Surveying the Michigan Road from end to end

In 2008, I slowly documented Indiana’s Michigan Road from its beginning in Madison on the Ohio River, over 270 miles to Michigan City on Lake Michigan. Working at it on spare weekends, it took me a solid six months to complete.

I wrote extensively about this survey on my old Roads site, which I’m deprecating. With this post, I begin bringing that content here to my blog. Some of it overlaps or duplicates content I’ve written here in the past, but I’m choosing to allow it for continuity’s sake. I expect to create 20 to 25 posts, sharing them at a rate of one per week. We’ll be at this for a while!

This post sets the stage, telling the Michigan Road’s history in thumbnail and telling why I am interested in this historic road.

I grew up four blocks from Michigan Street in South Bend. I always assumed it was called that because it led to Michigan.

Later, I would live about a mile from Michigan Road in Indianapolis. At first, I thought it curious that a road would be named Michigan so far away from Michigan.

I learned later that these roads are one and the same, connecting not only Indianapolis and South Bend, but the Ohio River and Lake Michigan. For 30 years in two cities, I had lived near an important element of Indiana history. So I determined to drive the entire road, all 270 miles of it, and complete Indiana’s original coast-to-coast trip. Along the way, I learned about the road’s, and some of the state’s, history.

Ohio River at Madison, Indiana

When Indiana became a state in 1816, most Hoosiers lived along the Ohio River. The state’s first and largest city, Madison, was on the river, and the state’s first capital, Corydon, was near the river. Indiana wasn’t ten years old in 1825 when the capital moved to Indianapolis at the state’s swampy center. People needed ways to get to the new capital city, and so the state built its first roads, which were little more than paths cut through the forest. Sources disagree about how many roads were built, but I do know for sure that the Madison State Road connected Madison, and the Mauxferry Road connected the Corydon area, to Indianapolis.

One-lane alignment

But then in 1828 came the Michigan Road, connecting Madison not only to Indianapolis, but to Lake Michigan as well through lands newly acquired by treaty with the Indians who had lived in northern Indiana. The Michigan Road was complete by 1837 and people began migrating into the north’s flat but rich farmland.

Michigan Road, Decatur County, Indiana

The Michigan Road was, for its day, a grand thoroughfare.  Trees were felled across a 100-foot swath; the trees in the middle 30 feet were “grubbed,” meaning the stumps were dug out. In marshy areas, where horses could lose their footing and wagons become stuck, the road was corduroyed; that is, logs were laid across the mucky road and then covered with sand. In some places, the road was covered with wood planks to provide an even surface. When railroads boomed in the mid-1800s, private interests took over the road, covering it in gravel and charging tolls to travel on it. The rise of the automobile led the state to create a network of good roads. By the 1930s, the state had taken over and paved most of the Michigan Road. Many towns had grown to prominence along the Michigan Road, and because the Road was how people traveled between these places, the state maintained much of this road as it built bigger and faster highways along corridors that had become strategically more important to state and interstate commerce.

Michigan Road at I-465

This remarkable sequence of events preserved the Michigan Road. It has been moved in a few places, such as around a horse track near Shelbyville and when a new bridge was built south of Logansport, abandoning an old one-lane alignment. It has been bypassed in a couple places causing some of its route to be lost, such as over a railroad track near Rolling Prairie. And I-74 disrupted the road southeast of Indianapolis, moving brief segments of the road so exits could be built and even burying several miles of the road underneath its lanes. But from Madison, you can drive straight through to Michigan City along most of the road’s original path with only a few brief detours that quickly return you to the road. Along the way, the road takes on many different characters, from almost-forgotten farm road to country US highway to major city thoroughfare to Interstate highway.

Plenty of excellent goodness remains along the Road. Two one-lane 1800s bridges remain, as do two short one-lane alignments. One long segment has never been part of the state highway system and rolls with the terrain. Despite being paved and two lanes wide, driving it is as close as it gets to recalling travel on it in its early days. And along the way there are a whole bunch of houses, churches, and cemeteries placed along it in the 1800s when the road was new.

This trip report takes you along the entire Michigan Road county by county through all 14 counties on the route.

Next: A look at Madison, the city that anchors the Michigan Road on the Ohio River.


6 responses to “Surveying the Michigan Road from end to end”

  1. J P Avatar

    Road trip! I’m buckled in and ready to go.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Bring snacks; this one might take several months.

  2. Anne C Peden Avatar
    Anne C Peden

    Thanks for resharing this. Sorry for your heartache. My friend, a wounded warrior whose health continued to deteriorate, ended his misery on December 23rd. God received them.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I understand and support ending true misery.

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Great pocket history of Michigan Road…when I lived in Indianapolis, I basically did a lot of driving up and down the Road, but only assumed it was so named because it went someplace in Michigan, or ended at the Lake. Good to know more! When we moved to Milwaukee from Chicago in the mid-60’s, we always lived within a few blocks of Capitol Drive on the north side. It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I realized that you could drive it west out of Milwaukee, and it would eventual run into Madison, the Capitol, through it’s north east side; but only through a series of small highway connections that seem very obvious, but pre-WWII, must have seemed far more direct. It’s amazing how the interstate system changed so much of this,

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Well — it does end at the lake! Or it did originally.

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