Road Trips

US 50 in Jennings County, Indiana

On three Saturdays in the summer of 2010, I drove as many old alignments of US 50 as I could find in Indiana, from Ohio to Illinois. I wrote about that trip on my old Roads site, but now I’m bringing that material to this blog.

After missing the abandoned bridge in Ripley County, I had to take consolation in the beauty of the road and its surroundings just over the line in Jennings County.

US 50 in Ripley County

I aimed to follow US 50’s original alignments as much as possible. My old Automobile Blue Books claim, as best as I can tell, that the route highlighted in blue below was Old State Road 4’s path between the small towns of Nebraska and Butlerville. Since Old 4 was resigned as US 50 when the US route system came into being, this was probably the path US 50 first followed here. Can you imagine putting up with all those 90-degree turns on a major highway today?

(I guessed wrong. From Richard Simpson’s excellent article about US 50’s 1926 route, here’s his map of the original alignment.)

When I arrived in Butlerville along this path, I came across two abandoned school buildings right next to each other. This is the Butlerville (Elementary, I presume) School, built in 1922. The bushes out front aren’t all that overgrown and the grass is cut, suggesting that someone is minimally maintaining the property.

Butlerville School

And this is the Butlerville High School, built in 1904. (Readers have let me know that this building’s roof has caved in, and the building’s days are numbered.)

Butlerville High School

I assume that the school consolidation that ran so rampant in Indiana after about 1950 claimed these two schools. It’s sad that they sit derelict, but they’re not alone; many once-proud schools across Indiana have been left to molder.

My ABBs described a route to the next town, North Vernon, that I couldn’t figure out. I’m pretty sure it involves a segment of road that is no longer labeled on Google Maps but shows up in a farmer’s field just the same, and a bridge that not only no longer exists, but there’s no trace of one ever having existed. Whee. (Richard Simpson successfully found the original 1926 route. Here’s his map of it.)

I gave up and just followed current US 50 to North Vernon.

Indiana, like most states, began improving its roads in the early part of the 20th century and has never stopped. You’d think that every highway in the state would have been improved to perfection by now! But the thirst for wider, straighter, and faster roads seems never to be slaked. In a few cases, towns on major highways that were bypassed with expressways 50 years ago are set to be rebypassed with freeways.

And so it’s refreshing to this old roadgeek when a US highway still passes through a town, especially a town with a well-preserved old downtown. Such is the case with US 50 when it reaches North Vernon, a small city in southeastern Indiana. This eastbound photo is of an intersection where US 50 makes a right turn on its way out of town.

US 50 in North Vernon

As you make that corner from the other direction, you pass by a brick street on your right, on which stands this theater.

Park Theater

I was drawn to this attractive building but puzzled over the name atop its facade. It didn’t take much Internet sleuthing to find out about the Improved Order of Red Men, the nation’s oldest fraternal organization.

US 50 in North Vernon

North Vernon offers a sturdy downtown with many viable businesses. A lot of small Indiana cities wish they could be North Vernon.

US 50 in North Vernon

This library, so typical of those I’ve seen all over the state, stands a couple blocks away.

North Vernon library

I love it when I come into a town or small city and find it to be quite alive and well as I did with North Vernon on this rainy afternoon. People were coming and going from the shops along US 50 and enough cars passed by that I had to wait several minutes at this corner before I could take this unobstructed eastbound photograph.

US 50 in North Vernon

I enjoyed my brief walk through this classic Indiana downtown, but I wondered as I photographed it how North Vernon had managed to go unbypassed. I didn’t know until I came home and started researching for this post that the Indiana Department of Transportation is studying several routes that will finally take US 50 around North Vernon. One day this street will be Old US 50. (That bypass is now complete. It bypasses North Vernon to the north.)

You might think I’d lament this bypassing, but I accept it as the way of the world. I’m just glad I visited with my camera while the highway still passes through town. I visit lots of towns through which highways once passed and I wonder what they were like when they got all of the highway’s traffic. It’s satisfying to have experienced North Vernon while US 50 still passed through it. I’m sure I’ll visit again one day after the bypass is built and remember when I took this photo of the US 50 shield while it still stood along the road.

US 50 in North Vernon

Old and new US 50 diverge about four miles west of North Vernon. (At least it did in 2009, when I made this trip. The completed US 50 bypass significantly changed the road configuration here.)

The old road makes a beeline for tiny Hayden while current 50 swings south a bit along a railroad track and bypasses the tiny town. On Google Maps, the shadow over the tracks tells of a bridge, but neither my 1916 nor 1924 Automobile Blue Books mention it. I figured that this had been an at-grade crossing during those years and that the bridge came later. But when I got there, I was shocked to find a kind of bridge generally not built later.

Wooden bridge

That’s right – a wooden bridge. Now, I’ve seen plenty of wooden covered bridges in my travels, but never an uncovered wooden bridge.

Sometimes I think that nobody likes to maintain old bridges. My old road guides frequently call out iron, concrete, and wooden bridges along routes because they were good landmarks, but I seldom expect to find them still standing. Even though a well-designed and -maintained bridge can stand strong for well over a hundred years, it’s often easier to get money to replace a worn-out bridge than to keep it up in the first place. So it’s always a real pleasure to find an old bridge still serving.

Wooden bridge

I didn’t immediately drive over this bridge. though. You see, wooden bridges make me nervous! I have a hard time believing that timbers are going to hold up my car. Now, I went to engineering school. I generally understand how all of a bridge’s structural elements work together to bear its loads. I know that a bridge is designed with a certain maximum load in mind. I also know that my car weighs about 2,500 pounds, a mere 25% of the bridge’s posted five-ton load rating. But something irrational inside me doesn’t want to buy all of that. A wooden bridge seems inherently fragile to me. I could put some serious hurt on this structure with a chain saw; try it on a steel or concrete bridge and you’ll need a new saw! My usual nervousness was not helped when I noticed the missing plank. Actually, at that moment I said out loud, “Heck no, there’s no way I’m driving over that thing.” So I parked and headed out to photograph this old girl, intending to follow modern US 50 to the next town when I was done.

Wooden bridge

I was further discouraged to find wooden piers supporting the deck. But as I walked around the structure snapping photographs, several heavy farm trucks drove over it. They slowed down only slightly – clearly, the drivers did not share my fear. The bridge popped and rumbled every time, making me think of a giant popping extra jumbo popcorn. Despite the racket, the bridge stood firm, with neither a shimmy nor a shake. My confidence was buoyed. So when my photographic desires had been satisfied, I climbed back into my car and drove over the bridge. I proceeded slowly, my stomach clenching all the way. But I made it over.

Wooden bridge

(Sadly, as part of the US 50 bypass project, this bridge was removed.)

And then the old road stretched out before me.

The old road

And then I came upon tiny Hayden.

Almost immediately, I came upon this restored gas station. If you didn’t know that the country road leading in and out of Hayden was once the highway, you might be surprised to find this gas station in a little country town in the sticks.

Gas station in Hayden

Whoever restored this station placed these Sinclair pumps here, but who knows what brand of gas it originally sold.


From here, the original US 50 followed County Road 700 West south out of town, crossed the tracks, and turned west onto current US 50.

Next: US 50 in Jackson County.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!