History, Road Trips

Strolling through Vallonia on Old US 50 in southern Indiana

Most old road alignments I’ve found have been brief, lasting less than a mile. I’ve encountered a handful that have lasted a few miles, such as the 5-mile old alignment I missed between Aurora and Dillsboro earlier on US 50. But just check out this old alignment of Indiana’s US 50!

That’s almost 21 miles of old-alignmenty goodness! Old US 50 follows Main St. and Vallonia Rd. out of Brownstown, then State Road 135 through Vallonia, then State Road 235 to Medora, and finally a series of county roads back to US 50.

We hit the mother lode!

And so off we went. Our first stop along the Mother of All Old Alignments was Vallonia. The French settled this land in the late 1700s. The settlers and area Indians didn’t get on too well, and by 1810 hostilities had broken out. Governor William Henry Harrison ordered a fort be built at Vallonia to protect the settlers. He sent two companies of Indiana Rangers here during the War of 1812; several skirmishes happened here during the war.

Not that you could tell it today. This is one seriously sleepy town. We saw not a soul as we walked its main street.

People still live in Vallonia, of course. Some of them go to church here, at the Vallonia United Methodist Church. It was founded in 1858; this building was completed in 1906.

Vallonia United Methodist Church

We thought the church might be the only non-residential building in Vallonia until we rounded the curve and found its faded business district. This is the only building that looked like it might still contain a business.

Vallonia, Indiana

This simple building is more typical; it appears to be used only for storage. The triple doors on the right suggest that this might have been an automobile repair garage early in its life.

Vallonia, Indiana

Next door stands the Joe Jackson Hotel, built in 1914. I haven’t been able to find out anything about Joe Jackson, but his hotel was apparently the finest in Jackson County (which is named for President Andrew Jackson, not old Joe). Check out this photo of the hotel shortly after it opened. Also check out this photo of the barber shop it once contained.

Joe Jackson Hotel

The hotel doesn’t contain much of anything today, as this photo shows. But it is being restored. It was the first sign of life we saw in Vallonia.

Joe Jackson Hotel

Another sign of life is Fort Vallonia. It’s not the original fort; that’s long gone. This one was built in 1969. Ever since, the fort has hosted Fort Vallonia Days, a festival every October that attracts 30,000 people.

Fort Vallonia

I guess maybe Vallonia isn’t so sleepy after all!

If you dig small towns, then check out Stilesville, Marshall, and rivals Monrovia and Eminence.

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History, Road Trips

Roadsleuthing

Warning: Roadgeekery of the highest order ahead.

What passed for highways in the 20th century’s first few decades would surprise you. They were usually cobbled together from existing local and farm roads, so they were often unpaved and routinely followed meandering paths or were full of 90-degree turns around property boundaries. As more people bought cars, they wanted their highways paved and straightened, and states obliged. Indiana in particular seems to have started improving its highways in the early 1920s and built a full head of new-highway steam during the 1930s. Very often, these improvements left the highways’ old alignments behind. Regular readers of my blog know that I looooooove to find those old alignments. Sometimes I’m asked how I find them.

I always start with Google Maps. Just by scrolling along the highway, I find all sorts of likely old alignments. Anytime a road branches off at an angle, it may be an old alignment. Sometimes Google Maps even labels them as such, which is about as good as gift-wrapping them. Here, Old US 50 branches away from current US 50. The old highway leads directly to the little town of Dillsboro; the modern road bypasses it.

Sometimes Google Maps reveals road segments that curve around the modern road. Here, as four-lane US 50 leaves Aurora, it is bracketed by Indiana Ave. and Trester Hill Rd. I’ve drawn a green line showing how the former flows right into the latter. I’ll lay money on this being US 5o’s previous routing.

Sometimes the road’s path has been modified so much that its original path is not obvious. Here, US 50 bypasses the little town of Holton. Do you see near the map’s right edge how US 50 curves away from its formerly straight path, yet a road continues straight from that fork? That just screams old alignment. That road is even labeled Versailles St., which is a good sign as that is the next town to the east, and old highways very often were named for the towns they connected.

Versailles St. continues westbound for another mile beyond the edge of the image above, but then it forks widely, and neither fork reconvenes with modern US 50. This is when I get out my old maps and road guides. I have a stack of Indiana road maps going back to about 1920 and a CD-ROM full of even older Indiana road maps that I bought from a collector on eBay. As they cover the entire state, they only show the old highways’ general shapes, but sometimes that’s enough.

Typical ABB cover

When the maps don’t solve the mystery – and they didn’t for the road around Holton – I reach for my Automobile Blue Books. These were published annually from 1901 through about 1930, giving printed turn-by-turn directions between most cities across the nation. The company that published them employed people to drive around the country, find the best ways to get between the nation’s cities and towns, and write detailed directions. This was a real service in the days before auto trails and numbered state and US highways as there were often no direct roads between major destinations, and signs were spotty and inconsistent. The oldest ABBs leaned heavily on landmarks in their directions (such as, “Right past school”); it was often the best that could be done. Over the years, ABB directions got simpler and shorter as more direct routes were built and as roads began to be signed. I own 1916 and 1924 “Middle West” ABBs; the earlier volume has nearly twice the pages as the later book. Numbered state and US highways finally put the ABB out of business as their signs made wayfinding almost trivial.

Back to Holton. The 1916 ABB tells the driver to “cross RR. at Holton Sta. 58.5.” 58.5 is the number of miles from the beginning of this route, which began in Cincinnati. It continued: “59.5. Left-hand road; turn left. 60.0. Cross RR. and immediately turn right. Caution for downgrade, cross bridge 61.6, running upgrade beyond.” The 1924 ABB describes the same path, even calling it “State Highway No. 4.” So after you cross the railroad tracks on Versailles St., you drive a mile, turn left, drive another half mile, cross the tracks again, and turn right. Well, exactly one mile west of the railroad tracks in Holton is that long driveway at the left edge of the map image above. That driveway was once the highway! It continued south of the farmhouse and crossed the tracks. That crossing was removed somewhere along the way.

The 1916 ABB talks about crossing a bridge at 61.6 miles. When I trace the route and count the miles, there’s a bridge on modern US 50 at that point. But Google Maps shows something else just south of the current bridge – an older, abandoned bridge!

I was pressed for time and had not done full research before I made my recent trip along this portion of US 50. I didn’t know about this bridge and so missed the opportunity to photograph it! (Fortunately, a bridgefan passed through here before me, photographed the bridge, and shared his findings at bridgehunter.com.)

In my rush I also missed a great possible old alignment. Back where US 50 leaves Aurora, I had guessed that Indiana Ave. and Trester Hill Rd. were US 50’s old alignment. I still think that, but apparently an even older path lurks. My 1924 ABB sends the driver down US 50’s current corridor, but my 1916 ABB very clearly sends the driver down Lower Dillsboro Rd., a winding drive through the country.

Because the US route system began in 1926, and my 1924 ABB specifies US 50’s current corridor, Lower Dillsboro Rd. was never US 50. But US 50 was originally signed along old State Road 4, which came into being in 1917 when Indiana formed its first numbered highway system. I’d need a 1917 (or maybe 1918) ABB to know for sure whether old State Road 4 ran along Lower Dillsboro Rd., but my gut says it did. Remember how I said that the first numbered highways ran along existing roads? Dillsboro is the next town west of Aurora; it sure makes sense that Indiana signed its highway along the existing road to Dillsboro!

Even the oldest roads were sometimes improved. At 4.8 miles west of downtown Aurora, the 1916 ABB cautions the driver: “Caution for sharp right and left turns across small bridge.” I traced the route to 4.8 miles and found this:

Do you see the old bridge there just above the center of the image? It is now part of somebody’s driveway. Lower Dillsboro Rd. now sweeps smoothly by. Can you see the traces of the original route?

I’ll have to make a return trip to catch Lower Dillsboro Rd. and that abandoned bridge west of Holton. But now you know how I find the old alignments. You can do it too. Even if you don’t want to lay out the dough for the maps and road guides, Google Maps and your wits will get you at least halfway there.

Have you ever wondered how many times a road’s path must change before it’s no longer the same road? I sure have.

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History, Road Trips

The National Road in western Indiana

I blogged for weeks last year about my August trip down the National Road (US 40) from Indianapolis to the Illinois line. I shared stories, facts, and photos of the former alignments, neon signs, old bridges, grand homes, and faded towns. It was a great trip!

But, you see, I didn’t share everything. There are more former alignments, more neon signs, more old bridges, more grand homes, and more faded towns just waiting for you if you’ll kindly click:

The National Road in Western Indiana, Revisited

You will instantly be transported to jimgrey.net, where waits for you my usual obsessively detailed rundown of the entire route.

(And if you like, you can compare it to my writeup of my first road trip, which was down the same road. I’ve learned a lot about the old roads since then!)

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Road Trips

The National Road/US 40 at Reelsville, part 2

If you’re just joining us, we’re following two old alignments of the National Road near Reelsville, Indiana. Last time, we followed what is probably the National Road’s original alignment here, highlighted in green on the image below. This time, we’re going to follow an alignment built in about 1923, highlighted in red. The two routes’ overlap is highlighted in yellow.

The 1920s alignment is in two sections. The eastern section is in pretty good shape up to where the older alignment turns away, but doesn’t appear to get much maintenance west of there. It provides access to a few houses, but beyond them it fades away, as this photo shows.

Old US 40 alignment

This alignment used to be continuous, of course, but the current road’s right-of-way appears to have overlapped a few hundred feet of the older alignment, and when that happens, old road gets ripped out. The western section begins here.

Old US 40, Putnam County

This section is badly overgrown end to end. The road has gotten very little maintenance and is broken and potholed – but that’s not too bad for concrete poured so many decades ago. If it weren’t for a couple houses along this road, I’d call this abandoned. 

Old US 40, Putnam County

Soon the road crosses Big Walnut Creek over this bridge. The deck and railings are in poor condition.

Old US 40, Putnam County

I took this photo of the bridge from US 40’s current alignment.

Old US 40 alignment

This is where the 1923 alignment ends, curving left to a T intersection with US 40. It used to curve to the right, through what is now woods, and flow into the older National Road alignment. The concrete road still exists along that alignment, as I wrote about last time.

Old US 40, Putnam County

UPDATE: Later research revealed the timeline of every one of these old alignments. Read about it here.

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 National Road/US 40 at Reelsville, part 1

In my never-ending quest to find the old roads, I am building a nice selection of vintage maps and road guides. The old maps are best at revealing old routes.

I came upon a single page from a 1913 Goodrich Route Book that includes a map of the National Road between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. I scanned that page into my computer and superimposed the current map of US 40 from Bing Maps. The image below shows the overlay, with the National Road and US 40 corridor highlighted in light green. It’s a little hard to make out, but the old route is black and the modern route is orange. As you might expect, the 1913 road isn’t quite as straight as the modern road. But in a couple places in Putnam County, the old road differs heavily.

The first big difference was near Putnamville, some of which I shared in an earlier post. But the road has undergone major reroutings twice around the little community of Reelsville. This aerial image from Bing Maps shows both alignments. I highlighted in green the route from the 1913 map; in red the later route, which was built in about 1923; and in yellow where the two routes overlap. The modern route, built in the early 1940s, cuts across the bottom of the image.

This is the alignments’ eastern end. A roadsleuthing tip: Whenever you see a road branch off like this, curving sharply almost immediately, you may have come upon an old alignment. The curve was added after the new alignment was built so that the road didn’t fork, which would have been awkward for anyone wanting to turn left off the old highway.

Old alignment US 40 & National Road

The old road is in pretty good shape, as this eastbound photo shows. It was originally concrete, but has since been covered with asphalt.

Old US 40 alignment

Here’s where the yellow, red, and green roads intersect on the aerial image above. The road to the left and the road ahead did not exist in 1913.

Old US 40 alignment

This building, which looks like an old gas station to me, stands on the northeast corner of this intersection. It’s for sale.

Old US 40 alignment

After you turn the corner and crest the hill, you come upon Big Walnut Creek. A modern bridge was built here a few years ago, but an older bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been preserved.

Luten bridge

All five of my regular readers may remember that I wrote about this old alignment two years ago. The bridge hadn’t been restored yet and was in terrible shape.

Bridge along the National Road, Reelsville

The railing and arch were crumbling.

Bridge along the National Road, Reelsville

The arch has been repaired and the deck and railing replaced.

Luten bridge

The new railing is remarkably like the original. It’s also exciting to see the concrete deck surface – the old deck’s asphalt surface was certainly layered over original concrete.

Luten bridge

This plaque tells why the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places – it is a Luten bridge. Daniel B. Luten was a pioneer designer and builder of reinforced concrete-arch bridges. He was awarded 30 bridge-building patents, the first in 1900, about the time his National Bridge Company began building bridges. (If you went to law school, you may know Daniel Luten from a landmark contract-law case involving a North Carolina bridge.) Dozens of Luten’s bridges still stand, and many of them are on the National Register. This one was built by the Luten Engineering Co., one of Luten’s later companies.

Luten bridge

This bridge was built in 1929 to replace a wooden covered bridge that stood where the current bridge now stands. By the time this bridge was built, the newer road alignment had been built to the south. So Putnam County was responsible for this road and had the bridge built. That’s why the plaque lists the county commissioners – if it had been part of a state or US highway, the state of Indiana would have built it, and any plaque on it would read accordingly.

Here’s the old and new bridges in profile. I wonder why the new bridge was built higher on its south end. Check out the bridge’s open spandrels.

Luten bridge

Where the old alignment turns left and resumes its westerly journey, the road is gravel. This is as close as it comes to experiencing what Indiana’s National Road was like 100 years ago.

Gravel National Road segment

Shortly, a concrete road emerges out of nowhere. At one time, the 1923 alignment merged with the older alignment here, and the concrete road ran briefly through what is now woods (at left in the photo). I don’t know why, but that portion of the 1923 alignment was torn out, probably when the modern US 40 alignment was built. In the aerial image shown near the beginning of this post, this is where the red and green merge to become yellow again on the left end of the image.

1920s concrete

This eastbound shot shows the character of the old concrete road. I never cease to marvel at how narrow old highways were.

1920s concrete on the National Road

I turned right around after taking the photo above and took this westbound shot. Here, the old highway is somebody’s driveway. One of these days, I’d like to find out who owns this land and ask permission to walk and photograph the old highway as far as it goes.

Old National Road as somebody's driveway

In my next post, I’ll show you the 1923 alignment.

UPDATE: Later research revealed the timeline of every one of these old alignments. Read about it here.

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

Behind the Walker Motel: An old alignment of US 40 in western Indiana

Just before US 40 reaches Putnamville from the east, a road branches away. The sign on the corner calls it CR 35 E, but all the maps call it CR 550 S. Whichever name is right, it’s merely an alter-ego for this old alignment of US 40 and the National Road.

On the northwest corner stands the Walker Motel, now efficiency apartments. The sign is often photographed.

Walker Motel

The old road snakes around behind the motel and soon crosses Deer Creek on this 1925 bridge. Its deck is only 20 feet wide, narrow by modern standards.

Old US 40 bridge

I stood on the bridge for quite some time taking photographs, but I never encountered another car. Why can’t they put railings like this on bridges today?

Old US 40

The concrete was poured sometime between 1922 and 1924, but US 40 was moved to its current route here by 1939. It might have been covered over in asphalt otherwise, and this link to the past would have been lost.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

The road seems to widen when it emerges from the woods, but that’s only because weeds are not overgrowing the edges. This shot is as close as it gets to what this major highway was like almost 90 years ago when this concrete was new.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

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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