Building US 41 near Terre Haute in the 1920s

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:

Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum
Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum
Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum

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.

Typical ABB cover

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.

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14 responses to “Building US 41 near Terre Haute in the 1920s”

  1. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Great detective work, and I love those old photographs.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I gather that the Indiana Department of Transportation has lots of period photos of construction in its archives. What I wouldn’t give to spend a month looking through what they have.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Great sleuthing and great way to parse out the information from those Blue Books! Love the photos and it reminds me, when I first got into the “business”, I loved doing industrial photography and could have spent my entire career joyfully doing that if for some reason, after the Arab Oil Embargo era, it just all died?

    I worked for a guy in the mid-70’s, that had a company doing this stuff, and we had many accounts that required us to go to construction sites once a week, and about at the same time, and take a se ries of photographs from about the exact same spot. Then we’d print them, write the dates and times on the back, and send them on to the companies that hired us. I loved doing this for some reason.

    I don’t know why this all seemed to stop in the early 80’s. The Historical Museum in Terre Haute is lucky to have these! I saw companies being taken over in the 80’s in the post Oil Embargo consolidation and buy-out era and entire photographic history files hit the dumpsters without even being offered to local historical societies! It was a travesty. I know many small businesses that had been keeping their personal histories for years and were very proud of their files.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It makes me very crabby whenever I hear of historic photographs like that being dumped. These are important records!

  3. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    I really enjoy this kind of research and you seem to too.

    I will comment on the tracks in the two last photos, certainly taken in opposite directions at the same location and time. In the third photo, the track looks to me to me narrow gauge, maybe even only 2′ gauge, judged by the size of the rail cars in the 2nd photo. This is old track, very small rail, poorly maintained and not to trolly or interurban standards. The kink in the rail in the lower left of the third photo would cause a derailment at anything above a couple mph. Almost certainly it’s a little used industrial spur of a light traffic local line. It looks like concrete forms stacked on the nearest rail car in the 2nd photo. The tracks that cross in front of the work in the 2nd photo are also small rail cross section, but perhaps standard gauge. Could be interurban or branch line freight, certainly not mainline track, even in the 1920’s. The narrow gauge line stops at the intersecting railroad- no crossing at grade- so it’s usefulness to the road building project seems to end there also.

    Also, note evidence of child labor in use. Looks like three teens employed as cheap labor.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for offering your perspective on the rail lines. I know next to nothing about rails. So that rail that runs alongside the road in the third photo isn’t the “trolley” mentioned in the ABB then. Yes, there’s a little child labor recorded here. I would love to know more about that — how prevalent was it in road crews then?

  4. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    Hi Jim.

    The building (barn?)centre left in the second photo, and centre right on the third look to be the same structure, plus the telephone lines look to be the same too.. If so, these photos are either of the same scene taken from different directions, or one of the pictures is flipped left to right.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good eye. You’re quite right. I think it’s the same scene from different directions.

  5. Roger Meade Avatar
    Roger Meade

    I should expand my comment- that may have been part of a trolly line. Some lines offered light freight service too, so that spur may not have been for a passenger car but served an industry, possibly even a large farm operation. THe proof may involve finding information on the track gauge the line operated on. There is a book titled Indiana Railroad lines by Greydon Meints that may provide some additional info if your library has a copy. Supposedly covers Indiana RR history from 1838 to 1999.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to have a great book about Indiana Interurban lines but I gave it away. It would be handy right about now!

  6. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Well isn’t this interesting!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think so at least!

  7. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    I’m mostly agreeing with Roger. The tracks parallel to the road don’t look good enough to be a “steam road” but I don’t think they are trolley either. I don’t see any indication of poles and overhead wire or a 3rd rail arrangement.

    I suspect they are a temporary line being used to supply rock or cement for the road construction. I think that thing with the hopper in picture 2 is some sort of concrete paving machine, and the cars on the narrow gauge track to the right are bringing in material.

    I have a book on Indiana interurbans somewhere, and will see what was around Terre Haute

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You are probably onto something: that narrow track was probably used to move materials for building the road. Very interesting!

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