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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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.

Old US 40, Putnam County

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, Putnam County

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

Old US 40, Putnam County

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, Putnam County

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.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Preservation, Road Trips

The house on Best Road, on Ohio’s National Road

Best Rd.

In the rugged terrain of eastern Ohio, 20th-century improvements to US 40 left plenty of old National Road alignments behind. One of them in Guernsey County is signed as Best Road.

There are two reasons I stopped to photograph Best Road. The first was that it towers over current US 40.

Best Rd.

The road’s realignment cut out a pretty steep hill, making US 40 safer and faster. Here’s where the hill crests.

Best Rd.

The second reason I stopped was this great old house. It dates to the 1870s and was originally home to Civil War veteran Oliver Barnett. It’s a “homegrown home” – the lumber used to build it came from trees on the property. Even the stone in its foundation was quarried here.

For this photo, I squatted down trying to get the tree branches to serve as kind of a frame for the scene. I couldn’t avoid having them block the roof, unfortunately!

Best Rd.

Hidden gems like this are why I like to follow the old alignments!

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Road Trips

Road trip season is almost here

I like to fill my spare spring and summer Saturdays taking road trips. And I don’t mean “let’s drive to Chicago for the weekend” – I mean exploring the old two-lane highways, just taking in the countryside and enjoying the small towns along the way. The journey is the destination! Also, as these old roads were straightened, widened, and sometimes even moved over the years to allow for swifter travel, bits of their original alignments were sometimes left behind. I loves me some old alignments!

One of my favorite old alignments is in Illinois on the National Road, which was the nation’s first federally funded highway. It was built in the 1820s and 1830s to connect the east (Baltimore, MD) to what at the time was considered the west (Vandalia, IL). US 40 more or less follows its path today. A remarkable series of events left several miles of the National Road abandoned in Illinois starting at the Indiana border. Basically, in the early 1950s Illinois intended to convert the road into a 4-lane expressway, and built new westbound lanes next to the old highway. By the time those lanes were laid down, the Interstate system was on the drawing board and it became clear that I-70 would be built parallel to US 40 across the state. It suddenly made no sense to improve the old road into eastbound lanes, so the state just abandoned the road.

As I-70 heads west out of Indiana, it does so in part over the National Road’s original path. Just inside Illinois, I-70 curves south a bit, leaving the old National Road behind. Deep inside a wooded area, you can still find remains of the old road buried a few inches down. These bricks were laid in the 1920s.

Abandoned National Road

As you exit the woods, the overgrown brick road extends out into the open.

Abandoned National Road

There are a few places where the old brick road is in very rough shape, such as this spot where most of the bricks have been removed. (That’s my friend Michael, contemplating the destruction.)

Abandoned National Road

But much of it is intact. I even drove on a little bit of it.

Actually, this wasn’t the first time I’d driven on the old road. On an earlier trip, I managed to embarrass myself by accidentally backing my car off a service road that bisected the National Road, effectively beaching my car. Two good Samaritans helped me push the car off the edge and onto the old brick road. I backed it way up and then built up enough speed to sail up and over the ridge. Oops!

Abandoned National Road

I’ve driven the National Road across Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois. Ohio is conspicuously absent from the list because the last time I tried it, I wrecked my car as I entered from West Virginia. (My sons and I walked away, but the car was done for. Here’s the story.) This year, I intend to finally conquer the National Road across Ohio. Many great old alignments remain there, some of them brick, and I intend to see them all! I also hope to see more of the Dixie Highway in Indiana this year.

The whole point of telling you all this is that writing about my road trips consumes this blog during the warm months every year. My longtime readers know that I’ll share the most interesting sights with you – historic architecture, charming downtowns, country views, and especially old alignments.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Road Trips

The Bedford puzzle

Bedford is a small Indiana city at the crossroads of US 50 and State Road 37. These major highways attract heavy through traffic, so much so that they have been realigned in and around Bedford several times. But once upon a time, back when US 50 was still Old State Road 4 and State Road 37 was Old State Road 22 (and before that the Dixie Highway), these roads converged in downtown Bedford and followed the same path southwest out of town. This image shows how these roads leave town today, with numbers next to various old-road remnants. I believe it shows remnants of at least three former alignments, but I can’t confidently stitch them all together. This is quite a puzzler!

1: Washington St. once carried Old SR 4 and Old SR 22. Perhaps they diverged here; who knows. But today both roads dead end; the right road is private property.

Road split

2: If you study the aerial image closely, you can see a two-track road that is on the same line as the left fork of Washington St. I believe I see two utility poles along it, which is a good sign. I can’t explain the little abandoned pony truss bridge that crosses the creek where it bends. It’s near the bottom of the image below. It’s not in line with US 50’s general direction, and no road emerges from it after it crosses the creek.

3: I think the old road continued through what is now a farm field. I detect a faint line across the field where the road would have gone. Then it would have curved to cross the White River. Remarkably, two piers from the old bridge remain. They’re plainly visible from the air.

You can also see them from the current US 50 bridge. There wasn’t a good place to stop there, but my travel companion noticed a nearby boat ramp road. We waded into inch-deep mud and were eaten alive by mosquitoes to bring you this shot of one pier.

Old bridge pier

4: A narrow gravel road begins just where drivers would have come off the bridge. It is signed something like “Old Highway Road” on the ground, but it’s perpendicular to the former bridge. The gravel road ends at Old US 50 and Old SR 37, which assumes the gravel road’s line at that point. So before this point, the road labeled Old US 50 and Old SR 37 must be a newer old alignment. This photo shows where Old US 50 forks right, leaving Old SR 37 behind.

Old US 50 veers right

An interesting tidbit: My 1916 Automobile Blue Book sends drivers down the road on the left to the next town, Mitchell. Then it has the driver follow what is now State Road 60 west to where it intersects with modern US 50. In contrast, my 1924 ABB sends drivers down the right fork in the photo above. Modern US 50 soon rejoins its path. This resolves one piece of this puzzle – US 50’s path west from here to where it meets SR 60 about 10 miles away was built sometime between 1916 and 1924.

But I’m still grasping at straws about everything else I see here.

Another old alignment that puzzled me, at least at first, is US 40 and the National Road near Reelsville, Indiana.

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Photography, Road Trips

Road textures on Old US 50 in Indiana

Vallonia and the Medora Covered Bridge were great, but the part of this trip to which I looked most forward was the eleven or so miles of old US 50 that are country roads today, in Jackson and Lawrence Counties. At last, my travel buddy and I reached them, and they were every bit as picturesque (and fun to drive) as I had hoped.

I really enjoyed the textures along the road. If there had been more places to safely pull over, I would have taken 100 photographs along this stretch.

Since so much of this old alignment is wooded, the bright sunlight of this hot day left crisp shadows along the road.

Old US 50

If a photograph is a sentence, a road running through it is its verb.

Old US 50

Sometimes the road itself added texture from its patchwork of repairs.

Old US 50

The Lawrence County portion of the old route was signed as such to make it easy to follow.

Old US 50

My favorite textures came from this bridge, which spans Back Creek. It was built in 1993 to replace a 1915 pony truss bridge.

Old US 50

I think it’s interesting that a steel deck was chosen; that’s not common among modern bridges.

Old US 50

But it sure made for some great shadows underneath!

Old US 50

This being farm country, we saw plenty of soybeans.

Old US 50

It wasn’t until we returned to current US 50 that I noticed any corn. The Plaza Motel’s great sign seems to keep watch over this farmer’s field.

Plaza Motel

Interesting things to photograph can be right nearby. My neighborhood’s trees are great subjects when they flower in spring and when their leaves change color in fall.

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