Road Trips

The original Michigan Road in Ripley County, Indiana

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.

Most of the Michigan Road in Ripley County was never added to the modern state highway system. US 421 leaves the Michigan Road shortly after entering Ripley County and doesn’t rejoin it until shortly before leaving the county. Just before the road leaves Jefferson County, it curves to the east a bit; just after it enters Ripley County, to stay on the Michigan Road you have to follow a side road, as this map shows. I highlighted the Michigan Road as a green line on the map.

This excerpt from an 1870 atlas suggests that a fork once existed where the road now curves east, and the Michigan Road ran straight north and briefly through what is now the Jefferson Proving Ground. The map shows the east fork, now US 421, running through Rexville and the west fork, the Michigan Road, running more northerly. The only hitch is that the fork actually would have been just south of the county line in Jefferson County. But if this is a simple matter of mapmaker error in locating the fork, then that at some point about two miles of the original route were abandoned for the current configuration. If you view an aerial map of this area at maximum zoom, you can see spots of what might have been the road along the line where the road would have been.

New topographical atlas and gazetteer of Indiana, Indianapolis, Higgins & Ryan, 1870, via The David Rumsey Collection

US 421 continues straight towards Versailles and Osgood. During the early 20th century, somehow the US 421 route became the modern Michigan Road, and was even signed as such. The real Michigan Road gets very little notice today as it provides an intimate view to a great deal of farmland and passes through a very small town. I’ll share the US 421 alignment of the Michigan Road in a future post.

Here’s where the Michigan Road turns off US 421.

Michigan Road from US 421

Turning onto the “old” Michigan Road, you immediately feel like you’ve stepped out into the country. Except for the road having been widened to two lanes and paved, this landscape has probably changed little in 100 years.

Michigan Road, Ripley County

Shortly after turning onto this segment, but before the Michigan Road turns north, a stone one-lane bridge appears, as this video shows. Sorry it’s so shaky – I held the camera in one hand as with the other I steered and shifted my stickshift car.

I found nothing on the bridge that tells when it was built. According to Bridgehunter.com, it was built in 1913. I’ve written about this bridge a few other times: here, here, here, and here.

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

Here’s the view from the bridge. Notice JPG’s perimeter road just inside its fence. This photo is a bit misleading that it makes the road look as wide as the bridge. In reality, two cars can pass on the road, but would more than rub elbows on the bridge.

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

About five miles north of the bridge, the JPG fence pulls away and disappears, and then the road enters little New Marion, as this map shows.

On the northeast corner of 3rd and Main stands the St. Magdalene Catholic Church. Its original building stood a few miles away inside what is now the Jefferson Proving Ground. When the Army took over in 1941, the church’s cemetery moved to the Michigan Road north of Madison, while the congregation rebuilt here.

St. Magdalene Catholic Church, New Marion, Indiana

This interview with a woman who lived in New Marion during World War II tells of when the church was moved:

There was a big catholic church, it was St. Magdalene and they moved that, all the cemetery, all the plots, dug them all up, the stone and everything, and the people had no say so, they were just told we’ll give you so much money for your land and you get out, and you had a certain amount of time to do it, and so neighbors, who had knew each other for years and generations were scattered everywhere.

She also talked about what it was like living next to JPG during the war:

When we were in high school, and when we, after the war started, and they used this area, this Jefferson Proving Ground to test ammunition. They dropped bombs from airplanes, so it was a very noisy time. It was uh, we could sit on our back step at home and it was like fireworks all the time, and you could see them dropping the bombs, and flares would go up, and the noise was so bad that it would break windows in our house and in the town where we lived, and it would knock flowers out of windows, and you could hear the bombs go off, so you were always aware that there was a war going on…

Just north of 1st St. stands the New Marion Baptist Church. Its building has two dates on it, 1835 and 1868.

New Marion Baptist Church, New Marion, Indiana

Just north of town lies the New Marion Cemetery, which some sources say is associated with the Baptist Church.

New Marion Cemetery, New Marion, Indiana

After driving so many miles in the country, it’s a bit of a surprise to come upon US 50, one of the original U.S. highways running over 3,000 miles from Maryland to California. A Michigan Road historical marker stands on the southeast corner of the intersection. It needs to be restored.

Michigan Road historical marker at US 50

Just past US 50 the Michigan Road crosses the Ohio and Mississippi railroad track, where the town of Dabney once stood.

A bit north of the tracks is the Dabney Baptist Church, the only reminder of the old town. The church started in nearby Otter Village in 1852, but moved here in 1854 to be near the railroad. This building was completed in 1885.

Dabney Baptist Church

Here’s a southbound shot of the road just north of Dabney, to give a flavor of the road as it passes through this countryside.

SB Michigan Road

As the road nears Napoleon, somebody spray-painted “St. Maurice 2008 CYO Champs” on the roof of this log cabin, which once stood on the southeast corner of 700N. The very next time I drove through here, it was gone.

Under restoration?

This stone culvert (or is it a very small bridge?) is just beyond 700N.

Stone bridge

I wonder if this side used to be as tall as the other, but the stones above roadway level were removed at some point.

Stone bridge

Shortly the Michigan Road entered the small town of Napoleon. This is where US 421 rejoins the road.

Next: The Michigan Road Auto Trail alignment in Ripley County, better known today as US 421.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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7 thoughts on “The original Michigan Road in Ripley County, Indiana

  1. DougD says:

    Wow, JPG sure is visible in satellite shots, it is much more forested than the surrounding area.

    Not a very pleasant way to initiate a move, but in the global context of 1941 there were way worse things that could happen.

    • Fun fact: my daughter Rana’s bio dad used to be the Air Force commander in charge of JPG.

      I’ve seen photos from inside JPG and it is like stepping back in time. There are several stone bridges in there.

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