in a traffic accident the night before he was to help open the final section. He worked on almost all of the sections north of kokomo.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is incredibly useful information – thank you! And I’m sorry about your father.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: