National Road in Indiana, Revisited

Almost everyone in Indiana (at least with the slightest amount of interest) can tell you where the National Road is across the state. What is not as well known is the differences between what was laid out and what was planned in the first place. And it all starts in Wheeling, Virginia. (I know, it’s West Virginia. But at the time of the creation of the National Road, it was still Virginia.)

This story starts far to the east of the state of Indiana. The Cumberland Road was created to connect the Potomac River, at Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River at a point between what would become Steubenville, OH, and Wheeling, VA (WV). The act to build this road was approved by President Thomas Jefferson on 29 March 1806. By 1818, the road would reach Wheeling. This would turn Wheeling into the jumping off point for access to Ohio and Indiana. The Ohio River, from Wheeling, was navigable at least as far as Louisville, Kentucky. Except in the winter.

This would lead Congress, on 15 May, 1820, to appropriate $10,000 to lay out a road between Wheeling and a point on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and the mouth of the Illinois River. The stipulation is that the road be 80 feet wide and on a straight line.

This act would be put in place right about the same time that Indiana decided to locate its capitol city in the central part of the state. Keep in mind that, when Indiana became a state, most of the territory of Indiana didn’t actually “belong” to the state of Indiana. A treaty in 1818 finally allowed non-Native settlement up to the line of the Wabash River, with the exception of the area south 34.54 between where the Eel (Logansport) and Salamonie Rivers (Lagro) meet the Wabash. (This was known as the Great Miami Reserve.) This treaty would allow the state of Indiana create a central location for the seat of government.

The decision was made to locate the new capitol, eventually named (after what seemed like hundreds of suggestions) Indianapolis, one mile east of the mouth of Fall Creek at White River. This would put the “straight line” of the National Road in the act mentioned above some fifteen miles south of the new town. It was at this point the Indiana General Assembly, meeting at Corydon, would send a memorial to the federal Congress asking that the planned “Western National Road” be moved north to enter the future capitol. It was also mentioned that “at no other place along the White River for a distance of thirty miles was there so good a location for a bridge.*”

In 1825, an amendment to the 1820 National Road act, offered by Jonathan Jennings (Congressman and first Governor of Indiana), stating that the road should be changed to connect the capitols of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The new survey of the National Road was completed in 1827. This survey was under the direction of Jonathan Knight (namesake of Knightstown, Indiana) and Joseph Schower. The original field notes of the survey are available in both Washington, DC, and at the State Library in Indianapolis. The field notes are in four volumes, all in Knight’s handwriting. The survey showed that “the road was to run due west from the Ohio line to Indianapolis, passing through the towns of Richmond and Centerville in Wayne County.” There were two roads in Wayne County that were near the road, Salisbury and Vandalia, that were left off the survey, and have since disappeared from any maps.

Along the original surveyed path of the National Road in Indiana, there were only four towns: Richmond, Centerville, Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Between the last two, the road was surveyed in as close a straight line as possible. This meant missing the county seats of Hendricks, Putnam and Clay Counties (Danville, Greencastle and Bowling Green). Before you ask, Greenfield, the county seat of Hancock County, and on the National Road, was declared the county seat on 11 Apr 1828, exactly 41 days after the effective creation of the county. This puts Greenfield in the path of the National Road survey. But since it wasn’t there when Knight and Schower went through, it wasn’t part of the survey.

One of the things that Indiana did early in its history is create a system of state roads. This was done between 1821 and 1823. These roads were originally paid for from the “three percent fund,” the amount the state would receive from the Federal Government upon sales of government land. Most of these roads were planned to have a 48′ right-of-way. There was, on a map of 1827, one of these state roads on the map between Richmond and Terre Haute, through Indianapolis. This road was to have a 100′ right-of-way. The surveys were complete for this state road, but very little construction was done before the National Road surveys were done.

The big difference between the state road and the National Road is the construction standards. Essentially, the state roads were little more than open paths. No real finishing, just trees cut down to make a path. The National Road had very specific standards. The right-of-way was to be 80 feet, trees removed, ground graded and bridges and culvert built of stone.

On 5 July 1827, the surveyors reached central Marion County and Indianapolis, which had about 700 inhabitants at the time. At that point in history, the principal market town for the up-and-coming Hoosier capitol was Cincinnati. The direct route to that Ohio city was the Brookville State Road. The Brookville Road ended at the old Centerville State Road (and hence, in Marion County, the National Road later), taking the latter road from what is now Ewing Street (first street on the south side of Washington Street west of Sherman Drive) into Indianapolis. The surveyors noted that the road would connect to Washington Street on the east side of Indianapolis (which, at the time was East Street), and follow that thoroughfare across to the west boundary of town (then, you guessed it, West Street).

The surveyors continued west of Indianapolis on 10 September 1827. It was to be a continuation of Washington Street west of the town, with the slight jog to allow for a 356′ bridge over White River, to be built at a right angle to said river. This would cause the National Road to turn 15 degrees north of west just one block west of the town limits. The National Road bridge would cross to a point on the west bank that would be a straight line from that bank to Washington Street in town. The old Washington Street bridge, in White River State Park, starts on the west bank of the river in the same location. There were only two signs of settlement in Marion County west of Indianapolis along the surveyors path, both of which were near Eagle Creek: the house of a Mr. Harris east of the creek, and the house of Mr. William Holmes west of it.

From that point, a total of ten to 13 clearings, each being on the bank of a creek or river, between the Marion-Hendricks county line and Terre Haute were noted. Finally, in the middle of October, the surveyors hacked and slashed their way through heavy forests and swampy lowlands to a point five miles east of Terre Haute. This was the location of Jenck’s Distillery. The road was to be placed a few feet to the south of this location. Two days later, the survey connected to the east end of Wabash Street. The road would use that street to the Wabash River. Within three days, the survey would be complete to the Illinois-Indiana State Line.

Construction would begin in 1829 in Indiana. In 1831, $18,000 was finally allocated for a bridge at Indianapolis. That bridge would finally be removed, still in good condition, in the early twentieth century. (As a side note, the bridge that replaced it would last less than a decade before it was destroyed by the Flood of 1913. After which, the current “old” Washington Street bridge was built.)

Around two decades later, the federal government would give the road back to the states. By 1851, the entire National Road would be paralleled from Terre Haute to Richmond by steam railroads (Terre Haute & Indianapolis and the Indiana Central, both to become Pennsylvania Railroad lines.) 150+ years later the railroad is gone and most of the traffic has been siphoned off to Interstate 70. But the old road still serves the local communities which came into being due to its construction.

Information for this post came from the book “National Road in Indiana,” written by
Lee Burns, published in 1919.

This book is available at the following link: The National Road in Indiana

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