Indianapolis: Washington Street and National Road Bridges

When the town of Indianapolis was platted in 1821, the largest street in the new town was Washington Street. That has been discussed here earlier. When the National Road came to Indianapolis, it also used Washington Street. But when the National Road crossed White River leaving Indianapolis to the west, it did so on a route that wasn’t Washington Street. The road curved slightly north, around 15 degrees or so, and crossed the White River perpendicularly. The bridge put in place would be a covered bridge, built in the 1830s.

The National Road then continued westward on its journey to Terre Haute and Vandalia, Illinois. I have mentioned elsewhere that if Abraham Lincoln had had his way in Illinois just a few years earlier, the National Road wouldn’t follow what is now US 40 to Vandalia and St. Louis, but what is now US 36 to Springfield and who knows where. But I digress.

The slight jog in the road between West Street and the river would be called National Road. The landing point on the west bank of the river would be roughly where the old Washington Street bridge in White River State Park lands on the west bank.

In the 1860s or 1870s, I haven’t been able to completely nail this down as yet, Washington Street itself was extended to White River. A bridge over the river was built in a straight line with Washington Street, landing on the west bank in a three way point with the National Road bridge. This created two bridges across the river at the same point.

It continued this way until 1904, when a new Washington Street bridge was built in place of the old one. At the same time, the National Road bridge, having been standing for 80+ years, was removed, severing the street called National Road. This street would be renamed, confusingly, Washington Avenue.

This new bridge wouldn’t last long. January 1913, and the brand new Washington Street bridge would be washed away in a flood. Newspaper articles of the time, trying to nail down the cause of the washout, blame was placed on design, construction, and even the taxpayers of Indianapolis for not spending more money on the bridge in the first place. (The Indianapolis Star called taxpayers of Indianapolis and Marion County “cheap taxpayers and the blame for the flood disaster shouldered on the trusting public.” – Letter to the editor, Indianapolis Star.) The current “old” Washington Street bridge was built as a replacement. At the time, this was built by Marion County, as the state had no organization to build any roads for itself. It wouldn’t be until 1919 that this would change.

With the coming of White River State Park in the mid-1980s, Washington Street was rerouted south to skirt the railroads that had been in place since the 1850s. This would cause the old bridge to become a pedestrian walkway through the park, and Washington Avenue to (eventually) be completely removed from the city street inventory.

4 thoughts on “Indianapolis: Washington Street and National Road Bridges

  1. Great article, I just have a minor correction: Washington Street extended to the river prior to the 1860s or 1870s. In 1849, a fire station was built at what was described as “the point between Washington Street and the National Road.” And in November of 1855, there was a fire and the newspaper article said that its location was, “at the old ferry house, at the lower end of Washington Street, near the river.” There was no bridge yet, but Washington Street apparently did go down to the river, in those early days.

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