Indiana Roads Before the 1919 State Highway Commission

In the early 20th century, the Good Roads Movement was taking hold in the United States. This had led to a number of Auto Trails throughout the country. In January 1912, the newly formed American Automobile Association held a “Federal Aid Good Roads Convention” in Washington, DC. It was so successful that another one was planned for 6 March 1913. The goal was to encourage Congress to appropriate money to help build better roads across America. Success in this goal occurred in 1914.

Then, there is Indiana. One of the requirements in the Federal Aid program is that Washington would only deal with a State authority for distribution of funds. No more local roads authority would have access to federal funds. The law creating the Indiana State Highway Commission was passed in 1917. This created a “Market Highway System,” which consisted of five roads to be helped with state aid. In 1919, the law was updated, allowing the creation of a complete state road system connecting “every county seat and town with a population of more than 5,000.”

But what exactly did the State Highway Commission inherit when it was created? Indiana, at that time, consisted of a patch work of roads maintained by either county or local authorities. There were some remaining toll pikes, but these were being taken over by county authorities as the others had been. Maintenance depended greatly on the authority in control. This led to some very spotty road conditions…at best. This map of Marion County in 1917 shows the sporadic nature of maintenance levels. (

Part of what made things interesting, when it came to maintenance authority, is that every road in Indiana, with the exception of the long distance roads that became toll roads, was maintained by one of the 1,016 government townships that exist in Indiana. (The distinction is made here about the “government township.” There are two types of township in Indiana. One is the government township, which can take any shape and contains a government authority. The other is a survey township, which is [usually] a six mile by six mile square separated by “township lines” on the north and south, and “range lines” on the east and west.)

This led to some interesting road conditions, to say the least. Indiana had, at the time, a “three mile law.” This law required the commissioners of a county to construct a road “when 50 freeholders of a township petition” the county “for the construction of a road not more than three miles in length.” This would then require the county to charge the cost to everyone in the township, whether they use, or even have access to, the road being asked for by petition.

Townships could decide to improve and maintain roads on their own. This leads to interesting situations like a nice gravel road coming to a screeching halt at a township boundary, only to be a dirt road on the other side of that line. An example is in the linked map above. Morris Street (a major east-west road on the south of downtown, mostly on the west side) is listed as “gravel or improved.” At least in Wayne Township. Once across the Center-Wayne Township Line, also known as Belmont Street, Morris Street becomes listed as “ordinary or mud.” (Getting back to the two kinds of townships, literally right in the middle of Center Township is a place where Morris Street is replaced by Prospect Street. This happens at a Range Line, today known as Shelby Street.)

After 1900 or so, as longer sections of road were improved, the county would take the responsibility of maintenance. Basically, the township would pay for the upgrade of the road. Then the county would come in and take over maintenance from that point. This led to a mixed bag of maintenance authorities. It was into this situation that the Indiana State Highway Commission was placed in the middle of to allow the use of federal funds for construction and maintenance. Starting with five roads in 1917 to the current ~12,000 miles of highways today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s