The curator of the Vigo County Historical Museum in Terre Haute, Suzy Quick, contacted me recently. The museum had been given three photographs showing construction of US 41 near Terre Haute, and Suzy wondered if I could help her date the photos. I said I’d give it a try! Here are the photos, used with permission:
I’m making a couple assumptions: first, that the person who donated the photos is correct, that these depict construction of US 41; and second, that they depict scenes in roughly the same area.
I hoped there would be identifiable elements in these photos — signs, cars, landmarks. The first and second photos definitely have cars from the 1920s in them. In the third photo, the road looks to me to be paved in concrete. I’ve encountered a lot of old concrete on former and abandoned alignments of Indiana highways, and when I’ve been able to find when one of those roads was built, it was always during the 1920s. So I’m confident that these photos are from the 1920s.
Unfortunately, there are no signs or clearly recognizable landmarks in these photos to help me narrow it down any more than that. The railroad tracks in the second photo are a landmark, but this road crosses several sets of tracks on its way through Terre Haute, and another set a few miles south of Terre Haute. Only one of those crossings currently involves two tracks, one on Terre Haute’s near north side. But it’s possible that tracks could have been removed at one or more of the other crossings since these photos were made.
I turned to my small collection of maps and road guides for further clues. They gave me some solid evidence that leads me to the hypothesis that these photos are from 1924 or 1925, and that the location they represent might be somewhere south of Terre Haute. The rest of this post explains.
I own a number of old Automobile Blue Books, which are road guides updated and published annually from 1900 to 1929. They give comprehensive turn-by-turn directions from place to place. Finding one’s way as a motorist was a significant challenge in the early automobile days, as outside of cities many roads weren’t marked. The ABB was a terrific resource then.
In Indiana, the first five marked, numbered state highways were routed in 1917. The state added more and more numbered highways in subsequent years. Those highways were routed over existing roads and frequently involved lots of left and right turns. In the 1920s and 1930s, Indiana improved most of those highways to be much more direct and to eliminate most turns.
I own 1924 and 1925 ABBs that cover Midwestern states. In both ABBs, Route 300 is Terre Haute south to Vincennes, and eventually Nashville, TN. Both guides route the driver south from Terre Haute over State Road 10. This road would become US 41 in 1926, when the US highway system was established.
Here the relevant section of Route 300 from the 1924 ABB. Notice how it says to follow State Road 10 south from 7th St. and Wabash Ave, which was then the main intersection of downtown Terre Haute. Then 5.7 miles later at a fork in the road, the ABB directs drivers to bear left with the trolley. That means that trolley tracks were running in or alongside the road. Notice that in the third photo above, railroad tracks hug the road. They are likely trolley tracks and might be the tracks the ABB describes. Notice also how directions tell drivers to do an awful lot of left and right turns, and bearing left or right at forks.
In the 1925 ABB, just one year later, notice how the directions are far simpler. If it were necessary to tell drivers “end of road, turn left” and such, this ABB would certainly do that, as it does so on other routes. What this says to me is that State Road 10 (US 41) was significantly improved in 1924-25 and had become a very direct route. This article lays the 1926 route of US 41 onto modern maps, and shows that from Terre Haute to Vincennes, there was only one hard turn, in Shelburn.
So: I think, but am not certain, that these photos are from south of Terre Haute. Because my ABBs suggest that SR 10 was rebuilt south from Terre Haute sometime after the 1924 ABB was published, but before the 1925 ABB was published, I think these photos are from 1924 or 1925.