Bicycling the Michigan Road

Toward the end of the 19th Century, and into the early 20th, a movement was underway in the United States called “the Good Roads Movement.” This movement led to a great many things that helped make the current transportation situation much better: state highway departments, Federal funding of roads, Auto Trails, hard surface roads, etc. But what is usually lost in the whole scheme of things is the fact that when the Good Roads movement started, motor vehicle transportation was not the primary concern. It started as a two pronged effort to improve the roads for two purposes: bicycles and mail delivery.

Most of the longer distance roads in the state had been given to toll road companies for maintenance. The idea was that the companies would take the money from tolls to keep the road in good condition. Unfortunately, most of the time these roads turned into a cash grab for the toll road owners. What started out as fairly good condition roads devolved into mud paths connecting distant points. Most of the toll roads turned into basically wider paths through the rural areas that were dusty in dry weather, and mud pits in wet. When bicycles started becoming more and more common, this was unacceptable. When the counties bought back the toll roads, money was tight and it didn’t get much better.

Throughout the mid-1890s, the Indianapolis News would publish articles of interest to bicyclists. Many of these articles covered routes for those riders to follow. Today’s subject is from the News of 18 April 1896, covering “Bicycle Route North,” or the old Michigan Road.

Keeping in mind that the Michigan Road was laid out in the 1830s, and designed for horse transport, the newspaper stated that “the Michigan road is rather in ill repute among cyclists, on account of the many bad hills which mark its pathway for several miles out of the city.” Due to these hills and valleys, the Michigan Road ended up with two reputations: 1) it was only recommended for expert hill climbers, and 2) the “Michigan road to the north is forgotten,” with cyclists using other roads to the north and “it is probably less used than any of the gravel roads leading out of the city.” The News commented that “wheelmen in this make a serious mistake, for there is no prettier trip leading out of Indianapolis than the one out over the Michigan road to Augusta, or even further.”

Indianapolis News, 18 April 1896, map showing routes to the north of Indianapolis.

The subject article goes on to describe the recommended route for cyclists to follow. This series of articles usually included the subject road out of the city, with another route back. This particular article starts by recommending that riders avoid the Michigan Road south of Fall Creek. They state that riders should start out of the city on Illinois Street, instead, “and it is only a run of four blocks across to the Michigan road.”

“Once beyond Fall Creek, the road becomes a hard, firm gravel road, which is in excellent condition.” The road, at the time, ran parallel to the street car tracks taking passengers to North Indianapolis. The first hill is just north of the suburb. “The first hill is not so bad. It is simply a forerunner of what is to come.”

After running along the west edge of Crown Hill Cemetery, a big hill to the north of the cemetery is encountered. A small valley, “before passing the Country Club lane,” gives a little respite before more hill climbing begins. There were two more hills, considered “bad,” before reaching the Central Canal. Between the canal and White River, the road narrows quite a bit. The bridge over the White River is said to be an old covered bridge with a deck, while being replaced that spring, was in bad condition. The News reports that until the deck is replaced “the rider going at a good rate of speed will think he has run foul of a bucking bronco before he gets through.”

After crossing the river proper, the river bottom of about 1/4 mile was crossed. This is where the International School is today. Then begins another big hill. The road in that section as in rough shape, that will “try the mettle of any rider indeed.” Once at the top of the hill, however, the view of the White River was very beautiful. At the top of the hill, a “dirt road turns west and then south running along the river for a short distance, then swinging out through Brooklyn Heights, and connecting with the Meyers gravel road.” This is now Cold Spring Road.

Two more short hills would be encountered before reaching Mount Pleasant (Mount Alliance Post Office) at what is now Grandview Avenue. From there, the old road is listed as being tree lined, and therefore, a great place to ride on a hot day with all the shade. Many crossroads are encountered before reaching Crooked Creek (at the current Kessler Boulevard). After Crooked Creek, the old road then starts across farm fields, losing what is considered, by the newspaper, all of its beauty. The road at Crooked Creek leads to Crow’s Nest, if the rider so chooses to follow that road.

1.5 miles north of Crooked Creek is the town of Augusta. The town was the namesake of the toll company that had owned the road prior to Marion County buying it back. Just before Augusta is the New Augusta turnpike, which is now 71st Street west, and Westlane Road east. Going west, the road goes to, get this, New Augusta, which started as “Augusta Station” on the Lafayette & Indianapolis Railroad. It is stated that going into Augusta, however, is recommended “as there is an excellent well in front of one of the stores. There is also a blacksmith shop, who says he knows something about a bicycle.”

From there, “the ride north over the Michigan road can be continued for many a mile if desired. The road is in excellent condition in this county, but is reported to be badly cut up in Hamilton county.”

The article then goes into side journeys from the Michigan Road. Those are beyond the scope of this entry. But I will be covering more of these articles in the future, and covering the side journeys listed in separate blog posts.

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