Road Trips

The Michigan Road and the Dixie Highway in northwest Indianapolis

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 its journey through northwest Indianapolis at Indiana Ave., where West St. becomes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., St.

Indiana Avenue was an important business and cultural center for African Americans as early as 1890. A woman named Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, moved her business of manufacturing hair-care products to Indianapolis in 1910. By 1917, it was the largest black-owned business in the nation. She had started planning the Walker Theatre as a cultural center and home to her manufacturing operations when she died in 1917, and her daughter completed it. It opened in 1927. It faced decline in the 1960s and 1970s, but was restored during the 1980s.

Walker Theatre

It is here where West St. becomes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., St., formerly known as Northwestern Ave.

Northbound at Indiana Ave.

The Ransom Place neighborhood lies between St. Clair St. and 10th St. The area was platted in the late 1860s and, at first, white immigrants moved in, building modest homes. But between 1900 and 1920, the neighborhood’s population became overwhelmingly black, and as such the neighborhood remains best known. The area has benefited from preservation and redevelopment funds going back to 1945.

Ransom Place

I-65 bisected many old northwest Indianapolis neighborhoods, relegating a few of them to ghettos. This Interstate parallels the Michigan Road for a couple miles before pulling away, headed toward Chicago.

The road here is a major artery to and from Downtown, especially via I-65.

At the split

Unfortunately, I-65’s primacy makes staying on the Michigan Road a bit tricky. You have to take a left-lane exit of sorts to stay on the road.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., St.

The aerial image on the left is from 1937. Compare it to the 2008 aerial image on the right. The Michigan Road is highlighted in color; 10th St. runs east-west across the middle of each image. In the 2008 image, the blue line shows the northbound route to stay on the Michigan Road; the yellow line, the southbound route. I-65 wiped out almost everything in the upper-right quadrant, including some of the canal. Notice also how many homes present in 1937 in the Ransom Place neighborhood, which is in the lower-left quadrant, are missing in the 2008 image.

This photo shows Crispus Attucks High School and the elevated train that links the Downtown IU Health hospitals. The cross street was 11th St. until it was recently renamed Oscar Robertson Blvd. after the school’s standout basketball star.

At Oscar Robertson Blvd.

Crispus Attucks High School was built in 1927 amid controversy as it was to be an all-black school, the first in Indiana. Indianapolis’s high schools were otherwise integrated, and many viewed this to be a step backward. But after the school was built, it became a focal point for Indianapolis African-Americans. It was a source of particular pride in 1955 and 1956 when the school’s basketball team, led by Oscar Robertson, won back-to-back state championships, the second year as an undefeated team. Attucks became integrated in 1967. By the 1980s, however, enrollment was in serious decline across the Indianapolis Public Schools system, placing Attucks’ future in question. It ended up being converted to a middle school. In 2006, in partnership with the nearby Indiana University Medical Center, it was converted into a college-preparatory school, grades six through 12, for students interested in becoming medical professionals. This photo shows the school’s entrance.

Attucks High School

North of the high school begins a long corridor of decay and dilapidation, exemplified by the Revival Temple Church’s makeshift sign and peeling paint.

Revival Temple Apostolic Church

Across the street, the 1920 New Baptist Church building has been well cared for. The church is 100 years old in 2008.

New Baptist Church

At 21st St., the road briefly takes on a light-industrial feel. This photo is southbound, showing how the Indianapolis skyline looms. The Michigan Road was once also known here as the Dixie Highway. The Dixie was a network of roads, organized before the US highway system was founded, that connected Chicago and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Miami, Florida. One branch of the Dixie known as the Northern Connector followed the Michigan Road from 21st St. all the way to downtown South Bend.

Southbound at 21st St.

Fall Creek is next, with its bridge. I couldn’t find a safe place to photograph the current bridge. I’m pretty sure this postcard image, which is from about 1900-1920, is of a former bridge at this location.

Watkins Park lies on the northwest corner of 23rd St.

Watkins Park

Across the street from the park, the homes are in poor repair.

Dilapidated house

Bar-B-Q Heaven stands north of 25th St. Its neon sign seems to be lit day and night.

Bar-B-Q Heaven

The Holy Angels Catholic Church was completed in 1903 on the corner of 28th St. It has grown and prospered through all the changes this neighborhood has seen. (Sometime after I made this photo, this church was razed.)

Holy Angels Catholic Church

I-65 crosses the Michigan Road just north of 30th St. Malaise begins slowly to disappear as you drive north from here.

Michigan Road at I-65

Just after driving under the Interstate, Crown Hill Cemetery appears on the right. On this spot since 1864, it is the third largest cemetery in the United States. Many notable Hoosiers are buried here, but none so honored as James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet, who died in 1917.

This is Riley’s gravesite. Even though it is right along the Michigan Road, you can’t see the road from here, and you can’t see this spot from the road. For decades, children have dropped change onto this monument. It is regularly collected and donated to the Riley Children’s Foundation which helps support the Riley Hospital for Children.

Riley's rest

Riley is buried at the highest point in Indianapolis. You can see the Downtown skyline from here.

View from the Riley gravesite

38th St. was Indianapolis’s northern boundary for many years. North of this old boundary the road is once again signed Michigan Road. On the northwest corner stands the Indianapolis Museum of Art, on the grounds of Oldfields, the former country estate of J. K. Lilly, Jr., who was an executive at Eli Lilly and Co. and a philanthropist.

IMA entrance

The Michigan Road was privatized during the late 19th century. It was sold to gravel companies, which covered it in gravel and charged to travel along it. One of the toll houses remains.

Toll house

The Michigan Road is four lanes wide in this part of the city.

Northbound

This old house stands by as the road nears Crooked Creek.

House along the road

I live in the Crooked Creek area, about a mile from where Kessler Blvd. crosses the Michigan Road. Kessler Blvd. is historic, too; designed by, built by, and named for pioneering city planner George Kessler.

This is where the two roads intersect.

Kessler and Michigan

Across Michigan Road from the Starbucks and the Walgreens stands Crooked Creek School. A school has stood on this spot since 1837. Three or four buildings have served here, and the first was a log cabin. This is the entrance to the previous building, which was torn down in 1985 for the school you see behind it. The entrance was originally behind the last of the cars parked in the photo, but was moved to this spot as a memorial. Many years ago, before the Michigan Road became such a busy road in and out of town, the steps at the end of the entrance led to a wide path that led children right to the Michigan Road for their trip home. Today, walking on the Michigan Road here is like taking your life into your hands. Today, you enter the school grounds via a long driveway on Kessler Blvd. But the original path is still there, serving as a driveway to what is now a back entrance. All three of my children have attended Crooked Creek School.

School No. 7 / Crooked Creek Elementary School

This 1840s farmhouse stands across from 64th St. It was for sale when I took this photo.

1840s farmhouse, 64th and Michigan

This home, which stands at about 67th St., was built in 1852 by the Aston family and served as an inn for travelers on the road. It was common then to see farmers driving livestock down the Michigan Road to the markets in Indianapolis, which was at that time a full day away from here. This was a good place to stop before making the final day’s journey.

Aston Inn

Long before Indianapolis assimilated all of Marion County, this was the spot of a small town named Augusta. Its streets cross the Michigan Road perpendicularly, where Indianapolis’s streets cross it at angles. Augusta lies between 71st and 79th Streets.

Augusta

Unlike most of the rest of Indianapolis, Augusta was built with Michigan Road as its main street. Its side streets cross at right angles, as this map shows.

Augusta, Indiana was founded in 1832 by David Boardman and James Fee, presumably to take advantage of the opportunities the brand-new Michigan Road would provide. In 1834, Boardman and his son built a house in Augusta on the Michigan Road. It still stands, and is one of the oldest homes in the city.

Boardman and son built this house the hard way. They made the bricks from clay they dug and made the timbers from poplar and ash trees they cut down and sawed at a mill on nearby Crooked Creek. Can you imagine how long that must have taken? Some say the house was built on a bluff overlooking the Michigan Road. I think it’s possible that the house was built at the road’s original level, but that the road was lowered, probably during the automobile age, for faster and safer travel. Whichever story is right, the house seems to tower over the road.

The digital library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis includes this photo of the house in 1976. You’ll notice some changes since 1976. The Michigan Road was widened to four lanes in 1995 or 1996, which removed a stoop and walkway to the front door. Also, the roof has been modified, the chimneys are shorter, window frames are narrower, and the front door is different.

Boardman House de-ivied

Augusta’s best days were few. The railroad came in a couple miles west in the early 1850s. Smelling greater prosperity, most of the town picked up, moved down 71st St. to the railroad, and founded New Augusta. Today, both towns are part of Indianapolis. When you drive through what was Augusta, it’s hard to tell it was ever a town. It seems only to be a few random old houses that inexplicably interrupt a sea of strip malls. But some clues, like this house, remain.

Speaking of strip malls, they dominate the road through the rest of Indianapolis. This northbound photo was taken just south of 86th St.

Approaching 86th St

The Michigan Road is about to run out of Indianapolis. The road just past I-465 in this map is 96th St., the border with Hamilton County.

Here’s where 86th St. crosses the Michigan Road.

86th and Michigan

This animation shows how this intersection has changed over time, going from rural to suburban. The aerial images are from 1937, 1956, 1962, 1979, 1986, 1997, and 2008.

These are The Pyramids. They’re just south of I-465 and east of the road. On a clear day, you can see these from the Riley gravesite. When they were built, they were way out in the sticks, but instantly became a landmark. I heard that the original mirrored glass reflected the sun so badly that it interfered with air traffic, and so new, less-glaring glass was installed. I used to work in an office complex across from the Pyramids, and at certain times of day every office on the east side of the building had to close the blinds against the killer glare. I worked on the second floor of the middle pyramid for about a year (in 1999 and 2000, I think), and I was surprised by how shabby the place was inside.

The Pyramids

From I-465, here’s a northbound shot of the road as it is about to leave Indianapolis. It becomes US 421 again here. The road is routinely this busy here, as it is a major artery between Zionsville and northwest Indianapolis.

Michigan Road at I-465

Next: The Michigan Road in Hamilton and Boone Counties.

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

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4 thoughts on “The Michigan Road and the Dixie Highway in northwest Indianapolis

  1. Holy Angels Catholic Church has been an anchor point for a small but steadfast community of Catholics within the African American community. The Archdiocese built a new Catholic school there in the 90s, which was notable for being the first new inner city Catholic school built in the US since 1960.

    The church building had to come down because it had become structurally unsafe, despite the parish’s desire to save it. But a new church building dedicated just a year ago replaced it, and the parish continues to thrive.

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