Road Trips

A survey of US 36 in western Indiana

Let’s wrap up my October, 2006, road trip in west-central Indiana.

I headed north out of Bridgeton on Bridgeton Road, which led straight to Rockville and US 36, the road I would take back to Indianapolis. Even with the scant research I did before the trip, I knew there were several old alignments of this road.

Parke County did a very nice job of signing old alignments of US 36. The first one I encountered was just outside Rockville by Billie Creek Village, a history museum. It ran south of current US 36, as the map shows.

Imagery ©2020 IndianaMap Framework Data, Maxar Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data ©2020 Google.

Old 36 Road, as this alignment is signed, is very narrow. I imagine the alignment is very old and has not been used as US 36 in many decades. I encountered a car and a truck within the first quarter mile, and it was a tight squeeze. When I passed the truck, I wasn’t sure we’d both fit, so I edged my passenger-side tires onto the grass.

US 36 at Billie Creek

I didn’t know that an 1895 covered bridge was still in use along the route! I had never driven on a covered bridge before. Every other one I’d ever seen had been limited to foot traffic. It gave me spooky chills to drive on it since I was trusting 111-year-old wood, rather than good old steel and concrete, to hold my 2,700-pound car. With quiet strength, the old bridge stoically did its job.

US 36 at Billie Creek

I find this alignment curious because I saw no evidence that it ever flowed into the current roadbed. Here’s where it ends at US 36 about a mile down the road.

US 36 at Billie Creek

The next old alignment I looked for runs through Raccoon Lake. Here’s the map. Notice how the old road, from west to east, runs slightly north of current US 36, then crosses it, and then ends at the lake and picks up on the other side before flowing back into current US 36. The US Army Corps of Engineers built Raccoon Lake between 1956 and 1960 as a flood-control project. They built a new segment of US 36 straight-as-a-stick across the new lake, and just buried the old road underwater.

Imagery ©2020 IndianaMap Framework Data, Maxar Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data ©2020 Google.

Somehow, I missed the western end of this alignment. I realized it when I saw a sign for Hollandsburg. I took the next left, CR 870 E, and drove north on it to the alignment, which was signed as Old 36. I drove west, hoping to find the beginning of the alignment. But without warning, the road dead-ended. The map above doesn’t show it, but something, maybe a creek, bisects the road.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

This photo shows the barricade at the end of the road, and the mound on which the road is built on the other side. I didn’t bother driving around to find the other side; maybe next time.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

I stepped back to take a picture of current US 36 to the south — straight into the sun, unfortunately. It’s hard to see, but the asphalt road was coated in a fine gravel here.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

I turned around and drove west. After a couple hundred yards, the gravel ended. As this photo shows, old US 36 here was cut into the scenery. Driving this narrow road made me feel like I was a part of the land. In contrast, driving the elevated US 36 gave me a broad and stirring view of the scenery.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

Old US 36 forms an S of sorts as it crosses current US 36. A friend who works in civil engineering tells me that when an old road is rerouted, the old road is usually curved to cross the new road at 90-degree angles for safety. This photo shows this crossing pointing westbound.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

It was exciting to follow this segment of road eastward to its end at the lake. The road is used as a boat ramp today. The road actually curves to the left just before it reaches the water; the boat ramps were built on the right. A co-worker who grew up in this area told me that in the winter, the Army Corps of Engineers lowers the lake by about 20 feet, and you can see a bit of the road that is normally underwater.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

Looking back westbound from the end of the road, old US 36 is pretty.

US 36 at Raccoon Lake

I drove back to US 36, found the eastern end of this old alignment, and spent quite some time driving around trying to find where the alignment ended at the lake on the other side. It would have helped if I had remembered to bring the map I had printed; without it, I was chasing wild geese. This failed search used up a lot of my time, and I started wanting to get home. I was so irritated with myself that I forgot to take a photo of the eastern end of this alignment.

I drove past a couple old alignments in Putnam County — one little one around the town of Bainbridge, and a larger, more interesting one that I knew I couldn’t find without my forgotten map. But I had spent more time on the trip than I planned and was growing tired, so it was just as well. I knew I’d revisit US 36 another day and explore it thoroughly.

When US 36 enters Danville in Hendricks County, it becomes a major artery and loses all of its charm. When I visit friends in this area, I usually ask about back roads to their houses so I can avoid US 36, which gets mighty congested. US 36 was rerouted and widened to four lanes on the east side of Danville. This map shows both alignments where they split as you head east out of Danville, and where they rejoin again west of the town of Avon.

Imagery ©2020 IndianaMap Framework Data, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data ©2020 Google.

I was pooped, so I made just a couple quick photos at either end. Here’s the west end, where old US 36 (Main St.) splits from current US 36.

Old US 36 at US 36

Here’s what east emd looks like. Now that I think of it, I should have driven back up to where old 36 curves south and taken a photo showing how old 36 and current 36 line up.

This photo, taken in Avon, is typical of any drive I’ve made, day or night, along US 36 in Avon. I am always looking at someone else’s exhaust pipe. It seems like I never quite make it to the speed limit, either. It seems like most things in Avon dump out onto US 36. What’s the charm of living in Avon if every trip involves slow-moving traffic on the town’s only artery?

US 36 in Avon

After I made this trip, I learned that US 36’s original 1927 route began in Downtown Indianapolis and headed west from there. Another day I’ll make a proper US 36 trip, starting at Downtown, driving all the old alignments I can find, and ending no sooner than the Illinois border.

I headed home from here, tired but satisfied from a day’s exploration.

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Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

Perfect gravel road

This country road may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it is about 100 feet away from busy US 36, two miles west of Rockville, Indiana. As I took this photograph, the rumble of cars and trucks on the nearby highway blotted out nature’s sounds. Yet when I look at this photograph now, the scene seems so remote that I can imagine hearing the rustling wind and the chirping birds.

At one time, though, this road was the busy highway. This was an early alignment of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the “auto trails” that crisscrossed the nation in the early 20th century. Then in 1918, when Indiana created its first system of numbered state highways, this road became State Road 31. Next, in 1927 when the US numbered route system was formed, this road became US 36. It wasn’t uncommon for US routes to be gravel roads in the early days. It wasn’t until about the early 1930s that US 36’s current alignment was built nearby as a modern, paved highway. This has been a county road ever since.

Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Perfect gravel road

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Old US 36

I never expected to find that this old alignment of US 36 was a dirt road. But I go to find the unexpected.

Current US 36 lay 500 feet away, but here it was middle-of-nowhere quiet. I felt not just secluded, but exposed. I wondered how friendly the landowner was. I thought it might be entirely too easy to make a trespasser disappear.

But I lingered anyway, enjoying the tension. I took my time framing this photograph, which I’ve always loved. A copy hangs framed on the wall of my home office.

Old US 36 • Kodak EasyShare Z730 • May, 2007

Photography

Favorite Photos Week: Old US 36

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Photography

Photographic dissonance

I follow blogs of several other camera-collecting photographers and I get the sense that they all process their photographs in Photoshop or some other image-editing software.

I feel like I run a little against that grain because I use such software sparingly. I’m not opposed to processing; I can see how it is a tool for achieving an artistic vision.

But I shoot my old film cameras mostly for the experience of it. I just want to see what turns out, how the camera responds to the light and my composition. I realize that film, processing, and scanning play a large role in that, so last year I began trying to be consistent with these things. I stick to the same films, the same processing, and the same scanning so that the camera and lens are the variables. (Unfortunately, I have to choose a new processor as the one I was using got out of the business.) When I do use software to manipulate images from my film cameras, it’s mostly to crop or straighten them.

I’m more likely to manipulate the images that come from my digital cameras, adjusting color, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. I tweak subtly, enhancing it to match what I saw that made me want to shoot the scene. I barely know what I’m doing with these tools, not because I find software hard to use, but because I have much to learn about photography as art. Still, I recognize which tweaks please me and which don’t. I save the former and pitch the latter.

This is one of my favorite road-trip photos. Believe it or not, this is the original alignment of US 36 in Parke County, Indiana. When the US highway system was founded in 1927 it was largely routed along existing roads, paved or not. When the state got around to paving US 36, it straightened and moved the highway in this area, leaving this original alignment behind. I visited this spot in 2007 and shot this photo. This is exactly how it came out of my Kodak EasyShare Z730. (Click here to see it larger.)

Old US 36

I love this photograph. Some of my feelings for it come from the memory of that trip and my excitement over this discovery. But I also love this photo because the road, the light spot where the trees part, and the Bridge Out sign all guide the eye to the center of the image. And I can’t get over how deeply, vividly green the scene is, with that shock of tan dirt road, the battered red Stop sign, and the lurking red house. I love this photograph so much that I printed and framed it. It hangs prominently in my home.

The other day a copy of Photoshop Elements found its way into my hands, and I spent some time trying its tools on various photos. I had this photo open when I tried the Auto Smart Fix tool. I was astonished by how it affected the image. (Click here to see it larger. You can compare the two photos better at larger sizes.)

Old US 36

The processed photo immediately seemed more realistic to me than the original. The vivid but monolithic green gave way to varied shades, which created greater texture in the image and, I realized, reflects nature’s actual variety of color. I doubted the original photo’s accuracy. But then I wondered if I can even judge realism in this image. It’s been five years since that road trip. My memory of the scene’s actual color and texture at that moment would have faded anyway – but the original photograph had actually become my memory. (I distinctly remember nearly backing my car into the ditch as I turned it around on this narrow road, however.) I reeled in these realizations.

I had always thought that a photograph was a record, a factual statement. But no; a photograph is just a perspective. And clearly a photograph’s perspective can become my reality.

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Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Covered bridge on old US 36

Covered bridge on old US 36

I’m eager to get out on the road now that the weather’s nice. But this year no particular road seems to be calling me. In 2007, US 36 in western Indiana interested me. In 2008, I immersed myself in the Michigan Road. In 2009, I toured the National Road. I’ve had thoughts about doing the Indiana alignments of the Lincoln Highway this year, or maybe finally clinching the National Road by driving it across Ohio, or maybe trying to find all the old alignments of US 50 in Indiana.

Or maybe I’ll devote this road-trip season to finding old bridges. One of the best moments of any road trip is when I come across an old bridge. I especially enjoy steel truss bridges and wooden covered bridges, but stone arch, concrete arch, and suspension bridges are exciting too. There’s nothing like rounding a curve and having an old bridge come into view, a work of engineering and labor shouldering its burdens for many decades, even more than a century. Just like this covered bridge peeking out from behind the late-spring greenery on an old alignment of US 36 in Putnam County, Indiana. I didn’t know it was there, and I gasped as it revealed itself.

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Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Perfect gravel road

Perfect gravel road

This country road may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it is about 100 feet away from busy US 36, two miles west of Rockville, Indiana. As I took this photograph, the rumble of cars and trucks on the nearby highway blotted out nature’s sounds. Yet when I look at this photograph now, the scene seems so remote that I can imagine hearing the rustling wind and the chirping birds.

At one time, though, this road was the busy highway. This was an early alignment of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the “auto trails” that crisscrossed the nation in the early 20th century. Then in 1918, when Indiana created its first system of numbered state highways, this road became State Road 31. Next, in 1927 when the US numbered route system was formed, this road became US 36. It wasn’t uncommon for US routes to be gravel roads in the early days. It wasn’t until about the early 1930s that US 36’s current alignment was built nearby as a modern, paved highway. This has been a county road ever since.

Read more about my trip down US 36 in western Indiana here and here.

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