Road Trips

Old-road archaeology: finding the old infrastructure on Indiana’s Dixie Highway

For most of history, roads had to wind, rise, and fall with the terrain. Straight, flat roads meant cutting into the earth, and that was either too costly or simply impossible. Through the 20th century, constantly improving technology changed that. Good thing, too, because as people increasingly relied on motor transport, narrow, winding roads became insufficient.

Indiana began improving its important roads in the early 20th century. At first, it simply improved the road surface, converting dirt to gravel, crushed stone, brick, or concrete. Later, it straightened many highways, made them bypass small towns, and widened them to make them safer and allow speedier passage. For example, Indiana repeatedly improved the Dixie Highway between Martinsville and Bloomington (along the way changing its name to State Road 37.) It’s now a divided four-lane expressway – straight, smooth, and speedy. Indiana isn’t done improving this road; it is slated to be upgraded to Interstate standards and become part of I-69. These three map segments, from 1937, 1970, and 2005, tell the story.

1937 Rand McNally1970 Rand McNally2005 Indiana DOT

These improvements left several segments of the original winding road behind. As is sometimes the case, some infrastructure from days gone by was left behind, as well.

This three-span pony truss bridge was built in 1925. It’s narrow by modern standards, with a 19-foot-wide deck. Oncoming cars can pass, but it feels a little tight. (Click here to see it on Google Maps.)

Pony trusses

A bit south of the bridge, on another left-behind segment of the old road, we found this slab of concrete. (Click here to see this location on Google Maps.) When you drive over a truss bridge, you know it’s old because nobody builds them anymore. But concrete is still sometimes used to pave highways. Besides, who really pays any attention to the road surface?

Concrete road

I do, of course! And I’ve been exploring Indiana’s old roads long enough to know that this is mighty old concrete. Notice all the cracks? Early Indiana concrete highways had no expansion joints. As temperature changes expanded and contracted the concrete, it had little choice but to crack. I’ve found other similar concrete highways in Indana that I’ve dated to as early as 1923.

But there’s a chance that this concrete is even older than that. A buddy on my favorite roadgeek forum dug into his extensive collection of historic maps and road guides and found evidence that this road could have been paved in 1917! But I think 1925 is more likely. That’s when the bridge shown above was built, and it’s less than two miles from here. Also, 1925 is consistent with the other seamless concrete roads I’ve found.

This was the only concrete segment we found all day. Over time, Indiana covered its concrete highways in asphalt; along the rest of the Dixie, this concrete is buried under one or more layers of the stuff. This segment was left in its original state because it is not through; it provides access to one house, where it dead ends. There was once a small bridge here.

End of the line

A short segment of abandoned concrete road lies beyond the creek. That’s modern State Road 37 at its end.

Abandoned concrete

When I next write about the old Dixie Highway, I’ll show you a 15-mile old alignment that leads through beautiful country, ending in Bloomington.

The oldest concrete highway I’ve found was on Ohio’s National Road – from 1914! See it now!

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Road Trips

Driving the Dixie Highway in southern Indiana

My dad always called it Dixieway, the main road that headed south out of my hometown. Yet all the street signs called it Michigan Street or US 31. As a boy, I asked Dad why. “Well, Dixieway is an old name for the road, son. It’s called that because it goes all the way to Dixie.”

The Dixie Highway was actually a whole network of roads that connected the Midwest to the South, running from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan to Miami, Florida. One branch passed through South Bend, where I grew up. But as the 1923 map at right shows, the Dixie crisscrossed Indiana, converging in Indianapolis.

I’ve driven (and written about) much of Indiana’s Dixie in about the northern two-thirds of the state. I’ve been itching for a long time to follow it the rest of the way, and I finally scratched most of that itch on a recent Saturday. I picked up my favorite road-trip companion, Dawn, found the Dixie in Martinsville, and followed it all the way to Paoli. It was a perfect autumn road trip.

When Indiana numbered its highways, it assigned the number 37 to the Dixie from Indianapolis to Paoli. But over time, State Road 37 was improved and heavily rerouted over much of this distance. Many old alignments, some of them quite long, remain as lightly traveled country roads.  I’ll write more about it in posts to come, but for now, here’s a taste of what Dawn and I saw.

On the Dixie

In western Indiana, the Dixie is mostly US 136. I drove it this spring – pick up the trail here!

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Road Trips

Abandoned Fall Creek Road

My recent Dandy Trail tour took me down a part of Fall Creek Road, which rolls and curves through a long portion of northeast Indianapolis. I drive this road often, as it is on one of the routes I follow to pick up and drop off my sons at their mother’s. It’s a lovely drive that makes the long trip between our homes a lot more pleasant. I shot a little video along Fall Creek Road to share with you.

In the video, the place where I come upon an intersection and bear right is near the upper right corner of the aerial image below. I then head west, and as the video ends I reach Shadeland Avenue and Fall Creek Road appears to end. You can see cars zooming along I-465 just beyond Shadeland.

In the Dandy Trail’s day, neither Shadeland Avenue nor I-465 existed, and Fall Creek Road used to go through. This aerial image from 1956 (by which time Shadeland had been built) shows how it used to be. The northern east-west road is Fall Creek Road and the southern road is Fall Creek Parkway.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why these roads had to be butchered so badly because of I-465. It’s not like they didn’t have to build a bridge over Fall Creek anyway; would it have been so hard to extend it over Fall Creek Parkway and build the other bridge over the original Fall Creek Road alignment?

A short segment of old Fall Creek Road lies abandoned in what is now Skiles Test Nature Park, along and just west of I-465 on the north side of current Fall Creek Road. I was amused to find a picnic table on this abandoned bridge.

Abandoned Fall Creek Road

I stood on the bridge and faced east to take this photo. I-465 is just beyond the brush.

Abandoned Fall Creek Road

I turned around to face west for this photo. Maybe 150 feet of pavement remain. This abandoned segment extended all the way to the current Fall Creek Road alignment until the mid 1990s, when most of it was removed so a hiking trail could be built. That trail leads back to the site of a large home, demolished in the 1970s, once owned by Mr. Skiles Test.

Abandoned Fall Creek Road

I-465 was built here during the 1960s, so this was last maintained more than 40 years ago.

Nature always slowly reclaims abandoned roads. Check out nature’s work on this abandoned US 40 bridge.

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Road Trips

Driving the Dandy Trail, part 1

When I found the 1921 map of the Dandy Trail, a 1920s country driving loop around Indianapolis, I knew I’d want to drive it myself. So I traced the route on a modern city map and found that most of the route still exists, and where it doesn’t, easy detours return you to the trail in no time.

Being a loop, there was no fixed beginning or end to the Dandy Trail. The old map advised that the trail could be “reached by going out any main highway.” One main highway the 1921 map called out was Michigan Road, near which I live today. So I went out to Michigan Road and north about a mile and a half until I reached what was the Dandy Trail at Westlane Road. My camera was suction-cupped to my windshield so I could record some of the experience. Here’s where I turned off Michigan Road onto Westlane Road and began my clockwise journey around the Dandy Trail.

This section of Westlane Road is lined with apartment complexes today, and it’s common to see people who live in them but who can’t afford cars walking the shoulder on their way to and from Michigan Road, where there’s shopping and a bus stop.

Westlane Road turns into 73rd Street, and the Dandy Trail follows along for another mile or so until it reaches Spring Mill Road. This road shows up on county maps going back to the 1840s! At its southern end it straddles the White River and follows a winding downhill path. Mrs. M. E. Noblett of the Hoosier Motor Club, who laid out the route, did a splendid job of finding other winding and rolling roads in what otherwise is a mighty flat city and making them all part of the Dandy Trail. It was Mrs. Noblett’s little Pomeranian dog, by the way, for whom the trail was named and whose likeness appeared on all the signs.

This video ends where Spring Mill Road reaches Kessler Boulevard. In the Dandy Trail’s earliest days, Kessler didn’t exist. Spring Mill curved, crossed the river, and became Illinois Street. Kessler Boulevard was on the drawing board, however, and was completed within the next few years. Ever since you’ve had to turn left onto Kessler, cross the river, and then turn right onto Illinois to follow the trail.

When the Dandy Trail reaches the far north side of town it crosses the White River again. That bridge, too, is lost to history, but the bridge that replaced it is a 1941 beauty that was restored a few years ago. It is the last truss bridge in the county.

This part of town is known for its upscale shopping today, but in the Dandy Trail’s day this was merely a two-lane gravel road way out in the sticks. Mrs. Noblett may have been the first to recognize the area’s potential. The old Indiana Highway Department saw it too and made it part of old State Road 100, an early attempt at a beltway around Indianapolis that I-465 later supplanted.

Finally, on the east side of town the Dandy Trail followed 56th Street and then turned right onto Shadeland Avenue. Today, a huge I-465 interchange has consumed that intersection. To follow the Dandy Trail today, you have to take the I-465 exit! Fortunately, if you keep right you will flow directly onto Shadeland.

I followed the Dandy Trail around the east side to the south side, where then as now it passes by cornfields. Yes, there are cornfields in the city of Indianapolis! But when I reached the Michigan Road on the south side (where it’s known as Southeastern Avenue), it was late. So I turned northward on the Michigan Road and followed it home, having covered a little less than half of the Dandy Trail. I’ll follow the rest another day.

I shot five other video segments on this trip for a total of nine, and created a playlist on YouTube that stitches them together in order. Click here to see them.

I totaled a car on a road trip once (read that story). Attaching the camera to the windshield lets me focus on driving

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Road Trips

Making a beeline down Indiana’s Dixie Highway

If you’re not too persnickety, the easiest way to drive the Dixie Highway’s western mainline in Indiana is just to follow US 136. You will miss a few old alignments in so doing, but your cruising will be eased by needing only to follow the marked highway. If you’ve read this blog at all, you know I’m persnickety. Naturally, I followed all of the old alignments. The longest old alignment stretches about 8½ miles from Covington to just past Veedersburg at US 41.

Imagery © 2012 TerraMetrics, map data © 2012 Google

The road is narrow with no shoulders, which suggests that the road saw few improvements while it was still the state highway. When Indiana chose to seriously invest in its road here, it chose to build a new alignment to the north.

Dixie Bee Road

Most of this road is signed Dixie Bee Road. A competing auto trail known as the Dixie Bee Line connected Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee, via Danville, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. My 1920s Indiana road maps show the Dixie Bee Line following a different path from this road, but given that some auto trails’ routes changed frequently, it is still possible that this was once the Dixie Bee Line as well as the Dixie Highway. After all, this segment ends at US 41, which leads directly to Terre Haute.

When Dixie Bee Road reaches Veedersburg, its name changes to State Street. It cuts across Veedersburg’s south side and then crosses Coal Creek on on this great pony-truss bridge.

Steel bridge

Except for rust and a bent railing where a vehicle nudged it, the bridge looks to be quite solid. Whenever you see equilateral triangles in a truss bridge, you know you’re looking at a Warren truss.

Pony truss bridge

These trusses are massive, stretching about eight feet above the deck.

Pony truss bridge

About a mile east of the bridge, the Dixie Highway meets US 41. US 136 rejoins the historic alignment from here west.

I once came upon a suspension bridge on an old highway alignment in Illinois. Check it out!

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Road Trips

Driving Indiana’s Dixie Highway

The Dixie Highway was a 1910s and 1920s network of roads that connected the Midwest to the South, running from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan to Miami, Florida. In a day where good roads were not a given, the Dixie was formed to pave the way, literally, to bring tourists to the South. To learn more, please see Robert V. Droz’s outstanding Dixie Highway site, which includes a 1923 map of the route.

From the 1923 map

The Dixie neatly crossed Indiana, entering from the north at South Bend and from the west near Covington, converging at Indianapolis, and then exiting to the east at Richmond and to the south at New Albany. Indiana folded all of the Dixie into its state highway network in the 1920s. Later road improvements have left a few old alignments behind, but you can drive almost all of the original Dixie Highway in Indiana today.

I’ve covered a lot of Indiana’s Dixie on past road trips. The segment from South Bend to Indianapolis followed the Michigan Road, which I explored in 2008. The segment from Indianapolis to Richmond followed the National Road, which I explored in 2009. And when I explored State Road 37 from Indianapolis to Bloomington in 2007, I was unwittingly also following the Dixie Highway. So it seems only natural that I finish driving Indiana’s Dixie.

In the Dixie’s heyday, the section between the Illinois line and Indianapolis was part of the western “mainline” that began in Chicago. Indiana erected State Road 34 signs along the route in 1927, but took them all down in 1953 and erected US 136 signs instead. Naturally, over the years the road was improved, occasionally leaving old alignments behind. And then in the 1960s I-74 was built along the same corridor, forever relegating US 136 simply to connect the small towns along it.

Small towns and old alignments always entice me, so on a recent Saturday I drove out to where US 136 enters Indiana and headed back east, exploring all the way. I’ll share some of the interesting sights in upcoming posts.

Indiana State Line, US 136

I also briefly followed a bit of the Dixie in southern Indiana on my US 50 trip a couple years ago. Check it out!

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