Yesterday I got to talk about the Michigan Road on radio station WKVI in Knox, Indiana. This town of about 3,500 residents is about 40 miles southwest of South Bend. Have a listen! (If you’re seeing this in your email or in your reader, click the title to see this on my site, where a video will appear below.)
The short of the story: when the Michigan Road was surveyed in the 1830s, the desire was to route it directly from Logansport to Michigan City. But the marshes of the Kankakee River blocked the way and it was impossible to build a road through them. So the road was routed through Rochester, Plymouth, and South Bend instead before heading to Michigan City.
The marshes were drained starting in the mid-late 1800s, and by 1920 the work was complete. While it opened up a huge amount of incredibly fertile farmland, it also destroyed the habitat for a number of wildlife species.
With the advent of the automobile, Indiana was again interested in building the direct road between Logansport and Michigan City. They built it in the 1930s as highway US 35, which runs right through Knox. Were it not for the marshlands, Knox could have been a Michigan Road town!
Small world department: WKVI morning host Charlie Adams was the sports anchor on WSBT-TV in my hometown starting in the late 1980s, and I used to watch him when I’d go home to visit my family. Near the end of the clip above Charlie talks about a motivational talk he gave at my high school with the South Bend Police Chief Information Officer, who arrived in the gym on his motorcycle.
I was in the second grade in 1974 when my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, chose to desegregate its schools. Not that South Bend was deliberately sending black students to black-only schools and white students to white-only schools. Rather, decades of redlining and economic inequity created black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, and kids went to school in their neighborhoods. Same effect, obviously.
South Bend chose to desegregate its schools to avoid a judge ordering it, as was happening in larger cities. That let South Bend figure out its own desegregation plan. But like every other city that desegregated, South Bend bused black children to white schools.
I watched the first bus pull up in front of my elementary school — until that day, everybody walked to my school. Several black children walked off and into the building. Two of them came to my classroom, Eunice and Dawn Denise.
Sending two black children into a classroom with 20 white children is hardly racial integration. It made Eunice and Dawn Denise a spectacle. They were quiet and gentle, but they were mercilessly teased and put down all year. I have clear memories of feeling uncomfortable with the treatment they received, but I don’t remember whether I participated. I hope I didn’t, but I probably did. I especially hope they didn’t receive worse treatment when I wasn’t around to see.
Parents were edgy the first weeks of school that year. I didn’t know why, exactly. I learned decades later that as other school systems desegregated across the nation, it sometimes came with violence.
In Louisville, armed guards escorted children on school buses. Some parents organized a school boycott. Rumors of school violence flew furiously, some of them untrue. Here’s a complete television newscast from Louisville’s WHAS-TV from September 10, 1975, that tells the story. The station devoted most of the newscast to this story.
You might think that tensions were high in Louisville because Kentucky had been a slave state before the Civil War, and because the Ohio River is where the Midwest becomes the South. But our nation’s racism knows no geographic bounds. In Ohio, a Midwestern non-slave state, the man overseeing Dayton’s school desegregation was murdered in his office. This complete newscast from WLWD (now WDTN) on September 19, 1975, tells the story.
I was just eight when all this happened. I didn’t watch the news. All I knew was that two reserved black girls joined my class and were left to fend for themselves. It’s hard enough to be different in any way in public school. In 1975, in South Bend, in my all-white neighborhood and all-white school the racial divide made Eunice and Dawn Denise seem extra different.
Eunice came to our 25th high-school reunion. We caught up briefly, exchanging the details of our lives. When I asked her if she’d kept in touch with Dawn Denise, she brightened and said they’d been best friends all their lives. When I said that I remembered the rough treatment the two of them had received, and how badly I felt about it, she thanked me politely and said she’d rather not revisit those memories. I can’t say I blame her.
I’d also like to call your attention to the quality of news-gathering and -reporting that happened in those two 1975 newscasts. If you watch them through, you will be well informed on those critical events. This was typical of local TV news then. TV news is such crap now.
My old Kentucky home Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor Arista EDU 200 2019
At first, I thought this little cabin was the original My Old Kentucky Home and the big house up the hill came later to replace it. But it turns out that the cabin is only a spring house, built to keep the water supply clean.
It also turns out that the song My Old Kentucky Home isn’t actually about this place, even though that’s what this place is called. The song is about a failing farm and a slave who knows he’s going to be sold to help cover expenses. The song shines a light on the slave’s plight.
This home belonged to Stephen Foster, who co-wrote the song. It and its expansive grounds are now My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.
I continue to be deeply impressed with this film, Arista EDU 200, which is the same emulsion as Fomapan 200.
It was very late to the party: the last segment of the old Michigan Road to be added to Indiana’s modern state highway system.
The state of Indiana built the Michigan Road during the 1830s to connect Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan via the new state capital in Indianapolis.
Indiana built other roads at about the same time, but none like the Michigan Road. Its right-of-way was enormous at 100 feet wide; the road itself used the central third. Even though the road was barely a dirt path at first, it was arguably the grandest road in Indiana. It was a major commerce route that opened deeply wooded northern Indiana to settlers.
The railroad’s rise in the late 1800s led the Michigan Road and all other major roads into disuse and disrepair. But around the turn of the 20th century, the bicycle and the automobile made good roads a priority. Indiana responded in 1917 with its State Highway Commission, which laid a fledgling network of highways over existing major routes and began to improve them, in turn from dirt to gravel to brick or concrete, and eventually to asphalt.
The State Highway Commission numbered just five State Roads in its first year. You might be surprised to learn that the Michigan Road was not among them.
Not in its entirety, at least. State Roads were laid out along portions of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana: from about Rolling Prairie east to South Bend, and then from South Bend south to Rochester.
The east-west segment was part of State Road 2, which followed the 1913 Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast auto trail established through the work of entrepreneur Carl Fisher. The north-south section was part of State Road 1, which continued south from Rochester along a new road that passed through Peru and Kokomo on its way to Indianpolis and, ultimately, the Ohio River across from Louisville.
Naturally, all major Indiana cities wanted a good, direct road leading to the state capital, and towns in between wanted to be on those roads. A road would lead from South Bend to Indianapolis. Logansport wanted to be on that route. You have to wonder why the state chose State Road 1 through Peru and Kokomo over the Michigan Road through Logansport. The Michigan Road’s generous right-of-way would certainly ease future improvements. Perhaps the state wanted to provide good-road access to two towns rather than just one. Perhaps Peru and Kokomo had a more effective lobby.
Officials in Logansport went down fighting, agitating for the state to hard-surface the Michigan Road rather than State Road 1 south from Plymouth, as the inset 1919 newspaper article reports. They even claimed — incorrectly — that the Michigan Road was a little shorter.
Alas, State Road 1 was paved.
Indiana expanded its State Road system to more than 50 roads by 1926, adding most of the Michigan Road in the process. The portion from Madison to Indianapolis became State Road 6. The portion from Indianapolis to Logansport became State Road 15.
(By the way, State Road 15 continued northwest from Logansport through Winamac and La Porte to Michigan City, fulfilling the Michigan Road’s mission in much more direct fashion. The indirect route through South Bend had been a compromise — one South Bend certainly enjoyed — to avoid the Kankakee Marsh in northwest Indiana. In the 1830s, no road could be built there. A series of ditches built in the late 1800s through about 1917 drained the marsh, and then by 1922 the river itself was dredged. The direct route finally could be, and was, built. It is US 35 today.)
But the portion of the Michigan Road from Logansport to Rochester remained off the grid.
The U.S. route system we know today was established in 1927. Several State Roads became U.S. highways. Indiana renumbered its State Roads to eliminate numbers the same as the new U.S. routes and to tame what had become a messy numbering scheme. The Michigan Road from Madison to Logansport became State Road 29 (except for a rural segment south of Napoleon in Ripley County, which the highway bypassed to loop in nearby Osgood and Versailles). Old State Road 1, including the Michigan Road from South Bend to Rochester, became US 31. The Michigan Road from South Bend to Michigan City became part of US 20.
Also in 1927, the State Highway Commission decided to build a State Road from Lafayette to Warsaw. To be named State Road 25, it would pass through Logansport and Rochester. At last, this segment of the Michigan Road would join the state highway system! It was added first, in 1928; the rest of State Road 25 was added in stages over the next few years. The state highway map segments above tell the story. In 1923, the Michigan Road didn’t appear between Rochester and Logansport. In 1927 a dotted line appeared to show that the road was approved to be added to the system. In 1928, the thick black line shows that the road was not only added, but hard surfaced, except for a small portion near Fulton. The broken line there and elsewhere on the map indicates a gravel road.
Logansport got its wish nine years too late, as by that time US 31 had become the dominant route to Indianapolis. Not that it mattered much in the long run — US 31 might have boosted Kokomo’s and Peru’s prosperity for a time, but US 31 was rerouted around both towns in the 1970s and traffic through these towns slowed to a trickle. All three towns experienced serious decline toward the end of the 20th century, for reasons bigger than rerouted highways. None is noticeably better off than the others today.
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.
When my Michigan Road partner Kurt and I laid out the Historic Michigan Road Byway, most of the route was obvious. The road is still all there, with but a few minor reroutings. You can drive it from end to end.
We did puzzle, however, over how the road proceeded through a few cities and towns. Where the road entered and exited was always clear, but which streets it followed through town was sometimes not. We made our best guesses.
Thanks to the fabulous Indiana Transportation History group on Facebook, I was introduced to a book called Development and Lands of Michigan Road, prepared in 1914 by the Indiana State Board of Accounts. It looks like they found and documented the original 1832 surveys for the road! You can see this remarkable book here.
This book clears up some mysteries, but creates others. The first puzzle it solves is the road’s original route through downtown Indianapolis.
Clarity into the route through Indianapolis
Looking at the book’s map, which represents the original Mile Square of Indianapolis, it is clear that the road enters downtown from the east along what is now Southeastern Ave. before turning west onto Washington Street, which is also the National Road. It’s also clear that the road exits to the north on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., St.
But it’s also clear that the road as surveyed turns north on Meridian Street, goes around Monument Circle, and then heads northwest along Indiana Avenue.
When we laid out the byway, we made it follow Washington Street all the way across the Mile Square to its edge at West St., and then north. It’s easy to describe, easy to follow. It also guides travelers past the lovely Indiana Statehouse, a nice bonus.
The original route, in contrast, is hard to follow. Monument Circle is frequently closed for events. One block of Indiana Avenue was removed in favor of a skyscraper. Compensating for that requires driving a series of one-way streets. So I don’t feel that bad that we got it wrong here.
Deepening mystery on the route through Logansport
The book shows a very different route through Logansport than we assumed. We routed it entirely over what is now State Road 25 through town, crossing Biddle Island as it enters downtown. You can see SR 25 on the map snippet at right below.
But the book shows the road entering Logansport and veering north, probably along what is now Lymas Ave. and Cicott St., crossing the Wabash west of Biddle Island, and then running along the Eel River’s north bank and then out of town. I’ve marked in red on the Google map what I think this routing must have been.
But an 1836 map of Logansport shows the Michigan Road crossing both the Eel and the Wabash via Biddle Island, as we’ve routed the byway. You can see that map here. Given that the road was surveyed in 1832 — four years before this later map — I wonder whether the road ever ran as surveyed.
Mucking things up in Michigan City
Early descriptions of the Michigan Road we’ve found always say that it ends at the mouth of Trail Creek at Lake Michigan. The survey map bears that out!
Unfortunately for the byway, the road no longer goes all the way through to the lake. It stops about 1,000 feet before it crosses Trail Creek, at an intersection with US 12.
We routed the byway from there west along US 12, ending it where US 12 meets Willard Ave. I have a dim memory that this is where the early-20th-century Michigan Road auto trail ended. But I have no idea where that memory comes from. If I had it to do over, I’d end the Historic Michigan Road Byway at the intersection of Michigan Blvd. and US 12 in Michigan City.
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.
Indiana has an unfortunate history with the Ku Klux Klan. A hundred years ago it was a real force in this state. While its dominance ended many decades ago, I’m sure Klan or Klan-like groups can still be found in my state’s dark corners.
Actor Adam Driver, who grew up in Mishawaka and stars in the new movie, “BlaKkKlansman,” claims to have been aware of Klan rallies during his childhood here. That would have been during the 1990s. His claim is a surprise to Hoosiers everywhere.
As a lifelong Hoosier, I’m not aware of any overt Klan activity like rallies and cross-burnings. That kind of thing tends to make news.
The Indianapolis Star published a story about Driver’s claim this week and included a brief history of the Klan in Indiana. It’s a good, short read — see it here.
If you’d like to read more, see especially the sordid story of D.C. Stephenson, one-time Grand Dragon who went to prison on rape and murder charges. The Wikipedia article (here) is a good start, but the best account I’ve read of him is in Indiana: An Interpretation, a book by John Bartlow Martin, which you can pick up used on Amazon for pennies (here).
I recommend the Bartlow book also for a compelling telling of the life of Terre Haute socialist Eugene V. Debs, who ran for President and was jailed for his politics. During my Terre Haute days I lived several blocks up the street from his onetime home there. I drove past it every day on my way to work.