History, Road Trips

Puzzle solved: The National Road at Pleasant Gardens and Reelsville in Indiana

For almost as long as I’ve been following the old roads I’ve wanted to piece together the history of a tangle of National Road alignments at Pleasant Gardens and Reelsville, in Putnam County, Indiana. Until recently I had managed to figure out only that there are three alignments here. This map shows them:


The current alignment is US 40, which was built in about 1941. The previous alignment is the yellow-red-yellow road, built in about 1923. The alignment before that is the yellow-green-yellow road. It would have been easy to assume that this was the original National Road alignment, except that by statute the National Road was supposed to be a direct route, and this is anything but direct.

Thanks to research by fellow roadfans Richard Simpson and Roger Green I’ve learned a great deal that has solved almost all of this puzzle. If, by the way, you find this stuff at all fascinating, I recommend joining Simpson’s Indiana Transportation History group on Facebook here. He shares lots of fascinating research there about Indiana roads.

Simpson found articles in the Brazil Daily Times newspaper with dates from 1912 to 1922 that told the story. From them, here’s what I now know:

  • When the National Road was built here sometime in the 1830s, it proceeded from the east along the yellow and then red alignment on the map, passing through Pleasant Gardens. It crossed Big Walnut Creek at about the same place the red alignment does, over a “wagon bridge,” which means it was probably a wooden covered bridge. From there, however, it crossed railroad tracks that were there then, and joined the green alignment. (Brazil Daily Times, Oct. 11, 1912, viewable here, and an 1864 map of Putnam County viewable here.)
  • In 1875, that bridge washed out and was not rebuilt. At this time, National Road travelers began to follow the yellow-green-yellow route, which already existed. (Brazil Daily Times, Oct. 11, 1912.) By then, the railroad was more prominent than any major road. It is likely that this alignment persisted because it provided access to the train stop in Reelsville.
  • This route had two serious challenges: first, a steep downgrade as the road headed north into Reelsville, and second, two at-grade crossings of the Vandalia Railroad, one of which was considered among the most dangerous in the state. (Brazil Daily Times, Oct. 11, 1912.)
  • In 1907, funds were secured to move the Vandalia tracks here to correct a dangerous curve and eliminate the at-grade crossings, but by 1912 nothing had been done. (Brazil Daily Times, Oct. 11, 1912.)
  • In 1919, about two years after Indiana created its numbered state highway system and signed the National Road as State Road 3, the State Highway Commission drew up plans to move the road to the yellow-red-yellow route. (Brazil Daily Times, May 23, 1919, viewable here.)
  • The contracts for this work were finally let in 1921. (Brazil Daily Times, Nov. 18, 1921, viewable in two parts here and here.)
  • Work finally began in 1922. (Brazil Daily Times, Jan. 5, 1922, viewable here.) From other research I’ve done I’m reasonably certain that this road was completed in 1923. This is also about the time the train stop at Reelsville closed, as the National Road once again became the more popular way to move people and goods.
  • In the late 1920s, a truck hit the covered bridge over the Big Walnut Creek on Reelsville Hill. Putnam County built a new bridge there in 1929, an open-spandrel concrete arch bridge. The bridge has been bypassed but remains in place. A plaque on the bridge gives the 1929 date.
  • As part of a project to widen US 40 to four lanes across Indiana, in about 1941 the road was realigned and rebuilt here to its current alignment. This removed part of the 1923 alignment, making it discontinuous. See this post for information about the four-lane US 40.

Here’s an excerpt from the 1864 map I mentioned above, showing the National Road crossing Big Walnut Creek west of Pleasant Garden.


The Indiana Historical Aerial Photo Index has a 1939 image of this area that shows the 1923 alignment still intact. I’ve added color to the road to highlight it. Instead of crossing the railroad track like the pre-1875 alignment, it hugs its south edge.


It turns out that my many photographic visits to this area will let me take you on a visual tour of these alignments. Here’s the map again, with index numbers that will go with the photographs that follow, starting at the eastern end.


The old alignments begin here, at 1 on the map. 2009 photo.

Old alignment US 40 & National Road

Shortly the road reaches Pleasant Gardens, directly south of Reelsville, at 2 on the map. 2009 photo.

Old US 40 alignment

There’s not much here now. 2009 photo.

Old US 40 alignment

This is the crossroads where the 1875 alignment turned right, but the pre-1875 and the 1923 alignment continued straight. 2006 photo.

National Road, Reelsville

Here’s the westbound pre-1875 and 1923 road, which dead ends just beyond where it goes out of sight in this 2006 photo.

National Road westbound out of Reelsville

This is the road north to Reelsville, the 1875 alignment, heading down Reelsville Hill. 2006 photo.

National Road, Reelsville

On my first ever visit to Reelsville Hill, in 2007, a new bridge had recently opened and the 1929 bridge had been abandoned in place. (3 on the map.) By the time I made this photo, in 2009, that bridge had been restored. That’s because it was designed by Daniel Luten, who invented and patented a kind of concrete arch that was very influential in bridge design. Luten bridges are therefore considered historic. The project to build the new bridge involved significantly reducing the grade, as this side-by-side shot of the old and new bridges shows.

Luten bridge

Here’s the restored Luten bridge in profile. 2009 photo.

Luten bridge

Here’s the best photo I have of the bridge from before it was restored. 2006 photo.

Bridge along the National Road, Reelsville

I made a screen shot in 2006 of this aerial map segment showing the old bridge still in use and the new bridge being built alongside. Notice how the road to the old bridge curved to meet the old bridge, but the road to the new bridge would track straight onto it. This might suggest that the 1929 bridge was built alongside the old covered bridge that was here on new abutments, and the road moved to this location. But the 1929 bridge is said to have been built on the covered bridge’s abutments.

Bridge construction at Reelsville

After crossing the bridge, the 1875-1923 alignment takes the first left and soon becomes a gravel road. I made this photo at about 4 on the map. 2006 photo.

Gravel National Road segment, Putnam Co, Indiana

Here’s more of the gravel road, from about 5 on the map. There’s no sign today that the railroad ever crossed this alignment; the tracks have been removed and the road smoothed out. 2009 photo.

Gravel National Road segment

The 1923 alignment was paved in concrete. Here’s where the 1875-1923 alignment meets the 1923 concrete, at 6 on the map. The concrete road from 9 on the map to here was removed at some point. I’d love to know why. 2009 photo.

1920s concrete

The 1923 alignment was broken into two segments by the 1941 alignment. Here’s where the second segment of the 1923 alignment begins, at 7 on the map. 2006 photo.

More Old US 40

I haven’t been back here in a long time, but when I made these photos in 2006 the road was heavily overgrown.

Old US 40

This is the 1923 bridge over Big Walnut Creek, at 8 on the map. 2006 photo.

Bridge on Old US 40

Here’s where the 1923 alignment abruptly ends, at 9 on the map. It used to continue through where my little red car stands, curving off to the right to join to point 6 on the map. I’d really like to know why this segment was removed. The narrow strip of asphalt that curves to the left connects this segment to the 1941 alignment.

Old US 40 end

This eastbound shot at 10 on the map shows the 1923 concrete. 2009 photo.

1920s concrete on the National Road

Westbound from the same spot, the 1923 concrete is someone’s driveway today. I’d love to get permission to walk this segment as far as it goes. On the aerial maps it looks like it ends about 800 feet from here. 2009 photo.

Old National Road as somebody's driveway

There you have it: all of the National Road alignments at Pleasant Gardens and Reelsville, explained and illustrated.

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Preservation, Road Trips

Endangered: Wrecks, Inc., sign

The central Indiana town of Whitestown calls itself the fastest-growing town in the state. As it continues to expand, it wants to build a sprawling community campus on an unused 170-acre plot that was once the Wrecks, Inc., automobile junkyard. That wrecking yard’s unusual and humorous neon sign remains.


The Wrecks, Inc., property is in Boone County, on Indianapolis Road west and then south of the I-65 Whitestown/Zionsville exit. This road is the historic Lafayette Road, which was built in the 1830s to connect Indianapolis to Lafayette. It carried US 52 for much of the 20th century.

Plans for the community campus show grass and shrubbery where this sign currently stands, making it appear that the sign will not survive the construction.


Plans are preliminary. It’s not clear whether contaminated ground water found on this site has been cleaned up sufficiently to allow construction. That contamination scuttled plans for a housing subdivision to be built here in 2007.

This sign is visible from nearby I-65, and was quite a sight when the junkyard was still in operation and the sign lit up at night. Today, many surely consider the sign to be an eyesore and will not be sorry to see it go. Here’s hoping that if it is not retained, a collector or sign museum will be allowed to dismantle and preserve it.

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Washington at Addison

Washington at Addison
Olympus XA
Kosmo Foto 100

Even though I’ve driven the National Road from end to end and have visited the Indiana and Illinois segments more than once, I’ve yet to fully document the road through Indianapolis. I’ve made some photographs Downtown, but very little between there and the eastern and western city limits. It’s in some part because the neighborhoods are bad, and in some part because it can be difficult to find places to park.

But I go to church within sight of this location, the corner of Washington (the National Road) and Addison Streets on the Near Westside. I’d never noticed before that the corner building was originally a lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. It says so above the second-story windows. I’ve lost count of how many such lodges have I encountered as I’ve followed the old roads.

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Film Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Washington at Addison


Preservation, Road Trips

On the square in Martinsville

On our October road trip I intended to follow the old alignments of State Road 37 and the Dixie Highway from Indianapolis all the way to Bloomington. Modern SR 37, a four-lane expressway, is being upgraded to Interstate standards to be I-69, and that will certainly cut off easy access to many of the old alignments. I underestimated how much progress has been made — shortly south of Martinsville, construction already blocked off all access to the old road.

At least we got to see a little of Martinsville first, specifically its square. The courthouse at its center was completed in 1859, with additions built in 1956 and 1975-1976. It’s unfortunate that trees blocked the view on all sides, as it is a stunning building well preserved.


The rest of Martinsville’s square was a mixed bag of buildings ranging from dilapidated to gorgeous, with several vacancies punctuated by occasional businesses, including this one which had just opened.


This building originally housed the First National Bank of Martinsville. Remember when every town of any size had its own banks? Today, thanks to bank consolidation, few of those remain. I wonder how many mergers happened before this became a BMO Harris Bank branch.


I enjoyed this building’s strong presence. It was built in 1893 for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and looks like it’s either been well maintained over the years or has been recently restored. Its first floor is largely occupied today by a coffee shop that specializes in homemade cheesecake.


This building looks recently restored as well. I appreciate how the facade, especially the store entrances, retain a period-typical look.


I was especially taken with the sign painted on this window. While the metal beams behind that glass mean that this door no longer operates, and that the Martinsville Bowling Center is a thing of Martinsville’s past, it’s great that the sign was retained.


Other buildings on Martinsville’s square are in various stages of restoration. Here’s hoping the next time I come through on a road trip, I get to see a completely revitalized square.


Martinsville was so excited about the Dixie Highway, by the way, that the town immediately paved it in locally made bricks. The Dixie’s route is covered in asphalt today, but another local road remains paved in those bricks. I told the brick Dixie story and showed the remaining brick road here.

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Photography, Road Trips

Roads I’ve been down

Do you ever notice the road images at the top of this page, just above my blog’s name? If you click your browser’s refresh button, eventually you will see them all. But today there will be no need for that: I’m going to share all 13 images with you and tell you where these roads are located.

I’m doing this on the occasion of adding a new road image to the rotation: this one. I made it on my October road trip. It’s State Road 45 in Brown County, Indiana.


The rotating header images are a feature of the WordPress blog template I use. (It’s the Ryu theme, in case you’re curious.) Using road photos I’ve taken, I shrink and crop them to 350×150 pixels, upload them, and link them to the header. The template and WordPress take it from there.

Here, then, are the rest of the roads in rotation.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana. From my 2009 road trip of the National Road in western Indiana.


Route 66 near Auburn, Illinois. From a 2013 Spring Break trip my sons and I took along Route 66.


Route 66 over the South Canadian River near Caddo, Oklahoma. From the 2013 Route 66 trip.


State Road 45 in Brown County, Indiana. From a long drive in 2013.


Peacock Road, former National Road, in Guernsey County, Ohio. From my 2010 trip across Ohio’s National Road.


Old State Road 37, former Dixie Highway, in Morgan County, Indiana. From my series of 2012 road trips exploring the Dixie in Indiana.


Old State Road 37, former Dixie Highway, in Morgan County, Indiana. From the 2012 Dixie Highway tour.


Route 66 at Devil’s Elbow, Missouri. From the 2013 Route 66 trip.


Route 66 west of El Reno, Oklahoma. From the 2013 Route 66 trip.


R344 in County Galway, Ireland. From my 2016 Irish honeymoon.


N59 near Connemara National Park, County Galway, Ireland. From my 2016 Irish honeymoon.


Unmarked road, Lettermore, County Galway, Ireland. From my 2016 Irish honeymoon.



Preservation, Road Trips

Is old road pavement worth preserving?

I’ve shared photos of this concrete road segment many times on this blog as a great example of early American hard pavement. It was probably poured in the early 1920s. But sadly, it no longer exists.

Old SR 37

The 1910s and 1920s were a time of great experimentation as roadbuilders figured out that right intersection of road-surface durability and cost. This was the era of brick roads, but builders also experimented with asphalt and Portland cement concrete. Early concrete roads were continuous ribbons. Natural expansion and contraction caused the concrete to crack, and often to crumble. This photo shows this road’s crack pattern better:

Concrete road

Roadbuilders soon figured out that regularly-spaced expansion joints helped concrete roads last longer. My experience has been that this happened by about 1925. Continuous concrete roads were built for a short time in modern road history, and most concrete roads will have expansion joints. When you come upon a continuous concrete road, you’ve found a rarity that is nearly a century old.

08_Map_Hacker_Creek_segmentYou can thank the construction of I-69 for this segment’s destruction. This road was a segment of old State Road 37 and the Dixie Highway, about five miles south of downtown Martinsville. Modern SR 37 has bypassed it for years, mere feet to the west. As the modern road is upgraded to Interstate standards, an exit is being built here. The plan maps (here and here) show the details. This map segment is from the old Windows Live Maps site; I captured it in 2007 when I wrote up my first trip along this old road (here). This concrete is the segment labeled W Hacker Creek Rd north of Liberty Church Rd on the map. The section south of Liberty Church Rd had been covered with asphalt. I made these photos from the north end of the road, where a bridge had been removed.

Abandoned SR 37

I have no photos from my recent trip along this road because the exit here is substantially complete and construction closures and restrictions blocked access. As we moved past here on the new highway I could see a ramp exactly where this concrete used to be. A new bridge was even built over this gap.

And it’s too bad. I’m sure people who live down Liberty Church Road will be happy for easy access to their properties from I-69. But they get it at the cost of losing an interesting and well-preserved example of road history.

Old bridges and old buildings are obvious choices for historic preservation, especially when they are of a style or type of dwindling number or are part of a historic resource. But I think old pavement should be as well.

Just like any candidate for preservation, you can’t save them all. But I’m pretty sure this was the last section of continuous concrete highway on Indiana’s Dixie Highway, and as such this destruction was a real loss.

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