Word reached me late last year that this historic marker at Sycamore Row had been destroyed by a car that went off the road.
Sycamore Row is an old alignment of the Michigan Road, about an hour north of Indianapolis in Carroll County. Bypassed in the 1980s by the new alignment you see at right in the photo below, the trees that line the road here make it unusually narrow. It was a hair-raising spot to encounter oncoming traffic, especially something large like a school bus or a semi. I wrote more about it, and shared some historic photos from when this alignment was still in use, here.
The text on the sign reflects a legend that some have long questioned. It was a common practice two centuries ago to use logs to create a firm road surface where the land was usually wet, as the land here is said to have been in the mid-1800s. Also, it’s not impossible that new trees could have sprouted from sycamore logs laid here. But the truth is, nobody knows for certain how the trees came to be here.
On behalf of the Historic Michigan Road Association, I reported the destroyed sign to the Indiana Historical Bureau, which manages Indiana’s historic markers. They took the opportunity to make a new sign with more information about how the Michigan Road came to exist here, and acknowledging that the sycamores’ origin is uncertain. While the old sign had the same text on both sides, the new marker tells half the story on one side, and the other half on the other side. I was pleased that the IHB chose to tell more of the story of the road itself, including touching on how the Indian people who lived on this land were pressured to give it up for the road. I was especially pleased that the IHB let the HMRA review the proposed text and offer feedback. We suggested a couple small changes, which they accepted. Here’s the new marker.
What’s really cool is that the IHB lists their sources for this text on their Web page for this marker (here).
It struck me at first that this sign was posted backward, as the back side faces you as you stand at the entrance to Sycamore Row. But I’m sure that the IHB’s standards require them to post signs so that they face traffic on the adjacent road. People traveling south on the Michigan Road will see the front of this sign as they pass.
Nearly every time I drive up this way I stop to visit the sycamores. I usually have a camera with me. Here are a couple photos I made of the old marker over the years. I made this one in September, 2019, with my Yashica-12 camera on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros film.
I made this photo in May, 2013, with a Canon A35F camera on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 film. As part of the IHB’s program to keep markers in good condition (details here), a volunteer repainted this marker sometime between my 2013 and 2019 photos.
Here are the rest of the vintage postcards I collected showing images from the Michigan Road in Indiana. Last time I shared images from Madison to Indianapolis, the southern portion of the road. Now I’ll share images from Indianapolis to Michigan City, the northern portion of the road.
In Indianapolis, for many years the road on the northwest side of the city was called Northwestern Avenue. Today it’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. from the northwest edge of Downtown to the old city limits, and then Michigan Road from there to the county line. This bridge, long since replaced, carried the road over the White River. Guessing, I think this postcard is from the 1920s. Back then, this was outside the city limits.
The next postcards I owned take us 66 miles north of that bridge to downtown Logansport. The road followed Broadway Street for a few blocks. This view looks east, which is northbound on the Michigan Road. This postcard bears a 1906 postmark.
This 1920s view of Broadway looks west, which is southbound on the Michigan Road.
This 1960s view also looks west on Broadway.
Finally, as the road leaves Logansport northbound it passes by Logansport Memorial Hospital. This hospital building isn’t visible from the road; perhaps it’s been razed in favor of the current set of buildings. Perhaps it was in a different location in the city; I don’t know. But I’m including it because the current hospital is very much on the Michigan Road
Next, a couple views of downtown Rochester. This view from the air is on a postcard postmarked 1911. The grand Fulton County Courthouse is just out of the photo to the right.
Here’s a 1960s ground-level view from the intersection with 8th Street, right in front of the courthouse.
Next I had this postcard from Plymouth, a little south of downtown from its grand avenue of lovely homes. Most of those homes still stand today, making this just as lovely a drive now as then. This postcard is postmarked 1911.
This view of downtown Plymouth is from a postcard postmarked 1958, but judging by the cars I’d say the image is from the early 1950s. This photo looks northbound.
This southbound photo of downtown Plymouth is also postmarked 1958.
This is easily the most interesting postcard in the set. It’s a view of Lakeville, a small town just south of South Bend. It is postmarked 1911. This is a southbound view. Notice how wide this dirt road is! The Michigan Road claimed a 100-foot right-of-way when it was built.
Next is South Bend. This card postmarked 1906 shows Michigan Street, but the city has changed so much that I couldn’t tell you where this is located and whether this is a northbound or southbound photo.
The same would be true for this card postmarked 1909, except that its caption clears things up very nicely.
This card is from the same place as the one above, taken sometime in the 1950s. I think the building second from the right edge of the photo is the same one that’s second from the right edge of the photo above, the building with the advertisement sign painted on the side.
Finally, we reach the end of the Michigan Road, in Michigan City. This vast sand dune is no more. It was carted off load by load, and used to make glass. A giant cooling tower for an electrical power plant stands here today.
I’ve had the best results yet in developing black-and-white film. But all’s not perfect.
This time I shot my last roll of original Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros in my Yashica-12 and developed it in Rodinal 1+50 for 10:30 at 23° (as that’s the temperature of my bathroom). I used the Massive Dev App and, thanks to a tip from a commenter, removed the Hypo Clear step that I don’t use. I agitated by twisting the agitator rod. As you can see from these phone photos I made of the negatives, one edge was washed out.
I think I know what happened. I didn’t push the reel to the bottom of the core I’m using, which is longer than the reel. 500ml of Rodinal solution in the tank was therefore not enough to cover the whole negative.
The well-developed part of each negative looks really good to me — neither dense nor thin. But my scanner tried to compensate for the washed-out edge of the film and I had to play with the exposure, highlights, and dehaze sliders in Photoshop to fix that. I also had to crop out the washed-out area. But all twelve photographs are usable.
I took this camera with me to Plymouth, Indiana, for a board meeting of the Historic Michigan Road Association. I made photographs on the way home, in Plymouth and Logansport, at Sycamore Row near Deer Creek, and in Burlington and Kirklin.
It was very late to the party: the last segment of the old Michigan Road to be added to Indiana’s modern state highway system.
The state of Indiana built the Michigan Road during the 1830s to connect Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan via the new state capital in Indianapolis.
Indiana built other roads at about the same time, but none like the Michigan Road. Its right-of-way was enormous at 100 feet wide; the road itself used the central third. Even though the road was barely a dirt path at first, it was arguably the grandest road in Indiana. It was a major commerce route that opened deeply wooded northern Indiana to settlers.
The railroad’s rise in the late 1800s led the Michigan Road and all other major roads into disuse and disrepair. But around the turn of the 20th century, the bicycle and the automobile made good roads a priority. Indiana responded in 1917 with its State Highway Commission, which laid a fledgling network of highways over existing major routes and began to improve them, in turn from dirt to gravel to brick or concrete, and eventually to asphalt.
The State Highway Commission numbered just five State Roads in its first year. You might be surprised to learn that the Michigan Road was not among them.
Not in its entirety, at least. State Roads were laid out along portions of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana: from about Rolling Prairie east to South Bend, and then from South Bend south to Rochester.
The east-west segment was part of State Road 2, which followed the 1913 Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast auto trail established through the work of entrepreneur Carl Fisher. The north-south section was part of State Road 1, which continued south from Rochester along a new road that passed through Peru and Kokomo on its way to Indianpolis and, ultimately, the Ohio River across from Louisville.
Naturally, all major Indiana cities wanted a good, direct road leading to the state capital, and towns in between wanted to be on those roads. A road would lead from South Bend to Indianapolis. Logansport wanted to be on that route. You have to wonder why the state chose State Road 1 through Peru and Kokomo over the Michigan Road through Logansport. The Michigan Road’s generous right-of-way would certainly ease future improvements. Perhaps the state wanted to provide good-road access to two towns rather than just one. Perhaps Peru and Kokomo had a more effective lobby.
Officials in Logansport went down fighting, agitating for the state to hard-surface the Michigan Road rather than State Road 1 south from Plymouth, as the inset 1919 newspaper article reports. They even claimed — incorrectly — that the Michigan Road was a little shorter.
Alas, State Road 1 was paved.
Indiana expanded its State Road system to more than 50 roads by 1926, adding most of the Michigan Road in the process. The portion from Madison to Indianapolis became State Road 6. The portion from Indianapolis to Logansport became State Road 15.
(By the way, State Road 15 continued northwest from Logansport through Winamac and La Porte to Michigan City, fulfilling the Michigan Road’s mission in much more direct fashion. The indirect route through South Bend had been a compromise — one South Bend certainly enjoyed — to avoid the Kankakee Marsh in northwest Indiana. In the 1830s, no road could be built there. A series of ditches built in the late 1800s through about 1917 drained the marsh, and then by 1922 the river itself was dredged. The direct route finally could be, and was, built. It is US 35 today.)
But the portion of the Michigan Road from Logansport to Rochester remained off the grid.
The U.S. route system we know today was established in 1927. Several State Roads became U.S. highways. Indiana renumbered its State Roads to eliminate numbers the same as the new U.S. routes and to tame what had become a messy numbering scheme. The Michigan Road from Madison to Logansport became State Road 29 (except for a rural segment south of Napoleon in Ripley County, which the highway bypassed to loop in nearby Osgood and Versailles). Old State Road 1, including the Michigan Road from South Bend to Rochester, became US 31. The Michigan Road from South Bend to Michigan City became part of US 20.
Also in 1927, the State Highway Commission decided to build a State Road from Lafayette to Warsaw. To be named State Road 25, it would pass through Logansport and Rochester. At last, this segment of the Michigan Road would join the state highway system! It was added first, in 1928; the rest of State Road 25 was added in stages over the next few years. The state highway map segments above tell the story. In 1923, the Michigan Road didn’t appear between Rochester and Logansport. In 1927 a dotted line appeared to show that the road was approved to be added to the system. In 1928, the thick black line shows that the road was not only added, but hard surfaced, except for a small portion near Fulton. The broken line there and elsewhere on the map indicates a gravel road.
Logansport got its wish nine years too late, as by that time US 31 had become the dominant route to Indianapolis. Not that it mattered much in the long run — US 31 might have boosted Kokomo’s and Peru’s prosperity for a time, but US 31 was rerouted around both towns in the 1970s and traffic through these towns slowed to a trickle. All three towns experienced serious decline toward the end of the 20th century, for reasons bigger than rerouted highways. None is noticeably better off than the others today.
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.
Margaret and I recently took a mini road trip up the Michigan Road. We made it as far as Logansport, where we had dinner and then headed back. But on the way up we stopped to see Sycamore Row.
It’s always grand to see these old trees, even if the story on the historic sign might be more legend than fact. Nobody knows for sure why these trees are here.
But we’re glad they are. We’re also glad that new sycamores are occasionally planted. Historic photos of Sycamore Row show many, many more sycamores here than there are now.
To me, late autumn is the best time to see these trees as it makes their jagged and knurled branches visible.
This old alignment ends at Deer Creek. A steel truss bridge carried this alignment over the creek here until 1987, when a new alignment was built several feet to the east. Locals above a certain age remember how harrowing it was to encounter an oncoming semi in here.
Turning around for a look back, you can see how the Michigan Road used to flow directly from this road segment.
Canon PowerShot S95
I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.
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.