Road Trips

Vintage map of the Dandy Trail, a 1920s pleasure drive around Indianapolis

Ten years ago I explored the Dandy Trail, an 88-mile automobile pleasure loop that encircled Indianapolis in the 1920s. I’ve been interested in it since I moved to Indianapolis in 1994; I lived near a short road signed Dandy Trail and was curious how it got such an unusual name. Long story short, I discovered the onetime auto trail, organized by the Hoosier Motor Club to encourage motoring for pleasure.

When I investigated the road, I discovered that the Indiana State Library had a map in its collection. I went to the ISL and photographed the map, which I shared here.

For more than a decade now I’ve had a saved search on eBay for “Dandy Trail.” It emails me every time someone lists something for sale with those two words in the title. It has emailed me exactly twice in all these years. The first time was in 2012, when someone listed a set of seven 4×6 inch glass plate negatives from the road. I had the negatives scanned, and I shared them all in this article.

It turns out the negatives were from a 1936 story in The Indianapolis Star looking at what happened to the by-then-defunct trail. I’ll share more about that in an upcoming article.

The second time that search emailed me was just recently. Someone had a Dandy Trail map for sale! I bought it immediately.

The map at the Indiana State Library is from 1921; the date is printed on the map. My map lacks a date imprint. Someone penciled in “1925” on the map, so I’ll date the map to then unless I find stronger evidence to the contrary. It features a few detail changes from the map at the ISL. I shared the map’s cover above. Here’s the map fully open.

Here’s the inside cover:

Here’s the back cover. Notice the ultra-low Indianapolis speed limits! The 1921 map featured a sign-up form to join the Hoosier Motor Club here instead.

You can still drive the entire Dandy Trail today, except for a portion that is submerged within Eagle Creek Reservoir, a flood-control project. I laid out all the roads on Google Maps here:

I made some videos of driving the Dandy Trail in 2012; view some of them in this article.

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Road Trips

Discovering where the old road used to go

When you like to follow the old roads as I do, you need ways to know where the old roads went. Modern roads have often been straightened, widened, or outright moved from their original paths.

This is where old maps and road guides come in. I have a bunch of them; they take up most of a bookcase shelf. My collection earned me an interview for an article in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star that published this week; read it here. It is about how maps are still relevant in this age of GPS-driven map apps and their turn-by-turn directions as you drive. The article also mentions map collecting as a hobby.

I collect, but entirely so I have sources of old-road information. Here are some of my oldest maps, mostly from the 1920s. The one in the upper left is from 1904, long before there was any sort of formal highway network or system for marking roads.

My favorite old-road publications, however, are not maps but rather turn-by-turn guides. The granddaddy of them all is the Automobile Blue Book, a multi-volume set published annually from 1901 to 1929. Here’s a page from the Middle-West volume of the 1912 Automobile Blue Book, which begins to explain how you’d drive from Terre Haute to Indianapolis. I love how it briefly describes Terre Haute as it was in 1912. Notice how the directions that follow describe landmarks, railroad crossings, and bridges. There were no regular route-marking signs on this road, not for several years yet as the state and US highway systems were still in the future. Describing the roadside scene helped you check whether were still on the right road. The guide also notes that the road is “good gravel all the way” — a big deal at a time when most roads were dirt, and became impassable mud bogs in the rain.

I also like the Hobbs-Mohawk Grade and Surface Guides, which described various major routes turn by turn. This page is from the 1924 guide to the National Old Trails Road, which was essentially what is now US 40 from the east cost into Illinois and then what would become US 66 to California. This page describes the section of the road between Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Notice how by 1924 sections of the road were paved, sometimes in concrete, sometimes in brick, and near Indianapolis in asphalt. Notice especially in these directions all the places mentioned where travelers could camp. If you couldn’t reach the next city, camping was the way you had to lodge in those days. There were no motels, not for about another ten years yet.

Even though this route is a modern four-lane divided highway today, as shown below, some sections of that old brick and concrete road remain. You can still drive on the old concrete sections, which were built in the 1920s; see one here. The one remaining brick section is on private property, so don’t trespass; see part of it here.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana

I’ve let my old-road hobby go fallow over the last few years as other aspects of my life have crowded it out. But my heart still wishes to explore a new-to-me old road every year about this time. When I have the time to get back to it, I have all the materials I need to know where the old road used to go.

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