US 40 – Knightstown to Dunreith

1937. The first national highway in Indiana is about to be moved for the sake of safety. It hadn’t been a major problem for almost 80 years. It was the point where the National Road crossed the Pennsylvania Railroad at Dunreith. It was a dangerous crossing, made even more so by the fact that the state had another state road in the area crossing the tracks in almost the same spot. That road was SR 3. The solution to the problem would create an “out in the middle of nowhere” overpass, move a river, and would add to making the Old National Road a four lane highway across the entire state.

1937 ISHC Map of US 40 in Henry County.

The plan was put in place in 1937. Three projects were put into action by James D. Adams, head of the Indiana State Highway Commission. Two projects involved SR 21 and US 27, and will be covered in a later post. The project that we are concerned with involves both US 40 and SR 3. The US 40 part of the project would move the highway to north of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Knightstown and Dunreith. The tracks, in place since the mid-1850’s, crossed the original National Road twice in that span: once east of Knightstown, once west of Dunreith.

By 1937, the crossing at Knightstown had been replaced with an overpass, due to the railroad having elevated the entire line through Knightstown. The problem was that the state was planning making US 40 a four lane divided highway across the entire state, and the PRR bridge in question was two lanes wide with a center bridge support. That center bridge support had been a traffic problem anyway, but having to rebuild the bridge was not in the cards. Besides, rebuilding the bridge only eliminated one problem that existed between Knightstown and Dunreith.

According to the Richmond Item of 04 May 1937, described the relocation of US 40 as follows. “A two lane highway is planned between Knightstown and Dunreith. Each lane will be separated by about 20 feet. Motorists will all travel the same direction on each stretch of highway.” In my mind, I can’t be sure if the newspaper is talking about two lanes in each direction, or a rather large road sometimes called a “Super 2.”

But there was another thing that would become part of this project. It was best summed up by the opening paragraph of an article in the Greenfield Reporter of 02 August 1939: “Usual procedure is to build a bridge over a river, but at Knightstown the State Highway Department built a bridge, and is proceeding to put a river under it.” The Big Blue River, which is just east of Knightstown, was actually moved for the project. The old river bed was where the now US 40 turns slightly northeast to go around the railroad tracks that are, ironically, no longer there.

Google Map Image, snipped 14 July 2019, showing the area east of Knightstown, Indiana where the Big Blue River and Historic National Road cross, and crossed. The old riverbed ran approximately where the word “Historic” is located near the center of the snippet.

The other piece to this whole puzzle that I have mentioned several times is SR 3 at Dunreith. At the time, SR 3 met US 40 at what is now SR 3 and Old National Road. The railroad didn’t cross SR 3, since it multiplexed with US 40 to just east of the location of the US 40 crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad. SR 3 then turned north on what is now Old Spiceland Road. The plan to fix the SR 3 issue was to create an overpass of both the railroad and the new US 40 at Dunreith, connecting SR 3 south of US 40/Pennsylvania Railroad to what is now First Street in Dunreith.

Google Map image, snipped 14 July 2016, of Dunreith, Indiana.

The location of the relocated SR 3 is clearly visible on the above Google Map image. The gentle curve of the old road bed can still be seen. Even a decade after SR 3 was “rerouted” to (pretty close to) its pre-1940 alignment. The bridge of SR 3 over US 40 disappeared from INDOT Official Maps in 2007, 70 years from when it was planned.

As for the railroad that was a big part of this problem? Well, that’s a strange part of the story. The Pennsylvania Railroad ceased to exist on 1 February 1968. Its successor, the Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation Company, or Penn Central, took over the line, labeled as the Columbus Mainline. The first part of the Columbus Mainline to have been removed from service was done on 31 March 1976. It was 21.26 miles of track from Charlottesville to Cambridge City, passing through Knightstown and Dunreith. The very next day, the Penn Central would then cease to exist as it became part of the Consolidated Rail Corporation, or Conrail. (Although there WERE some Penn Central tracks owned by Penn Central [legally] until 1981 in Indiana. Conrail took the Penn Central as a company, they just didn’t take all of its property.) The rest of the Columbus Mainline would be abandoned as part of Conrail.

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