Road Trips

US 50 in Knox County, Indiana

On three Saturdays in the summer of 2010, I drove as many old alignments of US 50 as I could find in Indiana, from Ohio to Illinois. I wrote about that trip on my old Roads site, but now I’m bringing that material to this blog.

US 50 has had three major alignments in Knox County. The first ran considerably north of US 50’s current path. (From a 1927 Indiana State Highway Commission map.)

Then US 50 was moved south to what I believe was mostly a new-terrain road (but don’t cite me on it). It was a much straighter and smoother path at any rate. US 50 still follows this path, at least until it gets to Vincennes, which it now bypasses. That’s the third alignment of which I speak.

When the US 50 expressway was built, it bypassed tiny Wheatland.

I turned off US 50 on the first available side road as I drove westbound. This was the eastbound scene on old US 50, near where it dead ends.

Old US 50

Here’s the scene westbound from there.

Old US 50

I passed through Wheatland, of which there is not much, and soon the end of the road was in view.

Old US 50

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

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.

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

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.

Business US 50 shield

Plenty of great old homes stand on Old US 50 as it makes its way to downtown Vincennes. This is a great example.

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.

Vincennes Main Street

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

This corner is covered in Vitrolite, a type of glass paneling.

Glorious Vitrolite

I snapped a lot of photos on Main Street, with my dog in tow on the leash. It seemed like everywhere I looked, there was a great old building dripping with character.

Vincennes Main Street

I imagine this building, which hearkens to Greek times, was once a bank.

Vincennes Main Street

Shortly my dog and I reached the end of Main Street.

Vincennes

Main Street and old US 50 in Vincennes ends at the Wabash River today, but until the early 1930s a bridge over the Wabash River connected Vincennes to Illinois. I found brick pavement (dating probably to the 1920s) in the last block leading up to the river. A bridge used to cross the river here; it is long gone. I covered that bridge at length in this article.

The old brick road

The next alignment of US 50 crossed the Wabash over the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, which still stands.

Lincoln Memorial Bridge

At the end of this bridge in Illinois, a great monument stands commemorating the crossing of young Abraham Lincoln and his family into Illinois. If you stop to see the monument, you can see that the old highway leading away from where the old bridge once stood remains on the Illinois side as well. It, too, is brick. (I wrote about that road here.)

The Lincoln Memorial Bridge is about my favorite bridge in Indiana, and the Indians carved into the columns at its entrance are no small part of why.

Indian

Here’s the view as the bridge takes you into Illinois.

Lincoln Memorial Bridge deck

I regret not walking across this bridge into Illinois. But I felt a little pressed for time, and I still had the original alignment of US 50 to follow back to Washington. I made my way back the way I came. At about where I found the old US 50 sign, I turned off Old US 50 and made a couple turns to reach Old Wheatland Road – Old Old US 50. This is the route I followed, which is my best guess at the route in the 1927 map segment I showed at the top of this page. The overall shape is right, but it’s possible I didn’t get a couple details right. (I did get a couple turns wrong, in Washington. Otherwise, this is correct.)

In no time flat, I was back in the country.

Old Wheatland Road

After I posted these photos to my Flickr space, a fellow who follows me there and who grew up in Vincennes confirmed for me that this was US 50’s original route.

Old Wheatland Road

After a bit more than eight miles, Old Wheatland Road reached State Road 550. Actually, it’s pretty clear that SR 550 follows Old Wheatland Road from this point.

SR 550

SR 550 passes through Wheatland, but Old Old US 50 turns left onto Green St., which becomes CR SE 700 S. Soon enough, Old Old US 50 comes upon this beautiful old bridge that spans the White River.

Washington Road Bridge

I can’t decide whether my favorite part of this trip was the super long old alignment in Jackson and Lawrence Counties or this alignment that spans Knox and Daviess Counties. But I do know for sure that my time on this bridge was the most peaceful on any part of this trip.

Washington Road Bridge

This three-span Pratt through truss bridge was built in 1909 and rehabilitated, including replacing its original wooden deck with a steel deck, in 2006.

Washington Road Bridge

It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Washington Road Bridge

I spent a lot of time on this bridge and never encountered another car. Several houses stand (on stilts) next to this bridge and I felt a little jealous of the families who live in them, as they get to enjoy both that peace and this bridge every day.

Washington Road Bridge

Really, this whole drive was peaceful and quiet. It was a warm, still day, so I had been driving with all my windows down. Country scents of crops and livestock wafted in and out of my car, and drivers of the few trucks I encountered all waved as we passed.

Washington Road Bridge

I kept enjoying these things as I pushed on from here to Washington, where my summertime exploration of US 50 came to an end. And I have Elias Conwell to thank.

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Road Trips

Illinois US 50: Crossing the Wabash River from Indiana

In 2009, my good friend Michael and I made a rush one-day trip along all of the old US 50 alignments we could find in Illinois, starting at the Indiana/Illinois state line. I wrote about this trip on my old Roads site, which I plan to deprecate. I’m moving that content to this site.

Someone I follow on Flickr loves bridges. At least, I assume he loves bridges, because every week he uploads another batch of old-bridge photos. Not long ago, he uploaded several photos of some abandoned steel truss bridges along US 50 in Illinois. I knew I had to go see.

Just a couple months before, I totaled my car as I passed from West Virginia into Ohio while exploring the National Road. It made me feel skittish about driving on the highway, I knew I needed to make another road trip as soon as I could. An Illinois US 50 trip seemed like just the thing.

Brick segments of old US 50
Brick section near the Wabash River

As you might imagine, US 50 has a long history in Illinois. Some of my roadfan buddies have shared research with me that take this road’s roots back to 1806, when a mail route and a stagecoach road was created between Vincennes, Indiana and St. Louis, Missouri, along the corridor that became US 50. One part of this corridor may have been part of a trace called the Goshen Road. In 1913, this corridor became part of the Midland Trail, an early coast-to-coast automobile road. Then it became State Route 12 and, finally, US 50 in 1926.

I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to cover this road to my usual obsessive-compulsive level of detail – just driving to and from the Illinois state line, would consume much of my time, and I was planning to cut 2/3 of the way across Illinois. That’s a lot of ground to cover. I intended this trip to be a recon mission for an eventual return trip. (Sadly, that return trip never happened.)

This trip began in Vincennes with my dog and my good friend Michael along for the ride. We started at the center of this photo, where the bridge crosses the Wabash River. Despite the US 50 shields on the map, US 50 has bypassed Vincennes to the north for many years.

The Abraham Lincoln Bridge that connects Indiana to Illinois here was built in 1933. It’s easy to find photos of this lovely bridge on the Internet – just search on “Vincennes bridge” in Google Image Search. But all the photos are from the Indiana side. Now, perhaps for the first time on the Internet, here are photos from the Illinois side.

Lincoln Memorial Bridge

I couldn’t decide which of these two photos I liked better, so I’m sharing them both.

Lincoln Memorial Bridge

Before 1933, US 50 crossed into Illinois on a different bridge a little to the north. This 1909 postcard images shows that it had a steel arch truss portion and a wooden covered portion.

The old bridge itself was quite a contraption. At its center was a swing bridge which pivoted 90 degrees to allow boats to pass. Originally, wooden covered bridges connected the swing bridge to both shores. In researching this bridge at my favorite bridge site, bridgehunter.com, I found these postcard images that show how the bridge evolved.

In this image, a covered bridge stands on the Illinois side and a bowstring arch swing bridge stands in the middle. By this time, however, the covered bridge on the Indiana side had been replaced with two bowstring arch spans, probably on the same piers and abutments.

Finally, the Lincoln Memorial Bridge was built. The two bridges coexisted for a while. By this time the wooden covered spans had been replaced by Parker through trusses. The swing bridge had been updated with what looks to me to be two pony Warren trusses with verticals.

The blue line on the aerial image below shows where the old bridge used to be and how the road curved a bit on the Illinois side. Notice that the old road is still there.

It’s a brick road!

Brick segments of old US 50

The faint blue line on this aerial image shows the road’s path from the shore. Whoever owns the property now parks his car on old US 50! From the air, it looks like the old bridge’s approach is still there at the shoreline. I would have loved to see if doing so had not meant trespassing.

The road leading to the old bridge site on the Vincennes side is brick, too – check out the lower right quadrant of this aerial photo.

Back to the Illinois side. Here’s old US 50 westbound to where it merges with current US 50.

Brick segments of old US 50

Check out how this brick road was made to curve.

Brick segments of old US 50

Ten feet above the old brick road, along the newer Old US 50, is this memorial to Abraham Lincoln and his family as they first entered Illinois near this spot.

Lincoln memorial

Next: We pass quickly through Lawrenceville, Sumner, Olney, and Noble, to come upon three old bridges on a long abandoned section of US 50.

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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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