Tree tunnel in autumn Olympus OM-2n, 50mm f/3.5 Zuiko Auto Macro Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 2020
It’s been about six weeks since my last bike ride. I don’t like to ride when temperatures are below about 60 degrees, which they have been except for one or two days during this time. When it looks like warmer days are over, I hang up the bike.
On my final ride of the season I brought my Olympus OM-2n along. One particular route of about eight miles takes me down some beautiful country roads here in southeastern Boone County. This tree tunnel is on one of those roads.
Let’s return now to my 2007 trip along US 36 and the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway in western Indiana.
Shortly after from Hendricks County into Putnam County is tiny Groveland, with a gas station, a couple houses, and a few decrepit buildings. Immediately west of Groveland, US 36 curves to the north a bit, and a narrow road splits from it following the straight path.
It leads to a long old alignment that crosses Big Walnut Creek, as this map snippet shows.
This is a winding rural road, and it’s a lovely drive.
The terrain through here has some challenging spots, and this alignment’s winding path is typical of the days when roads were built around challenging terrain, rather than through it. My old maps show that this road was US 36 through at least 1932 — and that it was a gravel road all that time!
Soon this alignment became heavily wooded.
I came upon a covered bridge over Big Walnut Creek. J. J. Daniels built a lot of covered bridges in Putnam and Parke Counties. This is a Burr arch truss bridge – if you squint a little at the photo below, you can see the arch bracing the trusses along the bridge’s inside wall.
Here’s the bridge’s west end, which I share just because I really like how this photo turned out.
Just past the bridge I came across a big, old, smoke-belching RV blocking the road along here. Some fellows were standing on it, cutting branches out of a tree in their front yard. I only sat there for a minute before they moved the RV back far enough for me to drive around, but the smell of that smoke stayed in my nose the rest of this segment. Its end looks like this.
In the driveway of the house across the road was a grand old automobile. Do you see it? It looks to be from the late 1930s. I couldn’t tell what kind it was; if you know, leave a comment!
I want to share one more story from my book. In the first several years after I was newly single it was a great distraction from my troubles to spend a fair-weather Saturday seeing where an old road would take me. I still love the old roads today, and it’s led to a broader interest in transportation history.
I had this vision of days gone by, people driving these old highways at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view.
One day I got to meet Paul Ford, a legend in Terre Haute radio. In his retirement, he and his wife operated a set of Christian radio stations along US 40 between Terre Haute and Casey, Illinois. We talked about radio a little bit, but we also talked about US 40 itself. His tales of how dangerous this road had been opened my eyes!
This story first appeared here on January 25, 2008.
My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the National Road (US 40) in Illinois. The state built modern US 40 alongside an older brick and concrete road – and abandoned the old road.
As we explored the abandoned road, Michael asked me what drew me to the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”
Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.
Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.
I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People would get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”
I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.
As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way from eastern states into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s brick and concrete construction. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first – because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!
But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars – for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers could travel much faster and safer. They undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back.
Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life – a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old roads.
Let’s return to my May, 2007, trip along US 36 and the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway in western Indiana.
After it leaves Marion County for Hendricks County, and after passing through the traffic nuthouse that is Avon, US 36 reaches Danville. It’s a four-lane divided road. But just east of Danville, where US 36 curves gently to the south, Old US 36 continues straight, as the map shows. Before the modern expressway was built, US 36 used to go straight through where storage facility lies today.
But on this trip I missed something important: an older alignment of this road, the path the Rockville Road followed before anybody had heard of US 36 or the PP-OO. Check it out on the map below.
You can drive some of this older road, but not all of it. The section east of County Road 625 E, which is the rightmost north-south road on this map snippet, no longer exists. The section west of there to Whipple Lane is a pedestrian path. You’ll find an 1875 Whipple through truss bridge on the pedestrian path. You can drive the road west from Whipple Lane. It’s signed as Broyles Road, although it has been slightly diverted to meet County Road 550 E rather than meet and cross US 36. You can’t turn onto the westmost section of Broyles Road from current US 36. To reach it you must go to Old US 36 and reach it from where Broyles Road ends.
I don’t know when the original US 36 alignment was built. Richard Simpson researched US 36’s 1926 alignment and found it to be this road (see it on his excellent blog here). I’ve found this 1924 map that shows the original US 36 alignment not built yet, and this 1929 map that shows it built.
Let’s go back to the original alignment of US 36. The storage facility was built right on the old roadbed. This eastbound photo shows the southerly curve of US 36 — and a mound that picks up in a straight line from where the road begins to curve. Notice how the utility poles at left run along this straight line, too, converging with the road in the distance. That’s always a tell.
I turned around from this point and saw that the mound continued, utility poles planted right alongside. The yellow sign on the left announces the intersection of Old US 36, also known as Main St. in Danville.
The storage facility’s fence kept me from walking this old roadbed, so instead I drove to the west side of the storage facility. The utility poles in this eastbound photo tell the tale: The road once went here.
And here’s this segment of Old US 36 as it heads west towards Danville. It feels like a typical old highway: two lane, scant shoulders.
Right turn lanes appear at entrances to subdivisions and churches. The road is smooth even though it hasn’t been repaved in a while. About 2 miles along this alignment, at the Danville city limits sign, the pavement is even older, and the striping becomes more faded, as the eastbound photo below shows. A few old rectangular Do Not Pass signs still stand here. About 3.5 miles in, the road curves gently to the south and ends at the current alignment of US 36.
Old US 36 meets current US 36 at a T intersection as the map below shows. I’ve marked in green how the road originally flowed here.
Here’s westbound Old US 36 as it approaches current US 36.
This road, signed Phi Delta Kappa Drive, is all that’s left of US 36’s original path here. Notice how the utility poles follow this little segment. This is an eastbound photo.
I followed US 36 west into downtown Danville. The road’s four lanes soon narrowed to two lanes with a center turn lane. Like so many small Indiana towns, a courthouse square is at Danville’s heart. The trees made it challenging to get a good photograph of the courthouse.
Danville’s downtown business district lies around the courthouse. Here’s a photo of the shops and restaurants along the US 36 side. The Mayberry Cafe is on this block, well-known for its theme of The Andy Griffith Show. They usually have a black and white 1962 Ford Galaxie police cruiser parked out front, but it was missing this day.
Past downtown, US 36 narrowed to two lanes on its way out of town. Outside Danville, US 36 becomes a standard two-lane highway with thin shoulders. It remains a two-lane highway way all the way to Illinois.
I was in error when I began my US 36/Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway trip that May morning in 2007. I put US 36’s eastern end in the wrong place.
It’s true that US 36 originally began its westward journey along Rockville Road in Indianapolis. That road begins at a fork from Washington Street (US 40, the National Road) on Indianapolis’s Westside.
The original Rockville Road began about a quarter mile farther west on Washington Street. It still exists, though you can’t turn onto it from Washington Street anymore, and it’s called Rockville Avenue now. On this map snippet, the green circle shows where Rockville Avenue begins, and the magenta circle shows where current Rockville Road begins.
But I didn’t know that when I made this trip. I photographed where current Rockville Road forks from Washington Street as if it were the real thing. It still sort of counts: when this road was finally built, US 36 was rerouted onto it. Here’s the fork, with Washington Street going under the railroad bridge on the left.
Here’s a closer look at what US 36 travelers faced as they began their westward journey.
I walked along Rockville Road a little to make this eastbound shot of where the road meets Washington Street. This neighborhood looked pretty sketchy, so I didn’t intend to linger. But a nice, proper older gentleman out trimming his hedge remarked to me about the weather and wondered whether it would rain today.
As I drove west along Rockville Road, the tiny houses with their tiny front yards were pretty tidy for this depressed part of town.
Quickly I reached Rockville Avenue. Rockville Road curved to the right and resumed its original alignment.
From there, Rockville Road widened a bit. Homes were set farther back from the road, and businesses started to appear. At Lynhurst Drive, the road widened to four lanes lined with businesses and stores.
The road had curbs, which isn’t too unusual in the city, but is pretty unusual for a highway. In August, 1978, when I was still a kid, three teenage girls died when a van struck the rear of their Ford Pinto while it was stopped along US 33 in Elkhart County so the driver could retrieve a lost gas cap. The resulting fireball burned the/ girls to death. The infamous placement of the car’s gas tank did make it vulnerable to fire in a rear-end collision. But a little-touted fact of that case was that the driver could not pull fully off the road because US 33 had curbs. I remember in the years following, curbs were slowly and quietly replaced with shoulders on highways near my South Bend home. I don’t know if these events are related, but it sure seems like more than coincidence to me. US 36 was rerouted along I-465 in 1974, and so perhaps that’s why these curbs remain on this old highway.
Shortly, I-465 appeared. The curbs disappeared just east of the interchange. Just west of the interchange, the first reassurance marker appeared.
Across the street, facing the eastbound lanes, a button-copy sign directs drivers to follow I-465 South to reach US 36 East again. No US highways run through Indianapolis anymore; they all follow I-465 around the city in what is called the “mega multiplex.” But only I-74 is co-signed with I-465 along its route. You have to watch the exit signs to follow your US highway.
Beyond I-465 along US 36 I saw some nice older homes of brick and stone set far back from the road, surely built when this part of Marion County was way out in the country. The road widened to five lanes, including a permanent center turn lane, and stayed that way into Hendricks County.
In the 1910s and 1920s, before the creation of the US highway system, an unofficial network of roads called Auto Trails crisscrossed the nation. The Lincoln Highway is perhaps the best known of them. Other well-known trails include the Dixie Highway, the Yellowstone Trail, the National Old Trails Road, the Jefferson Highway, and the Old Spanish Trail. These were major trails that spanned coasts or connected the far north to the deep south. Many smaller trails, some entirely within certain states, also existed.
Auto trails were mostly cobbled together out of existing roads, except out West, where roads sometimes had to be built for these trails. Each trail was managed by an Association, such as the Lincoln Highway Association, which determined it route and promoted it. Each Auto Trail had its mission, such as the Lincoln Highway’s to provide a well-marked transcontinental route. But how any city or town made it onto an auto trail was often a matter of politics and favors. Cities and towns very much wanted to be on these auto trails for the traffic, and therefore commerce, they would bring.
One lesser known — I’d argue little known — transcontinental auto trail was the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway (PP-OO). It was formed in 1914 to connect New York City to San Francisco through Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.
For reasons lost to time, the road frequently avoided major cities, which hurt its commercial viability and may be why it’s not better known today. Also, I know of no other Auto Trail that changed its route as often as the PP-OO. For a time, it even had two western ends: San Francisco and Los Angeles!
In Indiana, it appears that at first the PP-OO followed the National Road to Indianapolis and then the Rockville State Road to Rockville in western Indiana, and thence to Illinois. This road would become US 36 in 1926.
But in the years that followed, this Auto Trail was heavily realigned. In the end, the PP-OO entered Indiana at Union City and then followed roughly what is now State Road 32 through Winchester, Muncie, and Anderson. Then it connected to what is now US 136 and ran through Crawfordsville and Covington on its way to Danville, Illinois. This new leg in western Indiana was also the Dixie Highway. I explored this section of US 136 in 2012; see those posts here.
Anyone trying to follow the PP-OO at any time really needed an up-to-date trail map!
In 2007 I grew curious about US 36 in western Indiana. It was one of the original US highways in 1926, and in those days its eastern end was in Indianapolis. Tracing US 36 on the map I found a number of possible old alignments, and I wanted to explore them all. This is also when I learned about the PP-OO and its original western-Indiana alignment along the US 36 corridor. I explored US 36 and the PP-OO on two separate trips, May 28 and August 17, 2007. I wrote about it then on my old Roads site, which I’m deprecating. In the weeks to come, I’ll share those stories and photographs here.