In 2008, I surveyed the Michigan Road from end to end, documenting the road and its built environment. Here is an installment of that trip report.
The Michigan Road begins in Jefferson County, Indiana, along the north edge of old Madison, about six blocks north of the Ohio River. It begins at West Street’s north end, at the green arrowhead on the map below. The Michigan Road is the curvy road that runs west from the arrowhead.
And so begins the Michigan Road.
The Michigan Road is straight and flat over most of its course – but it sure doesn’t start out that way, as this map shows.
This is known locally as Michigan Hill. I made this shaky handheld video of me driving up the hill.
What the video doesn’t show is how spectacular the views are along this segment. Beyond the first set of curves, where the road turns to head north, you can pull over and take in the view of the river. The trees obscure old Madison.
And here’s the road northbound from this spot.
After making that curve, if you look closely, you’ll see a wall of rock behind the trees on the right.
Incredibly, I found a post card from the 1940s with an image made from the same spot.
The state began maintaining some of the Michigan Road as a highway no later than about 1921. This segment was first called State Road 6, but in a 1928 renumbering it became State Road 29. Except for a detour through Versailles and Osgood, State Road 29 followed the Michigan Road all the way to Logansport. When US 421 was extended into Indiana in 1951, it took over State Road 29’s route to 31 miles south of Logansport. Those 31 miles of the Michigan Road are still State Road 29 today. After US 421 was rebuilt as four lanes in eastern Madison, the first four miles of the Michigan Road became just a city and county road.
This excerpt from a Rand McNally map of no later than 1921 shows the Michigan Road marked State Road 6. The dark square with the number 26 in it corresponds to the Michigan Road in a legend of named auto trails that appears on the map. Next to it is a 1937 Rand McNally (Standard Oil) map excerpt that shows the same segment marked State Road 29, and then a 1959 State Highway Department of Indiana map excerpt showing it labeled US 421. On all three maps, as the highway veers east from Bryantsburg, halfway to Rexville the original Michigan Road turns left off the highway.
Back to the rock wall. At several spots along the wall, water sprays from the rock.
In the winter, this water freezes, as this photo shows.
Just around the curve from here stands the Fairmount House, built in 1872. I wrote more about the Fairmount House here.
This photo shows the Michigan Road southbound from in front of the Fairmount House, giving a sense of having crested Michigan Hill. Walking along the Michigan Road here is dangerous. Cars routinely exceed the speed limit along this narrow and winding segment, as I learned walking it to take all these photographs. I could feel a rush of air as each one whizzed by while I took these photos. A fellow on a moped even stopped to tell me he thought I was nuts for being on foot here.
Beyond the Fairmount House, the Michigan Road straightens and heads straight north for the next few miles.
Many cemeteries lie along the Michigan Road. It’s not surprising; the road brought people who built towns on it or farmed near it; these people lived and died near the road and so it’s appropriate that they’re buried along it. But the first graves encountered today along the road are of people who lived and died as far as 10 miles away from the road. In 1940, the US Army built the Jefferson Proving Ground on 55,000 acres of land that had, until then, held farms and towns. Homes, churches, and schools were simply left behind, but the Army moved every cemetery within the JPG to a spot along the Michigan Road not quite four miles south of JPG’s south border. Each has a short sign, like what you’d see on a street corner, announcing the place from where these graves came.
Can you imagine the job of moving all these graves?
Everyone here has been at rest since the 1940s, but flowers are still being left on many of these graves. Somebody still remembers.
Shortly the road intersects with State Road 62. Until the mid 1990s, this was State Road 107, which turned north and followed the Michigan Road until US 421 merged with it. On the map below, the Michigan Road is the north-south road on the left.
This photo shows the Michigan Road curving to where it meets US 421.
The Michigan Road, of course, originally went straight through. You can see remnants of the old road on this map.
This is what the abandoned section looks like today. It provides access to the building on the left. Notice how the utility poles follow the old road.
Back on US 421, shortly a fence appears on the west side of the road. It is the boundary of a former army installation, the Jefferson Proving Ground, which consumes 55,000 acres in Jefferson, Ripley, and Jennings Counties. Established in 1940 as World War II loomed, the facility tested ammunition, firing its first round in 1941 and its last in 1995. Until the government moved in, this land had been farmed by four generations of Hoosiers. These farmers had little, but built towns and schools and churches and cemeteries. The counties, presumably, built roads and bridges to connect them. And so they lived, but when the Army moved them off their land almost all of this infrastructure was left behind. Some of it still stands.
Looking southbound from this cemetery, US 421 rolls gently. JPG’s rusted fence is hard to make out along the west side of the road.
Next: Into Ripley County.
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.