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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History, Road Trips

The Shepard Bridge on the Michigan Road

As you follow the old Michigan Road just as it passes into Ripley County from the south, you’ll encounter this one-lane stone-arch bridge. Built in 1913, it’s known by many names: Shepard Bridge, or Nobles Ford Bridge, or County Bridge #38.

Shepard Bridge

The view was unobstructed on a visit I made here ten years ago:

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

ShepardBridgeMap

Image and map data © 2018 Google

This bridge is in a fascinating place, marked on the map with the orange star.

To its west is the vast Jefferson Proving Ground. The U.S. Army took the land, displacing many farms and towns, in 1941 to build this munitions-testing ground. The Army blew up ammunition and bombs here! The majority of it no longer serves that purpose and is today a wildlife refuge.

To its east is US 421. The Michigan Road’s oldest alignment follows the road labeled Old Michigan Road. But with the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century, the Michigan Road became an early auto trail. So that it could pass through bustling Versailles and Osgood, the auto trail was routed along what is now US 421 from here about 22 miles north to the little town of Napoleon. The two alignments come back together there.

This rerouting happened after the Shepard Bridge was built. It had the effect of saving it from eventual demolition. If this alignment had become US 421, this bridge would have been replaced with a bridge designed to handle modern highway traffic.

Shepard Bridge

It was unusual for a stone-arch bridge to be built in 1913. The stone-arch era is heavily consigned to the 19th century. By the early 20th century, bridges of iron, steel, and reinforced concrete had become much more common.

Shepard Bridge

Ripley County is unusually rich in stone-arch bridges, with at least 12 still open to vehicular traffic. A few of them are inside Jefferson Proving Ground and thus carry limited traffic. The ones for which I’m able to find data were built after 1880. The Shepard Bridge is the newest of them.

Shepard Bridge

The Michigan Road borders Jefferson Proving Ground here. You can see a bit of the chain-link fence that surrounds JPG just over the rise in the bridge deck.

Shepard Bridge

This bridge has had some work done on it that appears intended to stabilize it. On an autumn day in 2008, after a long drought, I drove by and noticed the creek was dry. So I walked under the bridge to have a look. The stones appear to be in no more than fair condition. I imagine the brown stuff is some sort of cement intended to keep stones in place.

Stone bridge

Concrete was poured where the arches meet the creek bed — on Oct. 1, 1997, as you can see. I’m sure this stabilizes the bridge a little.

Stone bridge

The concrete is poured such that the upstream end forms a point, so that debris is more likely to flow around and not get hung up. This 2008 photo shows it:

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

With the destruction of the Middletown Bridge in Shelby County, this is the last stone-arch bridge on the Michigan Road. I know of a large stone culvert on this alignment just south of Napoleon, as well.

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Road Trips

Climbing Michigan Hill in Madison, Indiana

I wonder if schoolchildren in Madison, Indiana, are taught about the Michigan Road when they study Indiana history. It would be a shame if they weren’t, for this historic road begins in their town.

Michigan at West

Every road begins somewhere, after all, and this one begins north of Madison’s historic downtown, at the top of West Street.

MRMadison

Imagery and map data © 2018 Google

If you’ve driven the Michigan Road anywhere else along its 270-mile length you know it is, by and large, flat and straight. But its first 8/10 of a mile winds its way up a steep hill. The stars on the map mark the beginning of the road and the top of the hill. It’s an exhilarating start to this historic road!

The Michigan Road was built in the early 1830s to connect Madison, then the state’s largest city, to the new capital at Indianapolis, and then to Lake Michigan. It passed through Greensburg, Shelbyville, Logansport, Rochester, Plymouth, and South Bend on its way to its end at Lake Michigan in Michigan City.

Most of Indiana is flat, but this state’s southern counties feature rugged terrain. That’s in part because of the valley created by the Ohio River, and in part because Ice Age glaciers and their land-flattening effect extended only so far south in what would become Indiana.

Thus, as you begin driving the Michigan Road, you’ll find your car in low gear for the climb.

From the beginning of the Michigan Road

This is the first house on the Michigan Road. It looks like it’s getting some work.

First house on the Michigan Road

It’s challenging to photograph this part of the Michigan Road. There are no shoulders and only a couple pulloffs, and plenty of traffic enters and exits old Madison via this hill. You can’t stand very far back from traffic, and drivers don’t expect to find pedestrians as they round one of the many curves. When I walked this hill in 2008 one motorcycle rider stopped, looked at me incredulously, and asked if I had a death wish! He was right, and I vowed not to do it again. So this time we photographed only the bottom, and then the top, of Michigan Hill. Fortunately, I photographed the hill extensively in 2008. The next three photos are from that walk.

NB Michigan Road

The Ohio River is visible from one of the pulloffs. The hill in the distance is Kentucky.

The Ohio River from the Michigan Road

Modern cars have little trouble climbing Michigan Hill, but most early automobiles would have struggled.

NB Michigan Road

Back to 2018 now and at the top of the hill, where you’ll find the Fairmount House. I photographed it extensively in 2008, and shared those photos and what I know about the house here. It was for sale at the time.

Fairmount House

The house hasn’t changed in 10 years, but the landscaping sure has. It blocked every clear angle to bring the whole house into the photo.

Fairmount House

But it’s a lovely property, made even lovelier by landscaping.

Fairmount House

Here’s a view down Michigan Hill from the Fairmount House.

Michigan Road SB at Fairmount House

Just beyond where the road levels out stands this monument to the road, placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution the same year the U.S. highway system was born. This portion of the Michigan Road would eventually become US 421, but in 1926 it was assigned number 29 in Indiana’s State Road system.

Honored by the DAR

If you ever drive the Michigan Road from end to end, you’ll find that from here on out the hills and valleys are slight and the curves are gentle.

I shot some shaky handheld video of the ascent in 2008. It’ll give you a good flavor of what the drive is like.

Canon PowerShot S95 (and Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom for the 2008 photos)

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The beginning of the Michigan Road

The beginning of the Michigan Road
Canon PowerShot S95
2018

When I surveyed the Michigan Road end to end in 2008, I failed to photograph this marker at the road’s beginning. The Daughters of the American Revolution placed it in 1916, on the occasion of Indiana’s centennial.

Margaret and I have made our first trip on our re-survey of the road. We did not fail to photograph the marker this time!

Sadly, no Michigan Road Historic Byway wayfinding signs were present. One should stand near this rock with a “Begin” sign under it, and another should stand across the street with an “End” sign under it. They have gone missing.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: The beginning of the Michigan Road

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Photography, Road Trips

Ten years ago on the Michigan Road

It was ten years ago this summer that I surveyed the entire Michigan Road, a project that contributed directly to a later project I co-led to have the road named a Historic Byway in Indiana. My wife and I wanted to re-survey the entire road this summer to document it as it is now. Given all that’s happened this year, we have yet to start. Other priorities continue to fill our summer. We will be fortunate to drive one or two segments of it this year. Perhaps we can finish it next year.

I drove the road to South Bend last Wednesday for a Historic Michigan Road Association board meeting. I noticed how much has changed just on that section of the road in ten years. It led me to think about changes I’ve noticed as I’ve driven other sections of the road over the years. I’m itching to start the new survey!

I made a quick pass through my 2008 photos and selected ten that pleased me as photographs. I was a beginning photographer then. Have a look.

NB Michigan Road

Madison, near the Michigan Road’s southern end.

Fairmount House

The Fairmount House, Madison.

Stone bridge, Michigan Road

Stone bridge, Ripley County.

Michigan Road, Decatur County, Indiana

A curvy section of road in Decatur County.

Dodge in Pleasant View

Old Dodge parked just off the road, Shelby County.

Waterman Hardware in Five Points

Waterman Hardware, one of Indianapolis’s oldest businesses.

Dunkin' Donuts

Brand new Dunkin’ Donuts preparing to open — it has since closed — Indianapolis.

Bar-B-Q Heaven

Bar-B-Q Heaven, Indianapolis.

1884 building

1884 building, Plymouth.

Approaching South Bend

Approaching South Bend. The Michigan Road is no longer US 31 here; a new-terrain US 31 was built nearby.

Kodak EasyShare Z730 Zoom

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