The City of Indianapolis has, for a very long time, known as “The Circle City.” It’s not hard to figure out why just looking at a map. The town of Indianapolis was planned that way by Alexander Ralston back in 1821. But the Circle (originally called Circle Street) was not designed to be the major focal point, street wise, in the new plat. That honor went to the street one block south of the Circle: Washington Street.
The original plat of the town of Indianapolis, called the “Mile Square” due to its size, included 26 streets. All but four of these would be named after states. Four more were added when the town began to expand past the mile square. The added streets would be called North, South, East and West. Almost all of the streets were 90 feet wide, with the exceptions of Circle, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington. Circle was 80 feet wide, the Carolinas were 60. I will get back to Washington Street shortly.
It is not a stretch to think that Washington Street is the widest street downtown because of the National Road. It is a logical assumption. Unfortunately, it is not the correct assumption. Mr. Ralston decided that Washington Street would be platted at 120 feet wide. He also decided that both the state house, and the county court house, would front onto this major thoroughfare. That made the focal point of the new town this major street.
Due to a quirk in the laying out of the town, the entire mile square, although not intentional, is actually out of kilter with the cardinal directions. The center of the city is actually tilted to the east about 2 1/2 degrees. When the city first expanded to the east, Washington Street would be corrected so that, at least right outside of the mile square, it was a due east-west street. When the survey for the National Road came through Indiana in 1837, it was logical to use Alexander Ralston’s centerpiece of the capitol city. Since the street was already planned to be the widest one in the town, it made the National Road a more grand thoroughfare.
Washington Street has maintained that “grand thoroughfare” feel throughout its almost 200 year history. Until the coming of the interstates in the 1960s and 1970s, it remained one of the widest roads in Indianapolis. When it became US 40 in 1926, it allowed the state to make it the jewel of the highway system through Central Indiana. I live one mile from the Hancock-Marion County line, 10 miles from downtown Indianapolis, just south of Washington Street. Even out here, it varies from seven to nine lanes wide.