Road Trips

Twisty highways in southern Indiana

Most of Indiana is flat. Flaaaaaaaaat. Ice-age glaciers covered the northern three-quarters of the state. Where the glaciers stopped, the terrain starts to get interesting. The closer to the Ohio River you get, the hillier Indiana gets.

A college friend introduced me to the pleasure of driving country roads, especially late at night. He and I used to go out after midnight and explore until we ran low on gas. He took me home with him one weekend, to his parents’ home in Crawford County. It’s one of Indiana’s southernmost counties, and it’s largely taken up by the Harrison-Crawford State Forest and the Hoosier National Forest. He took me out to see “the forestry,” as he called it, and we drove some delightful roads cut into the rock as the land sloped toward the Ohio River, dense forest surrounding us. The roads were full of curves and hills, including blind curves at the tops of hills and the bottoms of hollows. He navigated them all confidently, expertly, and at high speed, which regularly took my breath away. He told me he didn’t drive as aggressively as he normally did, because he didn’t want to frighten me! I vowed to return one day and drive them myself.

It took me nearly 20 years to keep that vow. Over Labor Day weekend in 2006, I drove south from Indianapolis on a loop that included Crawford County and the state highways my friend showed me there.

I brought my camera, an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (review here), and one roll of Fujicolor 200. I should have brought five rolls! Recently I found the photos in my archive, freshened them all up in Photoshop, and am resharing this great solitary road trip with you here.

As I researched roads to include on this trip, I found a Web site for bikers that said that State Road 45 would “make a man out of you.” That was all I needed to hear; it was on my list. I drove its length. It is at its best in Brown and Monroe Counties — a wonderful curvy, hilly road for the 20 miles to Bloomington. Narrow and shoulderless, this road demands your full attention and is a handful in spots. These pictures are taken in Brown County west of Trevlac. This photo points eastbound.

IN SR 45 in Yellowwood State Forest

In Brown County, SR 45 passes between the Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests, which makes the road seem secluded. Except for some bicyclists and a pickup truck, I had the road to myself. It was warm, and my windows were down. The sunshine broke through the trees and left its patterns on the asphalt. The breeze rustled through the trees and the birds sang. It was just me and my car, a little red Toyota Matrix, which you can see in the distance. It was a so-so handler; if I didn’t slow down for the curves the body leaned hard and the tires squealed. Its 5-speed transmission added a little fun, at least.

IN SR 45 in Yellowwood State Forest

In Monroe County, the woods disappear and civilization slowly returns as country homesteads line the road. The twists and hills remain, however, and are every bit as much fun. But as SR 45 meets Bloomington, the road loses all its charm. On the other side of Bloomington the road widens and thin shoulders appear. It meanders with the rolling terrain for about 25 miles. It’s a pleasant drive, but it won’t quicken your pulse. All pleasure disappears when SR 45 multiplexes with SR 58. The road is straight and flat the last nine miles or so to US 231. I took US 231 south to Loogootee, where it meets US 150.

US 150 near Shoals IN

From Loogootee to about Shoals, US 150 is multiplexed with US 50. It twists nicely in places, and is moderately hilly. Trees alternate with farms for a classic Indiana pastoral scene. The drive is pleasant, especially on a sunny day as my day was. It would make the perfect Sunday drive for two, chatting happily with each other as you glide along the curves.

US 150 near Shoals IN

After US 50 breaks away northeasterly from US 150 near Shoals, the Sunday drive is over. Wrap up your conversation with your companion, keep your hands on the wheel, and watch the road, because US 150 becomes gloriously twisty and hilly through a lovely wooded area. There aren’t many places to pull over on this segment, and so I got only one photo. Unfortunately, I bungled the shot and it’s too blurry to share.

US 150 leads straight to Paoli, which I’ve written about here. Its square is a big roundabout. I picked up SR 37 there, and followed it to SR 62, where I headed east toward Corydon, where I’d made arrangements to spend the night.

On the way I stopped in Leavenworth where, at the recommendation of a friend, I stopped for an excellent chicken dinner at The Overlook. They call it that because it overlooks the Ohio River. This photo is from a few steps east of the parking lot. I just love this photo.

Ohio River, from IN SR 62, Leavenworth, IN

From there I also took a photograph of SR 62 eastbound as it curves and descends into Leavenworth.

IN SR 62, Leavenworth, IN

My belly comfortably full, I drove on to Corydon. The first-rate curves and hills require full attention, which was tough to give because my system was wigging out over the massive sugar rush brought on by peach pie and ice cream after dinner.

Next morning, I drove back westward on SR 62, which is very curvy, hilly, and desolate all the way to just past Mariah Hill, some 50 miles away. I normally like to gape at the scenery as I drive and sing along with the radio, but to do either along this glorious road would inevitably have meant braking too late for a curve and finding my car mangled in the rock.

I stopped near the entrance to the Harrison-Crawford State Forest, 6 miles west of Corydon, to take a couple photos. The road through here was lovely, thickly wooded and cut deeply into the rock. The morning was chilly, the sky was mostly overcast, and a light mist filled the crisp air. The muted light that spilled through the trees and mist onto the roadway seemed to float ephemerally just above the asphalt.

IN SR 62 by Harrison-Crawford State Forest

SR 62 offers few places to pull over. I was glad that I could turn around and park in the pulloff area in front of somebody’s mailbox here. There were two houses by this pulloff. One was a pretty shaky looking frame house that was either unpainted or painted in that shade of gray that looks like weathered wood. But right next to it was quite a sight: a house that had caved in on itself.

Chateau Collapso

From Dale to Boonville, SR 62’s curves broaden and come less often, and the tight, enclosed feel of forest, rock, and guardrails departs for open farmland on either side. After Boonville, SR 62 straightens out entirely. Additional lanes were being laid all the way to Evansville.

I made my way down to SR 66 and headed back east. As SR 66 hugs the Ohio west of 231 and draws near to the Hoosier National Forest, the terrain becomes more rugged and the road rises and twists to meet it. This stretch of road is just as exciting as SR 62 from Corydon to Dale, with the extra excitement of hugging the Ohio River without guardrail much of the way. It’s, uh, refreshing to round a curve and see only water out the window. This photo of SR 66 near Cannelton gives a sense of just how close the water is.

IN SR 66 near Cannelton IN

This photo is from the same spot, pointed westbound.

IN SR 66 near Cannelton IN

Here’s another view of SR 66 near Cannelton.

IN SR 66 near Cannelton IN

At Rocky Point, the Ohio River turns south as SR 66 goes more or less straight. About five miles later, the river swings back to the north and SR 66 hugs the river again. Up the road a bit, just past Derby, there’s nothing between you and a long drink, as this photo shows.

IN SR 66 near Cannelton IN

When SR 66 intersected with SR 62, I turned back toward Corydon. My memory says that this photo is of SR 62 westbound, where it meets and then multiplexes SR 37. Anyway, this photo shows how heavily wooded this part of the state is, and how deeply some of these roads are cut into the rock.

IN SR 62 near Sulfur

East of Corydon, SR 62 has a few moments of brilliance but otherwise becomes a fairly standard two-lane state road. At a friend’s urging, I stopped for lunch at Polly’s Freeze, a last-of-its-breed ice cream stand near Edwardsville, where I had a cheeseburger, fries, and a terrific chocolate malt.

At this point, I’d run out of film. My trip continued, though: SR 145 to French Lick, where I picked up SR 56, which merged with US 150 and brought me back to Paoli. This stretch was just as much fun this time as it was when I drove it the day before.

At Paoli, I drove the southern portion of the town-square roundabout and kept heading east on SR 56. The road is pleasant with broad curves and some long rises through Hoosier farmland. The road is wide, but has no shoulder in many places. After about five miles, the curves end and the hills begin to roll. It’s a pleasant drive. Some of the road had been freshly oiled.

Where SR 56 met SR 39, I turned onto SR 39. It’s narrow along its 14 miles with mild to moderate twists and a few really sharp curves, including several 90-degree turns where the road flowed in line with county roads. It’s clear that SR 39 was cut from farm roads. I would have loved to take photographs at many places along this excellent road, but there were no places to pull off. In hindsight, I probably could have just stopped in the road, because I never encountered another car. It was just me and the seat of my pants cruising this forgotten gem.

SR 39 flowed into SR 250, which flowed into SR 135. As SR 135 edged into Brown County and the northernmost portion of the Hoosier National Forest, motorcycles were everywhere as it’s a popular biker destination. And no wonder — the late-afternoon sunshine spilled richly through the trees’ branches as the road dipped and swung and climbed for about 13 miles to the tiny town of Story. It made me wish I had a motorcycle. Boxed in by motorcycles with few places to pull over, again I could not take photographs of this lovely and challenging stretch of road. I’ll have to plan differently next time.

Beyond Story, the curves and hills become less intense, but the drive no less lovely, until SR 135 intersects with SR 46 near Nashville. It multiplexes with SR 46 for a few miles and then heads north again as it goes through Nashville. North of Nashville to Bean Blossom, SR 135 curves a little bit here and there, but north of Bean Blossom it’s just a simple country two-lane highway all the way to Greenwood, and then a city-grade highway into Indianapolis; the same stretch of highway on which I began my trip.

After making this trip, I learned that the first people to settle Indiana did so just north of the Ohio River among the very hills I drove that weekend. These people included young Abraham Lincoln and his family. What difficult country to tame!

I originally wrote this trip report here, on my old HTML site. Someday I’ll deprecate that site, as I publish only on this blog now. I didn’t want to lose this post, so I copied it over here and edited it for length.

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History, Road Trips

Visiting Vincennes on US 50 in Indiana

Can you imagine Revolutionary War soldiers marching down US 50 to save Vincennes, Indiana? They did. Well, sort of.

Vincennes

Vincennes was founded in 1732. You just don’t find European settlements any older than that in Indiana. And it’s not like the French, the first Europeans to settle here, came up with the idea on their own; the area had been populated for thousands of years by American Indians. So it was the Indians first and then the French, and then the British took control in 1763, and finally the Americans took Vincennes in 1778 during a Revolutionary War campaign.

It’s no mistake people settled here; it’s where an ancient buffalo migration route met the Wabash River. What buffalo had tramped smooth, man liked to follow, and so the Buffalo Trace was the most major road in what would become Indiana. American troops in that Revolutionary War campaign followed it to Vincennes. It became an important settlement route, leading Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison to order it improved in 1804 and the new state government to order it improved again in the 1830s (at about the same time the Michigan Road was built). Young Abraham Lincoln and his family, in their journey out of Indiana, joined the Buffalo Trace to reach Vincennes and cross the Wabash River into Illinois. In the early 20th century, the first alignment of US 150 from New Albany to Vincennes was laid more or less along the Buffalo Trace’s corridor. US 150 has, of course, been straightened, widened, and outright moved many times since then and bears little resemblance to the Buffalo Trace’s original path. But since this segment of US 150 is the Buffalo Trace’s direct descendant, efforts are underway to honor it as a National Scenic Byway. US 50 is part of this story because it joins US 150 from the east at Shoals.

Old US 50

The modern US 50 expressway, which begins 22 miles east at Washington, bypasses every town along the way. Following it, you never see Washington or the next town, Wheatland. About three miles of the old road bracket Wheatland; there’s not much to see except a few buildings and lots of empty old highway. You’d think you’d see more of Wheatland on Old US 50, but it only skirts the town’s south edge. That’s because an even earlier alignment of US 50 lurks among the county roads that lead in and out of Wheatland. I’ll share more about them in an upcoming post.

The modern US 50 expressway barely touches Vincennes, but the old road splits off east of town and makes a beeline for downtown.

Where the old road splits off, the scene is typical rural Indiana. Dig that crazy single center stripe. It seems to be colloquial to Knox County roads.

Old US 50
Business US 50 shield

Inside Vincennes, I found one remaining nod to this road’s former glory – this US 50 sign. I puzzled over the white/gray/black scheme on this sign – I’d never seen anything like it, not even in old road photographs. So I visited the AARoads forum, which is the largest concentration of road-sign fans on the Internet. I posted this photo and asked about it. Consensus is that the white portion around the shield faded from black, and that the gray shield would look white if the black border hadn’t faded. After browsing the AARoads Shield Gallery for a while, I decided that this sign dates to the 1960s, maybe as early as 1961. If I’d been standing out in the weather for more than 40 years, I’d look pretty faded, too.

As Old US 50 makes its way into the city proper, it passes by a number of older homes on 6th Street. Many of them are rough, but a few got some real tender loving care along the way, like the knockout in the photo below.

Old house

The old road also passes by at least one old neon sign and a few former service stations converted to various purposes. And then it reaches Main Street, where it hangs a right on its way to the Wabash River. But before it gets there, it passes by five blocks of downtown lined with great old buildings, some of which date to the middle and late 1800s. Many buildings appear to be in good original condition or restored. The Pantheon Theatre at 5th and Main looks solid from the outside, but signs on the windows seek donations to have the interior restored.

Pantheon Theatre

I especially liked the Second National Bank building on the corner of 2nd and Main.

Second National Bank

This wide shot from 1st Street shows downtown’s character.

Vincennes

1st Street is within sight of the Wabash River. This is where US 50 originally crossed into Illinois. I’ll share photos of the bridge that once stood here in my next post.

The National Road (US 40) was also frequently straightened, widened, and moved in Indiana. Check out this example just west of Indianapolis.

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Road Trips

Root beer and dead ends in Washington

US 50 has a colorful history in terms of realignments across southwestern Indiana. I-64 was originally going to be built along the US 150 corridor from Louisville to about Shoals, where it would pick up US 50 on its way to Illinois. But lobbying got I-64 built farther south, passing closer to Evansville. That didn’t stop the desire for a major highway through this part of Indiana, so the current expressway was built westward from Washington. Of course it bypasses every town along the way, leaving juicy bits of old road behind.

If you’ve guessed that I’m going to show you photos of Old US 50, then you’ve come to know me well. We’ll start with Washington, Indiana.  First, though, let’s look at this map of Washington, Indiana, on which I’ve marked the old alignment in blue.

Where Old US 50 meets State Road 257, I came upon this great neon sign.

Mason's Root Beer

It announced this root beer stand. I stopped of course. How could I resist? While I was photographing the place, a delightful young lady came out to take my order. My root beer float was delicious. Mason’s Root Beer was easy to come by during my 1970s kidhood, but has all but disappeared today.

Mason's Root Beer

Old US 50 doesn’t go through downtown Washington but rather skirts across the south side of town. Ordinarily that would puzzle me, but in this case I happen to know why and will share with you in an upcoming post. (Hint: It means more old alignment photos!) Beyond Washington, signs begin pointing motorists back to US 50 and then begin warning that the road ends ahead. And they mean it.

Old US 50

I stopped and walked out past the Do Not Enter signs to take this photograph. I’m sure there’s more road underneath the brush, and I was very curious to explore. But I was also wearing shorts and wasn’t at all excited about wading through all of this with my legs exposed. Critters? Poison ivy? No thanks.

Old US 50

If I could have wound the clock back 20 years, this is what I would have found in there.

According to the Indiana State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database (SHAARD), from which I got these photos, this three-span Parker through truss bridge was built in 1930 and met its doom in 1990. This bridge had a twin that stood less than a half mile to the west. It, too, is gone, replaced in 1988 by two modern bridges on the US 50 expressway. You might think the old bridge could have been kept and a single new bridge built in the oncoming lanes, but its 20-foot-wide deck probably doomed it. Consider that Interstate standards call for bridges to be a whopping 37½ feet wide – two 12-foot lanes, a ten-foot outer shoulder, and a 3½-foot inner shoulder. Two semis entering this bridge at the same time would find it a tight fit!

Illinois planned a US 50 expressway but completed only some of it. That work abandoned three great through truss bridges; see them here.

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Road Trips

A bridge that will never inspire an artist or a poet

Artists and poets have long employed bridges in their work for their grace and beauty. Monet famously painted bridges, including one in his Japanese garden. Van Gogh painted the same bridge over and over again. Harold Hart Crane wrote probably the most famous bridge poem, about Brooklyn Bridge. Wordsworth’s heart was so stirred by the view from a bridge that he composed a poem while standing on it.

This plain bridge stirs nobody’s heart. Artists and poets look at it and think, “meh.”

UCEB

Three bridges have spanned the White River on US 50 in Shoals, Indiana. This is the third one. The first, a Whipple through truss, was built in 1880 and served until 1932. The second was a three-span Parker through truss. When it was time for that bridge to go, the era of Interstate-style ugly concrete eyesore bridges (UCEBs) was in full swing, and so this is what Shoals got. This is pretty much the only kind of bridge built anymore.

Fortunately, someone saved this concrete plaque from the 1880 span. It was placed here, marking that bridge’s location, when the 1932 bridge was built. It has style, unlike the modern bridge.

Shoals, Indiana

One day this UCEB will need to be replaced. Nobody will lament it; there will be no commemorative plaque, no paintings or poems.

I happen to think that steel truss bridges are beautiful.

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