Road Trips

Climbing Michigan Hill in Madison, Indiana

I wonder if schoolchildren in Madison, Indiana, are taught about the Michigan Road when they study Indiana history. It would be a shame if they weren’t, for this historic road begins in their town.

Michigan at West

Every road begins somewhere, after all, and this one begins north of Madison’s historic downtown, at the top of West Street.

MRMadison

Imagery and map data © 2018 Google

If you’ve driven the Michigan Road anywhere else along its 270-mile length you know it is, by and large, flat and straight. But its first 8/10 of a mile winds its way up a steep hill. The stars on the map mark the beginning of the road and the top of the hill. It’s an exhilarating start to this historic road!

The Michigan Road was built in the early 1830s to connect Madison, then the state’s largest city, to the new capital at Indianapolis, and then to Lake Michigan. It passed through Greensburg, Shelbyville, Logansport, Rochester, Plymouth, and South Bend on its way to its end at Lake Michigan in Michigan City.

Most of Indiana is flat, but this state’s southern counties feature rugged terrain. That’s in part because of the valley created by the Ohio River, and in part because Ice Age glaciers and their land-flattening effect extended only so far south in what would become Indiana.

Thus, as you begin driving the Michigan Road, you’ll find your car in low gear for the climb.

From the beginning of the Michigan Road

This is the first house on the Michigan Road. It looks like it’s getting some work.

First house on the Michigan Road

It’s challenging to photograph this part of the Michigan Road. There are no shoulders and only a couple pulloffs, and plenty of traffic enters and exits old Madison via this hill. You can’t stand very far back from traffic, and drivers don’t expect to find pedestrians as they round one of the many curves. When I walked this hill in 2008 one motorcycle rider stopped, looked at me incredulously, and asked if I had a death wish! He was right, and I vowed not to do it again. So this time we photographed only the bottom, and then the top, of Michigan Hill. Fortunately, I photographed the hill extensively in 2008. The next three photos are from that walk.

NB Michigan Road

The Ohio River is visible from one of the pulloffs. The hill in the distance is Kentucky.

The Ohio River from the Michigan Road

Modern cars have little trouble climbing Michigan Hill, but most early automobiles would have struggled.

NB Michigan Road

Back to 2018 now and at the top of the hill, where you’ll find the Fairmount House. I photographed it extensively in 2008, and shared those photos and what I know about the house here. It was for sale at the time.

Fairmount House

The house hasn’t changed in 10 years, but the landscaping sure has. It blocked every clear angle to bring the whole house into the photo.

Fairmount House

But it’s a lovely property, made even lovelier by landscaping.

Fairmount House

Here’s a view down Michigan Hill from the Fairmount House.

Michigan Road SB at Fairmount House

Just beyond where the road levels out stands this monument to the road, placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution the same year the U.S. highway system was born. This portion of the Michigan Road would eventually become US 421, but in 1926 it was assigned number 29 in Indiana’s State Road system.

Honored by the DAR

If you ever drive the Michigan Road from end to end, you’ll find that from here on out the hills and valleys are slight and the curves are gentle.

I shot some shaky handheld video of the ascent in 2008. It’ll give you a good flavor of what the drive is like.

Canon PowerShot S95 (and Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom for the 2008 photos)

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The beginning of the Michigan Road

The beginning of the Michigan Road
Canon PowerShot S95
2018

When I surveyed the Michigan Road end to end in 2008, I failed to photograph this marker at the road’s beginning. The Daughters of the American Revolution placed it in 1916, on the occasion of Indiana’s centennial.

Margaret and I have made our first trip on our re-survey of the road. We did not fail to photograph the marker this time!

Sadly, no Michigan Road Historic Byway wayfinding signs were present. One should stand near this rock with a “Begin” sign under it, and another should stand across the street with an “End” sign under it. They have gone missing.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: The beginning of the Michigan Road

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At Sycamore Row

At Sycamore Row
Canon FT QL, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FL
Fujicolor 200
2013

Sycamore Row is an abandoned segment of the Michigan Road about nine miles south of Logansport. The old roadbed is closely bordered on each side by sycamore trees that, legend says, grew from green sycamore logs placed here in the road’s early days as a form of hard surfacing.

I don’t remember now why I was in South Bend and left for home first thing in the morning. I do remember that it was a weekday morning and I’d be going directly to work.

I was testing a Canon FT QL camera and it was with me in the car. When I reached the sycamores, the sun had not yet burned off all of morning’s mist. I thought I might find some good photographic subjects here. This one turned out not to be too bad, of one sycamore overlooking a farm field.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: At Sycamore Row

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Photography, Road Trips

Ten years ago on the Michigan Road

It was ten years ago this summer that I surveyed the entire Michigan Road, a project that contributed directly to a later project I co-led to have the road named a Historic Byway in Indiana. My wife and I wanted to re-survey the entire road this summer to document it as it is now. Given all that’s happened this year, we have yet to start. Other priorities continue to fill our summer. We will be fortunate to drive one or two segments of it this year. Perhaps we can finish it next year.

I drove the road to South Bend last Wednesday for a Historic Michigan Road Association board meeting. I noticed how much has changed just on that section of the road in ten years. It led me to think about changes I’ve noticed as I’ve driven other sections of the road over the years. I’m itching to start the new survey!

I made a quick pass through my 2008 photos and selected ten that pleased me as photographs. I was a beginning photographer then. Have a look.

NB Michigan Road

Madison, near the Michigan Road’s southern end.

Fairmount House

The Fairmount House, Madison.

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

Stone bridge, Ripley County.

Michigan Road, Decatur County, Indiana

A curvy section of road in Decatur County.

Dodge in Pleasant View

Old Dodge parked just off the road, Shelby County.

Waterman Hardware in Five Points

Waterman Hardware, one of Indianapolis’s oldest businesses.

Dunkin' Donuts

Brand new Dunkin’ Donuts preparing to open — it has since closed — Indianapolis.

Bar-B-Q Heaven

Bar-B-Q Heaven, Indianapolis.

1884 building

1884 building, Plymouth.

Approaching South Bend

Approaching South Bend. The Michigan Road is no longer US 31 here; a new-terrain US 31 was built nearby.

Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom

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Road Trips

New neon at the Old Style Inn

Logansport’s Old Style Inn used to have a great neon sign over its door. I was disappointed a few years ago to discover it had been removed.

Old Style Inn, Logansport

Hard telling how old this sign was, but it was a classic to be sure.

Old Style Inn, Logansport

I was pleased on my recent Logansport trip to find that the Old Style has a new sign in the neon style. It’s probably not actually neon — so many modern neon-like signs are actually flexible LED lighting. But it’s pretty well done.

Old Style Inn, Logansport

Margaret and I stopped here for dinner before we went home. Our server explained that the Old Style had formerly been just a bar. When it remodeled and became a bar/restaurant a few years ago, the owner felt new signage was in order. Here’s hoping the original sign was saved, and isn’t sitting in a landfill somewhere.

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State Theater, Logansport

Through the door at the State Theater
Canon PowerShot S95
2018

50 years ago if you drove through downtown Logansport, Indiana, you’d have found its streets lined with buildings. Most of them dated to the 1800s.

Logansport boomed through about the middle of the 20th century. Good jobs were plentiful in that railroad and manufacturing town. But as happened in so many midwestern cities in the late 20th century, the boom ended and good jobs dried up. Downtown vacancies rose and buildings fell into disrepair. A great number of them ended up being razed. Downtown Logansport is full of parking lots today.

Yet today Logansport keeps showing up on lists of small towns worth living in. The city topped this list at Realtor.com. I’ve seen it in the years I’ve been involved with Logansport through my Michigan Road work: people there want to be proud of the place they call home, and they’re doing the work to show it. The old buildings are never coming back, but those that remain (like the State Theater, from which I made this photo) are being restored. And where parking lots remain, you’ll increasingly find public art to guide and please the eye.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Through the door at the State Theater

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