History

Adding the Michigan Road to the modern Indiana highway system

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.

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The Michigan Road, highlighted in blue. Map © 2008 Google.

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.

Plymouth Pilot-News, March 27, 1919

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.

Ply_Roch_Logan_Peru
Maps courtesy Indiana University Libraries

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.

State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) heading northeast from Logansport
State Road 25 (the Michigan Road) in northeastern Logansport, heading toward Rochester

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.

See an index of everything I’ve written about the Michigan Road here.

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Downtown Kirklin

Downtown Kirklin, Indiana
Nikon F2, 50mm f/2.0 AI Nikkor
Agfa APX 100 (x-7/98)

2018

I took the F2 along when Margaret and I toured the Michigan Road from Indy to Logansport just after Thanksgiving. The light was weird this day, and mighty dim for the ISO 100 film I was packing. Many of my photos suffer from camera shake. Fortunately, not this one.

I have a soft spot in my heart for little Kirklin. I remember how hapless and forlorn it was when I first stopped here, in 2008, during my original Michigan Road survey. That’s the Michigan Road cutting laterally across the center of the frame, by the way. That building on the opposite corner was about ready to fall in when I first saw it. Somebody rescued it.

Film Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Downtown Kirklin, Indiana

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Pittman Farms

You’ll find these barns standing in a vast empty field on the Michigan Road in Boone County. They’re at the corner of Sycamore St., which leads into Zionsville.

These barns stand unused on seven choice acres on a bustling Michigan Road corridor through neighboring Hamilton County and into this part of Boone County. Immediately south of here, it’s shops and condos and apartments and restaurants all the way to Indianapolis.

The Pittman family has had plans to develop this land. The news stories I’ve seen said it would be a mixture of housing and shopping. But plans stalled a few years ago after the family patriarch died, and it’s not clear how and when they’ll unstall.

So for now, these barns just stand there.

Road Trips

Whither Pittman Farms?

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Preservation, Road Trips

Kirklin, revitalized

When I surveyed the Michigan Road in 2008, I felt bad for little Kirklin, a town about 45 minutes north of Indianapolis. Except for its lovely Carnegie library, it was all but dead. Its run-down buildings, mostly vacant, said that Kirklin’s best days were long past.

A page on my old site shows Kirklin as it was in 2008, plus some postcard images of it during its early-20th-century heyday. Click here to see.

A couple antiques dealers operated out of dilapidated storefronts. As I walked up and down Kirklin’s portion of the Michigan Road, my camera in one hand and my two dogs attached via leash to the other, they came out and accosted me. “Why are you photographing our town?”

When I explained about the Michigan Road and my quest to photograph it end to end, their tones softened. “We sure wish we could get more people to make the short drive up here from Indy to visit our shops,” they lamented. “It would make all the difference to our little town.”

Kirklin was in a catch-22: there wasn’t enough to do there to make the drive worth it, but without people willing to make the drive it wasn’t worth adding anything more to do.

And so I’m puzzled, as Kirklin has renovated most of its buildings and added a number of shops. Most of those shops deal in antiques and knick-knacks, but it’s absolutely enough to make it worth the drive from Indy. My wife and I spent a couple pleasant hours browsing here. We met several of the shop owners, who engaged us in very pleasant conversation. We even bought a few things.

Here, have a look at Kirklin today.

Kirklin
Kirklin
Kirklin
Kirklin

It would be lovely if Michigantown and Burlington, two neighboring Michigan Road towns directly north, could find this same level of revitalization. It would make a lovely “antique alley,” a one-tank trip and a very pleasant day. Travelers could start in Logansport and end for dinner in northwest Indianapolis, or start in Indianapolis and take their meal in Logansport. 

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Preservation, Road Trips

Exploring Napoleon, Indiana

There’s a lot of lovely historic architecture to see in Napoleon, a small town in Ripley County, Indiana. But getting there is part of the fun: from the north or from the south, you do it on the Michigan Road.

NapoleonMap1900

From Atlas of Ripley County, Indiana, O. W. Pegee, 1900

Ripley County boasts two alignments of the Michigan Road, the original and a later one that is now US 421. They come together in Napoleon. In the Michigan Road’s early days, what is now US 421 was a plank road starting in Versailles, and it became the more major route. It’s why, during the early years of the automobile, the Michigan Road was rerouted onto this road.

This 1900 atlas excerpt shows where and how the two roads used to meet on the south side of Napoleon. See the two roads that merge? The Michigan Road is on the left.

Each road had to cross a little stream. At some point, probably when it became clear that the old plank road would be the major route, the Michigan Road was truncated at the first county road south of Napoleon. Makes sense; why build and maintain a needless bridge? Here’s what it looks like today from above.

NapoleonGoogleMap2018

Imagery and map data © 2018 Google

In 2008 I documented what remains of this old Michigan Road alignment. Here’s a southbound photo from north of the county road where, today, you have to turn left to reach US 421 and resume your travel on the Michigan Road. My camera malfunctioned on a northbound photo from this spot, but the road was two-track from here and it faded into the grass ahead.

Former Michigan Road alignment?

This little bit of gravel provides access to this cemetery, which is wedged between here and US 421.

Lutheran Cemetery, Napoleon, Indiana

From my many visits to Napoleon over the years, here are a number of scenes from this little town. Its plat has hardly changed since 1900 and many buildings present then remain today. Arguably the most prominent building on the Michigan Road in Napoleon is this old flour mill.

Flour mill, Napoleon, Indiana

The photo above is from 2008 and the one below is from 2018. The photo below would show a building in dilapidated condition were someone not maintaining this building. I hear that this old mill has been converted into apartments.

Mill

Those painted signs would be faded and chipped away if someone wasn’t keeping them touched up.

Mill

The former Napoleon State Bank building is now a real-estate office.

Former Napoleon State Bank

Surprisingly, the Napoleon State Bank still operates in a modern building across the street. It’s remarkable it has survived in this age of bank mergers and megabanks.

Napoleon State Bank, Napoleon, Indiana

If you step off the Michigan Road and explore Napoleon’s Main Street (now State Road 229) you’ll find more lovely historic architecture. This is the Central House, built in the late 1820s. That makes it at least as old as the Michigan Road itself!

The Central House

Two large churches, both probably built in the early 20th century, stand along Main Street. First is St. John’s Lutheran.

St. John's Lutheran Church

St. Maurice Catholic is the other. Given how small this town is, these churches must have drawn members from a very large region to justify their size. Hopefully, they still do.

St. Maurice Catholic Church and School, Napoleon, Indiana

Of all the old buildings in Napoleon, I like the onetime home of Elias Conwell the best. Like the Central House, it dates to the 1820s. Conwell was quite a character; I told his story here.

The Conwell House

That little creek winds all through Napoleon. Here it is on the north side of town, hugging the northbound Michigan Road.

Creek along the road

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Road Trips

Sights and signs in Versailles and Osgood

US 421 through Versailles and Osgood in Ripley County, Indiana, was not originally the Michigan Road. The original alignment still exists, a little to the west. But in the early 1900s as the automobile came to prominence, the Michigan Road was rerouted so that these two towns could get in on the action.

As you enter Versailles from the south, you soon come upon the Moon-Lite Motel.

Moon-Lite Motel

This traditional old-style motel is still operating and its rooms are all said to be recently remodeled.

Moon-Lite Motel

Most of what’s worth seeing in Versailles is a few blocks off US 421. The Tyson United Methodist Church is probably the town’s crown jewel. I wrote about it before, here.

Tyson United Methodist Church

This art deco wonder still serves this congregation. They just added a lift on the side of the building to let people into the basement more easily.

Tyson United Methodist Church

Moving on from Versailles you quickly come upon Osgood. Its downtown is right on the Michigan Road. This Rexall drug store still operates.

Rexall

Probably the best sight in Osgood is the Damm Theatre, if for no other reason that it’s so much fun to say. “Hey kids, let’s go to the Damm Theatre!”

The Damm Theatre

Just before you leave town heading north, you come upon these curious metal sculptures.

Statue

Thanks to our signs, there’s no doubt you’re on the Michigan Road.

Byway sign

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