The National Road in Western Indiana, Revisited

The Jim Grey Page ē Roads


Putnam County

I have a confession to make. I think that Indiana's National Road is at its most interesting in Putnam County. So many good old alignments still exist!

But the first sight along the road in Putnam County is no old alignment; rather, it's this old house.

Old house on the National Road

Before I make any road trip, I trace the route along the aerial images on Google Maps or Bing Maps to see if I can find any old alignments. I also break out my vintage maps and old road guides to look for clues about where the road used to go.

I came upon a single page from a 1913 Goodrich Route Book that includes a map of the National Road between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. I scanned that page into my computer and superimposed the current map of US 40 from Bing Maps. The image below shows the overlay, with the National Road and US 40 corridor highlighted in light green. Itís a little hard to make out, but the old route is black and the modern route is orange. As you might expect, the 1913 road isnít quite as straight as the modern road. But in a couple places in Putnam County, the old road differs heavily. Notice the major differences near Putnamville and Reelsville.

US 40 was widened to 4 lanes across Indiana starting in the late 1930s. The work was done about 1940 or maybe a little later. The widening had the sad effect of destroying much of the road's original path across the state. Old maps suggest that the original road meandered a little bit along its way. The modern highway is straight and flat wherever it can be; its curves are gentle and wide.

Even though Iíve visited US 40 in western Indiana more than once and thought I knew it well, Iím glad I still traced the route this time. I noticed an old alignment Iíve missed every time before. Itís in Putnam County at CR 400 E, about a mile and a half west of Mt. Meridian. The image below shows it. Iíve marked it with green arrowheads because much of it is hard to make out. This is a prime example of how the old road meandered a little.

When I got there, I found an old road, all right Ė brick! Woohoo, a brick National Road alignment in Indiana!

Brick National Road/US 40 alignment

Unfortunately, itís on private property, so I couldnít walk it. I sure wish I could have, because an old motel is standing along the old road. Like a nincompoop, I failed to photograph it. A 2008 photo of the sign is here, and a postcard image of the motel in its happier days is here. I didnít notice the sign while I was out here; is it gone, or did I just miss it?

I have a 1922 Automobile Blue Book, a route guide that gives turn-by-turn directions between cities. It says that the National Road between Indianapolis and Terre Haute was ďpavement and concrete [from Terre Haute east] to Brazil; [then] 31 miles gravel.Ē The guide places Mt. Meridian at 21.7 miles east of Brazil, well within the gravel section.

This strip map from a 1925 Mohawk-Hobbs guide to the National Old Trails Road (which followed the National Road across Indiana) shows that the road was paved in brick from about Mt. Meridian to Putnamville. Indeed, it shows that the whole road had been paved in concrete, brick, or asphalt by then, except for about a mile of gravel near Putnamville. (Thanks to fellow roadgeek Dave Paul for the image. Check out some of his other historic maps and road guides.)

So these bricks were laid between 1922 and 1925. They didnít see many years of use, though, as the current alignment of US 40 was built here by 1939. Iím sure that has a lot to do with their good condition today.

Brick National Road/US 40 alignment

Just before US 40 reaches Putnamville, a road branches away. The sign on the corner calls it CR 35 E, but all the maps call it CR 550 S. Whichever name is right, itís merely an alter-ego for this old alignment of US 40 and the National Road.

On the northwest corner stands the Walker Motel, now efficiency apartments. The sign is often photographed.

Walker Motel

This right-of-way marker stands near where the new and old alignments diverge. This was almost certainly placed when US 40 was rerouted to its current alignment here by 1939.

Indiana right-of-way marker

Here's where the old road branches.

Old US 40/Natl Rd alignment, Putnam County

The old road snakes around behind the motel and soon crosses Deer Creek on this 1925 bridge. Its deck is only 20 feet wide, narrow by modern standards. Notice the concrete road leading up to the bridge.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

Here's a shot of the bridge from its west end.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

I stood on the bridge for quite some time taking photographs, but I never encountered another car. Why canít they put railings like this on bridges today?

Old US 40 bridge

I tried to get a photo of this bridge's arches, but the bank was very steep. This was the best I could do. I understand that this bridge is a real beauty.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

I read somewhere that you can still see evidence of the previous bridge, but I couldn't see it. The previous bridge was built in 1891. When this bridge was built, the old bridge was simply moved around the corner to where CR 25 reaches Deer Creek. I didn't know this when I made my trip or I would have driven around to photograph it, but you can see photos of it at this link.

The concrete was poured sometime between 1922 and 1924, but US 40 was moved to its current route here by 1939. It might have been covered over in asphalt otherwise, and this link to the past would have been lost.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

The road seems to widen when it emerges from the woods, but thatís only because weeds are not overgrowing the edges. This shot is as close as it gets to what this major highway was like almost 90 years ago when this concrete was new.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

Here's where this alignment ends.

Former NR/US 40 alignment

Shortly the road passes through Putnamville and then by the Putnamville Correctional Facility. The prison uses a short remnant of the original road. It appears just north of US 40 on the aerial image below.

I would love nothing more than to stop one day and walk this old alignment. Given that this is a prison area I won't do it without permission from the Indiana Department of Corrections, but I imagine such permission is hard to come by. Fortunately, I had the road to myself when I passed through, so I slowed way down to snap this crooked shot, which shows how the older road rolled with the terrain. The road was paved in asphalt here, but in a fleeting glance I noticed that where the old road emerges from the fill on which the current road is built it retains its 1920s concrete surface.

State prison alignment of National Road

This little road is about three miles west of the state prison. I've noticed it on aerial imagery before, but for reasons I can't recall have always assumed it wasn't part of the road's old alignment. But the National Road route maps on the excellent 125 M to B blog say that it is part of the old alignment.

So I stopped to look this time. The modern road made for an especially lovely scene where this old alignment turns off.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana

Here's where you turn off to access the old alignment.

Itty-bitty old US 40/NR alignment

Sure enough Ė concrete!

Itty-bitty old US 40/NR alignment

Here's where this segment ends at its west end.

Itty-bitty old US 40/NR alignment

The National Road and US 40 have has undergone major reroutings twice around the little community of Reelsville. This aerial image from Bing Maps shows both alignments. I highlighted in green the route from the 1913 map I shared earlier; in red the later route, which was built in about 1923; and in yellow where the two routes overlap. The modern route, built around 1940, cuts across the bottom of the image.

This is the alignmentsí eastern end. A roadsleuthing tip: Whenever you see a road branch off like this, curving sharply almost immediately, you may have come upon an old alignment. The curve was added after the new alignment was built so that the road didnít fork, which would have been awkward for anyone wanting to turn left off the old highway.

Old alignment US 40 & National Road

The old road is in pretty good shape, as this eastbound photo shows. It was originally concrete, but has since been covered with asphalt.

Old US 40 alignment

Hereís where the yellow, red, and green roads intersect on the aerial image above. The road to the left and the road ahead did not exist in 1913.

Old US 40 alignment

This building, which looks like an old gas station to me, stands on the northeast corner of this intersection. Itís for sale.

Old US 40 alignment

After you turn the corner and crest the hill, you come upon Big Walnut Creek. A modern bridge was built here a few years ago, but an older bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been preserved.

Luten bridge

I wrote about this old alignment two years ago. The bridge hadnít been restored yet and was in terrible shape.

Bridge along the National Road, Reelsville

The railing and arch were crumbling.

Bridge along the National Road, Reelsville

The arch has been repaired and the deck and railing replaced. I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about this restoration. I'm very, very happy to see the bridge preserved, but wish that its entire original deck and railings didn't have to be sacrificed in the process.

Luten bridge

The new railing is remarkably like the original, though. Itís also interesting to see the concrete deck surface Ė the old deckís asphalt surface was certainly layered over original concrete.

Luten bridge

This plaque tells why the bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places Ė it is a Luten bridge. Daniel B. Luten was a pioneer designer and builder of reinforced concrete-arch bridges. He was awarded 30 bridge-building patents, the first in 1900, about the time his National Bridge Company began building bridges. (If you went to law school, you may know Daniel Luten from a landmark contract-law case involving a North Carolina bridge.) Dozens of Lutenís bridges still stand, and many of them are on the National Register. This one was built by the Luten Engineering Co., one of Lutenís later companies.

Luten bridge

This bridge was built in 1929 to replace a wooden covered bridge that stood where the current bridge now stands. By the time this bridge was built, the newer road alignment had been built to the south. So Putnam County was responsible for this road and had the bridge built. Thatís why the plaque lists the county commissioners Ė if it had been part of a state or US highway, the state of Indiana would have built it, and any plaque on it would read accordingly.

Hereís the old and new bridges in profile. I wonder why the new bridge was built higher on its south end. Check out the bridgeís open spandrels.

Luten bridge

Where the old alignment turns left and resumes its westerly journey, the road is gravel. This is as close as it comes to experiencing what Indianaís National Road was like 100 years ago.

Gravel National Road segment

Big Walnut Creek touches this old road in a couple places. From one of them, you can see both bridges.

Bridges

Shortly, a concrete road emerges out of nowhere. At one time, the 1923 alignment merged with the older alignment here, and the concrete road ran briefly through what is now woods (at left in the photo). I donít know why, but that portion of the 1923 alignment was torn out, probably when the modern US 40 alignment was built. In the aerial image shown near the beginning of this post, this is where the red and green merge to become yellow again on the left end of the image.

1920s concrete

This eastbound shot shows the character of the old concrete road. I never cease to marvel at how narrow old highways were.

1920s concrete on the National Road

I turned right around after taking the photo above and took this westbound shot. Here, the old highway is somebodyís driveway. One of these days, Iíd like to find out who owns this land and ask permission to walk and photograph the old highway as far as it goes.

Old National Road as somebody's driveway

Next, I went back and explored the 1920s alignment here, which has two sections. The eastern section is in pretty good shape up to where the older alignment turns away, but doesnít appear to get much maintenance west of there. It provides access to a few houses, but beyond them it fades away, as this photo shows.

Old US 40 alignment

This alignment used to be continuous, of course, but the current roadís right-of-way appears to have overlapped a few hundred feet of the older alignment, and when that happens, old road gets ripped out. The western section begins here.

Old US 40, Putnam County

This section is badly overgrown end to end. The road has gotten very little maintenance and is broken and potholed Ė but thatís not too bad for concrete poured 86 years ago. If it werenít for a couple houses along this road, Iíd call this abandoned. 

Old US 40, Putnam County

Soon the road crosses Big Walnut Creek over this bridge. The deck and railings are in poor condition.

Old US 40, Putnam County

I took this photo of the bridge from US 40ís current alignment.

Old US 40 alignment

This is where the 1923 alignment ends, curving left to a T intersection with US 40. It used to curve to the right, through what is now woods, and flow into the older National Road alignment as shown earlier.

Old US 40, Putnam County

This great pair of old alignments ends almost at the Clay County line.

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3 Putnam County ē 4 Clay County ē 5 Vigo County

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Created 1 January 2010.
These pages, including text and photographs, are copyright 2010 by Jim Grey. (Replace # with @ if you click that link to send me e-mail.)
Maps are screen shots from Bing Maps. All copyrights acknowledged.