History, Road Trips

Building US 41 near Terre Haute in the 1920s

The curator of the Vigo County Historical Museum in Terre Haute, Suzy Quick, contacted me recently. The museum had been given three photographs showing construction of US 41 near Terre Haute, and Suzy wondered if I could help her date the photos. I said I’d give it a try! Here are the photos, used with permission:

Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum
Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum
Photo property of the Vigo County Historical Museum

I’m making a couple assumptions: first, that the person who donated the photos is correct, that these depict construction of US 41; and second, that they depict scenes in roughly the same area.

I hoped there would be identifiable elements in these photos — signs, cars, landmarks. The first and second photos definitely have cars from the 1920s in them. In the third photo, the road looks to me to be paved in concrete. I’ve encountered a lot of old concrete on former and abandoned alignments of Indiana highways, and when I’ve been able to find when one of those roads was built, it was always during the 1920s. So I’m confident that these photos are from the 1920s.

Unfortunately, there are no signs or clearly recognizable landmarks in these photos to help me narrow it down any more than that. The railroad tracks in the second photo are a landmark, but this road crosses several sets of tracks on its way through Terre Haute, and another set a few miles south of Terre Haute. Only one of those crossings currently involves two tracks, one on Terre Haute’s near north side. But it’s possible that tracks could have been removed at one or more of the other crossings since these photos were made.

I turned to my small collection of maps and road guides for further clues. They gave me some solid evidence that leads me to the hypothesis that these photos are from 1924 or 1925, and that the location they represent might be somewhere south of Terre Haute. The rest of this post explains.

Typical ABB cover

I own a number of old Automobile Blue Books, which are road guides updated and published annually from 1900 to 1929. They give comprehensive turn-by-turn directions from place to place. Finding one’s way as a motorist was a significant challenge in the early automobile days, as outside of cities many roads weren’t marked. The ABB was a terrific resource then.

In Indiana, the first five marked, numbered state highways were routed in 1917. The state added more and more numbered highways in subsequent years. Those highways were routed over existing roads and frequently involved lots of left and right turns. In the 1920s and 1930s, Indiana improved most of those highways to be much more direct and to eliminate most turns.

I own 1924 and 1925 ABBs that cover Midwestern states. In both ABBs, Route 300 is Terre Haute south to Vincennes, and eventually Nashville, TN. Both guides route the driver south from Terre Haute over State Road 10. This road would become US 41 in 1926, when the US highway system was established.

Here the relevant section of Route 300 from the 1924 ABB. Notice how it says to follow State Road 10 south from 7th St. and Wabash Ave, which was then the main intersection of downtown Terre Haute. Then 5.7 miles later at a fork in the road, the ABB directs drivers to bear left with the trolley. That means that trolley tracks were running in or alongside the road. Notice that in the third photo above, railroad tracks hug the road. They are likely trolley tracks and might be the tracks the ABB describes. Notice also how directions tell drivers to do an awful lot of left and right turns, and bearing left or right at forks.

In the 1925 ABB, just one year later, notice how the directions are far simpler. If it were necessary to tell drivers “end of road, turn left” and such, this ABB would certainly do that, as it does so on other routes. What this says to me is that State Road 10 (US 41) was significantly improved in 1924-25 and had become a very direct route. This article lays the 1926 route of US 41 onto modern maps, and shows that from Terre Haute to Vincennes, there was only one hard turn, in Shelburn.

So: I think, but am not certain, that these photos are from south of Terre Haute. Because my ABBs suggest that SR 10 was rebuilt south from Terre Haute sometime after the 1924 ABB was published, but before the 1925 ABB was published, I think these photos are from 1924 or 1925.

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Ride Across Indiana, Road Trips

Visiting Vigo County, Indiana, on the National Road and US 40

On my bicycle ride across Indiana, I had pedaled through Wayne, Henry, Hancock, Marion, Hendricks, Putnam, and Clay Counties when I reached the last county of the trip, Vigo. This county borders Illinois and was the end of my trip.

It began to rain steadily as I rode off State Road 340 back onto US 40, and thus into Vigo County. My front handbrake was useless, and my handlebars were too slippery to hold. My rear coaster brake still stopped the bike, albeit slowly; it made riding not completely unsafe. I knew I would not make it to the Illinois line this day. My friend Michael lives near downtown Terre Haute, so I made his home my final destination.

Before I reached Terre Haute I passed through tiny Seelyville. There you’ll find Kleptz’s Restaurant, which has been operating since before I went to college just down the road from here at Rose-Hulman in the late 1980s.

Kleptz' Restaurant, Seelyville, IN

As you can see, Kleptz’s is a big old house. Some friends of mine stopped in for a drink back in the late 80s and they described sitting in Kleptz’s as like sitting in someone’s living room.

I’m a big fan of old neon signs. There used to be a good one on this building, but it’s been gone since 2009. When I photographed it that August, I didn’t know it was doomed.

Kleptz Bar

I don’t normally photograph modern gas stations on my trips, but I did this time.

Casey's, Seelyville, IN

It’s because I remember the building that used to stand on this corner. Here it is from that August, 2009, road trip.

Downtown Seelyville

I photographed this building in the unincorporated town of East Glen because in 1989, freshly graduated from college and looking for an apartment, I considered renting one of the upstairs apartments here. The downstairs was a hair salon even then. (I’m happy I found the apartment I did; read that story here.)

Salon, East Glenn, IN

I’ve photographed this Clabber Girl billboard a number of times over the years. Clabber Girl Baking Powder is one of Terre Haute’s claims to fame. This billboard has been greeting people as they approached town for probably 80 years. Every so often, it receives a restoration.

Clabber Girl billboard

Just beyond the billboard lies Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the number one undergraduate engineering school in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report). This is my alma mater.

Entrance to Rose-Hulman, US 40 Terre Haute

Here’s where US 40 meets State Road 46 on the west edge of Rose-Hulman’s campus. Several years ago, US 40 was rerouted to follow SR 46 down to I-70, and then to follow I-70 into Illinois. The National Road, however, continues straight ahead.

US 40 at SR 46

In Terre Haute, I stopped in the rain to have a hot-fudge sundae at this Dairy Queen. It’s on the National Road on the east side of town. A handful of Terre Haute DQ’s had neon signs like this one. They were custom made; you’ll find them only in Terre Haute. This and one other location in town still have them.

DQ, Wabash Ave., Terre Haute

From here, I rode straight to my friend’s house. I really wanted to document the National Road in Terre Haute, especially where it originally passed by the Vigo County Courthouse. That will have to wait for a future dry day.

Margaret drove to Terre Haute to pick me up. My friend, his wife, Margaret, and I all went out for dinner and drinks before Margaret and I headed home. Back in my day, my favorite Terre Haute bar was Sonka’s, on the National Road near downtown. It’s still going!

Sonka's

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Ride Across Indiana

Ride Across Indiana: 150 miles and done

On Day 4, I made it as far as Terre Haute, but declared the trip over about 7 miles short of the Illinois line due to rain.

On an old alignment of US 40 near Reelsville.

Rain at least threatened all day. As the day continued, it stopped threatening and started raining. The rain really picked up as I worked my way through Brazil and was quite heavy when I reached Terre Haute. Not only were my brakes ineffective, but my handlebar grips were too slippery to hold.

But I declare victory anyway. I still rode 150 miles, give or take, in four days.

The McKinley House near Harmony.

I deeply enjoyed riding the old concrete alignments of US 40 in Putnam County and seeing the old homes and barns all along the route. Despite the rain I had good energy and spirits.

Sonka’s, a Terre Haute institution.

In Terre Haute I rode to my old friend Michael’s. Margaret came along to get me and Michael, his wife Merrie, Margaret, and I went out for dinner and drinks at a favorite place from the years I lived in Terre Haute. Then we headed home.

I’ll have more to tell about this trip in posts to come, after I’ve had some time to process the photographs and process my thoughts and feelings.

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Road Trips

Indiana State Road 42 in Terre Haute

On October 18, 2008, I explored Indiana State Road 42 from end to end. It begins southwest of Indianapolis in Mooresville and ends in Terre Haute. This is the last article in this series.

I lived in Terre Haute for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s. When I needed to go to Indianapolis I liked to to drive SR 42 to the I-70 exit in Brazil because SR 42 was more fun over that distance. Except, that is, at the Vigo-Clay county line, where the road made two 90-degree turns around a church. I was surprised to find that the road had been curved gently on the Clay County side and the double-90 removed. This change is new enough that Google Maps hasn’t updated the route yet!

©2008, Google Maps

The church is in the photo at right; the road used to run on its right side.

Former double-90

The people who own this house, I’m sure, let out whoops and hollers when they learned that the state was removing the double 90 – because the first turn going west happened right here. While I lived in Terre Haute, this house got clobbered a couple times by people screaming down SR 42 at night and failing to negotiate the turn.

House where the left turn used to be

Shortly inside Vigo County, SR 42 curves northwest. I have old maps that suggest that this curve did not always exist, and that Sugar Grove Dr. used to run straight and connect with what is now SR 42. Sugar Grove Drive ends west of here where the Indiana Air National Guard base (and the stunningly overnamed Terre Haute International Airport) begins, and picks up on the other side as Hulman Ave., which goes through Terre Haute. But notice little Otter Road just below the center of the map image. Do you see the abandoned strip of road near it?

©2008, Google Maps

Here’s what it looks like, eastbound.

Abandoned Bloomington Road

My old map suggests that what is now Sugar Grove Rd. used to fork here headed east. The left fork is what is now SR 42, and the right fork, which is now Otter Rd., was the road to Bloomington. This road is interrupted by I-70, but you can detour over it on another road and pick the road back up again on the other side. It still goes to Bloomington. It joins with State Road 46 inside Clay County to finish the journey.

Speaking of State Road 46, State Road 42 ends there today, just past the optimistically named Terre Haute International Airport. Here it is on the map. Notice how US 40 converges. I went to college about where US 40 enters the image.

©2008 Google Maps

And here it is in living color.

West end of SR 42

SR 46 is Terre Haute’s eastern boundary. Beyond the stoplight, the road becomes Poplar St. and cruises laterally through Terre Haute. At one time, SR 42 went along for the ride as far as US 41, and so did I this day. Not far into town stands the Sycamore Farm, which has been there since about 1860. Fifty years ago, Sycamore Farm was still way out in the boonies. Eastbound photo.

Sycamore Farm

Terre Haute is a decaying town, its best days so far behind it that nobody who remembers them is left. But somebody along the way made sure its park system was well funded. Say what you will about Terre Haute, but it has wonderful parks. Old SR 42 is the southern border of Terre Haute’s crown jewel, Deming Park. This is an eastbound shot.

Deming Park

In 1971, Vigo County tore down its five old high schools and built three sprawling, boring, characterless modern buildings to replace them. It’s a shame, because this is the kind of school building Terre Haute used to build. This is the view from 25th St.; the school’s south edge is on old SR 42.

Woodrow Wilson Jr. High

This map shows old SR 46’s trip from about here to its end at 3rd Street, which is US 41. It also shows the Wabash River for perspective.

©2008, Google Maps

At 12th and Poplar stands Headstone Friends, which sells CDs and records, posters, incense, and hand-dyed tie-dye shirts. They also sell scales and rolling papers, or at least they did when I was in college in the late 1980s; I failed to check when I visited this day. This is one of my favorite places on the planet. Headstone’s has been in business since 1970, and in this location since the ’70s sometime. They’ve been burning incense in there for so long that the whole joint has a distinctive sweet smell that always makes my nose run. I bought a tie-dyed T-shirt here on this trip and all the way home my car smelled like Headstone’s, which I suppose is better than it smelling like my dog, who was along for the ride. If you’re ever in Terre Haute, put Headstone’s on your itinerary. They’re open noon to 8, Monday through Saturday.

Headstone Friends

Here’s a westbound shot from in front of Headstone’s, toward downtown. Terre Haute is not a city of tall buildings.

Westbound

At 9th St. stands the former E. Bleemel Flour and Feed building. Most of the time I lived here, this was an auto repair garage, and a dump of one at that. But in the early 90s somebody restored it. It was, for several years, an antiques store, but now it’s a restaurant. I think that’s a better use of the building.

Bleemel Flour and Feed

The section of old SR 42 between 9th and 9½ St. – Terre Haute is known for its half-streets – is rich with old buildings, like this one, which housed the former Terre Haute Brewing Company. It really needs some love.

Terre Haute Brewing Company

This was once a livery stable. It’s a steakhouse today.

Old building

This CVS drug store is neither old nor historic, but it was surprising to see its facade torched.

A crackling good CVS

I wasn’t sure when I made this trip whether SR 42 originally ended at 7th Street (old US 41) or 3rd Street (US 41). I guessed 7th Street and was wrong. On the right, just out of the photo, is the Vigo County Public Library, the very one that Steve Martin mentioned in his movie Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

Former western end of SR 42

This trip proves that you don’t have to drive the truly historic roads (like the National Road or the Michigan Road) to find plenty of good, interesting things to see and do. Just get out there and go!

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