One of the important things in studying the transportation history of an area is studying the history of an area. The history of Indianapolis, originally a planned city, is one of those areas that takes extra study. Why? Looking at a map of the city shows a pretty organized collection of streets in straight lines. But nothing could be further from the truth. Subdivisions in the city were added as if they were going to be separate suburban towns. The only constant in the additions were the survey lines, since that was how property was sold early in the history of the town, and later the city.
One of things that this haphazard layout planning caused was streets that were sometimes not continuous from one mile to the next. Especially those streets that weren’t along those survey lines. In the early 1920’s, with the amount of automobile traffic booming, it was becoming clear that there were places that would need expansion to accommodate that increasing number of cars and trucks.
Enter the Hoosier Motor Club (HMC). According to an article published in the Indianapolis Star on 31 December 1923, the HMC was making a recommendation to the city of Indianapolis about a collection of streets that should be expanded and straightened. The point was helped along by the (then) recent expansion of streets in Chicago. It was argued, most correctly, that the city of Chicago spent $10 million to expand streets in the 1920s that would have been much cheaper to complete had it be done a decade earlier.
The first two projects that the HMC had been working on, at that point, were two bridges in the city. One over the White River at Kentucky Avenue, and the other being Delaware Street over Fall Creek. The crossing of White River at that time had been a bridge roughly where Oliver Street is now. Kentucky Avenue ended, at that time, at this crossing point. After crossing the river, River Avenue was the “major” road connecting the river to points southwest through what was West Indianapolis. By 1931, the Kentucky Avenue bridge was put into place.
Attacking the HMC plan pictured above, let’s start with the New York Street arterial. As shown in the above 1931 map of the city, the line of New York Street, which today is a relatively straight line from downtown east, was anything but continuous. Again, this goes back to the way additions were made to the city. The street was a straight line from Keystone to Emerson Avenues at the time. (Survey lines are located at Keystone, Sherman and Emerson in this section.) It is also in a straight line from west of White River to Pogues Run. The HMC recommended that New York Street be reconstructed from Belmont Avenue to Emerson Avenue. While the route was straightened, relatively, from White River to Emerson Avenue, it would never reach, directly, Belmont Avenue.
Link: The Lafayette State Road In Downtown Indianapolis
Link: The Crawfordsville Pike, and Its Change in Marion County
Link: 1963: Indianapolis Traffic Changes That Weren’t
Link: Bicycling the Crawfordsville Pike
Speaking of Belmont Avenue, the HMC plan included widening that street from White River at the Crawfordsville Road/Lafayette Road/Emrichsville Bridge (what is now 16th Street, although the old bridge has been replaced by the Indiana State Highway Commission – as part of US 52 and US 136/SR 34 – within three decades of this plan) south to Raymond Street. While this street is mostly a two lane road to this day, it would be considered, into the 1960’s, to become part of the state highway system as SR 37.
The expansion of Shelby Street on the south side would be one project that was accomplished early into the plan. One of the reasons from this had to do with the State Highway Commission. The “major” road through the area south of downtown was Madison Avenue. That street was, at the time of this map, a state route with the number SR 1. While the state didn’t have the power to maintain the road because it was in the city, the city was hesitant to expand that road because it carried a state route. Shelby Street was chosen to connect SR 1, later US 31, south of the city to the Michigan and National Roads one mile east of downtown. The less than arterial status of US 31 would continue until two points in history: 1) 1941 with the Greenwood/Southport bypass built starting at what is now East Street at Madison Avenue south to Smith Valley Road south of Greenwood, and 2) the 1958-1959 expansion and moving of Madison Avenue creating the Madison Avenue Expressway. The section from the new US 31 bypass southeast to Shelby Avenue would remain a two lane state highway, SR 431, until 1986, when it was expanded to five lanes before INDOT relinquished control of the road to the city.
Rural Street, so named due to the fact that, for the longest time, was outside the city limits and hence Rural, would be another recommended addition to the arterial program. The plan was to add to Rural Street from Brightwood north to 38th Street. At the time, and basically still in place today, Rural Street ended at the Big Four Railroad in Brightwood. There, a road to the northwest would connect to the survey line (Keystone Avenue) at 21st Street. With the construction of I-70 through the area, the road was moved to become Keystone Way connecting Keystone Avenue at 25th Street to Rural Street at I-70.
Two other streets that were part of the plan on the south side were Morris/Prospect Street and Raymond Street. The separation of Morris and Prospect Streets had more to do with survey correction lines than anything else. Every six miles, the survey would be “corrected” to conform with the system as a whole. Such a correction line was Shelby Street. Looking at any map of the city, one will notice that, most of the time, the streets on either side of that line don’t line up correctly. Raymond Street would be curved to make it one street on both sides of the correction. Morris Street would continue to Shelby Street, Prospect would start at that point going east. All three of these streets would be expanded to at least four lanes, creating roads crossing west to east across the south side.
The 10th Street corridor that was recommended would actually never be completed. After East Street/Central Avenue, 10th Street fell of the face of the map. The name is continued in fits and starts between Delaware Street and Central Avenue. The plan was for 10th Street to be connected between these two points, connecting the Lafayette/Crawfordsville Road (at Indiana Avenue) east to the border separating Center and Warren Townships (Emerson Avenue).
The 16th Street corridor would connect small streets to the arterial system recommended. For the longest time, 16th Street was incomplete between Indiana Avenue and Northwestern Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street). This section would not be connected until much later, and in this case as part of the state highway system (again, US 52 and US 136/SR 34).
The last section I want to cover is the West Street/Northwestern Avenue corridor. The corridor started at Morris Street in the south. This was mainly due to the fact that West Street south of that was not yet built, since the White River got in the way. Going north, the idea would be to connect to 30th Street. At one point, the state road that would follow the Michigan Road northwest out of the city would actually end state responsibility at 30th Street, with the state road being routed across 30th to Meridian Street.
Looking at a map of the city today, it’s not hard to see that quite a bit of this arterial plan was put into place, even if it seemed accidental. There were some changes in the plan with the creation of the one way street program in the city (especially with New York Street being shadowed by Michigan Street from White River to Emerson Avenue and beyond). As an aside, Michigan Street is a half-survey line, being halfway between two survey lines (1/2 mile south of 10th Street, a survey line). Some of these streets still, to this day, see a lot of traffic, even with the creation and completion of the interstate system in the 1960’s and 1970’s.