The Riley Highway

Indiana had been a very busy state when it came to roads built during the Auto Trail era. With the creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1919, the Auto Trails didn’t just disappear from the landscape. Many of them were absorbed into the new state highway system. For the longest time, the old highway names were still used along side the new state road numbers in those areas. But one would have thought that the coming of the state road would lead to the end of the creation of new named highways. That was far from what happened. These roads would still being created after the state entered the road building business. The logical question would have been “why bother?” One such named highway would be planned as the Riley Highway.

I covered part of this route when I discussed the coming of SR 9 to locations south of Greenfield. But what wasn’t covered was the actual plan of the complete route. Planning started for this highway in 1925, long after the ISHC had taken a lot of roads into its care. It was Summer 1925 when organizations started planning a “Jame Whitcomb Riley Memorial Highway” from Petoskey, Michigan, to Miami, Florida, through the poet’s hometown of Greenfield. Yes, you read that right. A cross country route through Greenfield.

Memberships in the organization was launched in Goshen in October 1925. (South Bend Tribune, 23 October 1925) It was hoped to sell 125 memberships at a cost of $25 a piece. The primary selling point of the road was that it would cut the travel from Michigan to Florida by nearly 600 miles compared to the already establish Dixie Highway. Strangely, the plan for the new named highway would use other Auto Trails that were already in place between Elkhart and Anderson. From Elkhart to Goshen, the Lincoln Highway would be used. The 110 miles between Goshen and Anderson would follow the route of the Hoosier Dixie Highway.

From Anderson to Greenfield, the plan was to use what was then SR 11 between the two cities via Pendleton. This had been the original Anderson-Greenfield State Road. South of Greenfield, the a collection of roads would be used to connect to Shelbyville, Hope and Seymour. South of Seymour, the Riley Highway would use what was then SR 1 to New Albany and Kentucky. The planned route had, for the most part, the benefit of already having been improved by the state of Indiana.

In my other post about the Riley Highway, I had mentioned that the route left south out of Greenfield using Franklin Street. This wasn’t entirely accurate. But the difference was not by much. According to the Hancock Democrat of 8 October 1925, signage was being posted along the Greenfield section of the new highway. These signs were posted along North Main Street, West Main Street, and South Riley Avenue. Part of this routing was to ensure that the highway bearing Riley’s name would pass by the homestead of the poet. From there, the highway would run west along what is now Tague Street to Franklin Street. From there, it was a relatively straight shot (as straight as could be accomplished in early Indiana!) to Fountaintown. A winding path would be followed from there to Shelbyville. From Shelbyville south, the road was relatively straight through Norristown and Hope, skirting to the east of Columbus, before curving to the southwest, then south, onward toward Seymour.

Shelby County would be an early adopter of the Riley Highway plan. The committee for the road had been put in place as early as mid-August, 1925. (Greenfield Daily Reporter, 15 August 1925) The committee included 36 businessmen from the Shelbyville area, and six residents of Fountaintown. Shelby County would have to come up with at least 100 memberships in the Riley Highway Association before there was even consideration of routing the road through Shelby County. These memberships cost either $10 a year or $25 for three years. One of the advantages that was touted for the Riley Highway was that the Fountaintown Road would become part of the state highway system. This wouldn’t happen until late 1931.

Marking of the route through Shelby County was started, according to the Shelbyville Republican, in October 1925. $2,500 was raised to sign and advertise the road through the county. (The Shelbyville Republican, as printed in the Greenfield Daily Reporter, 8 October 1925) “The road, designed to run from a point in Michigan to Miami, Florida, leads from Greeenfield, the boyhood home of Riley, into Shelby county. It comes from Fountaintown to Shelbyville, over what is known as the Greenfield road, and from here passes along the Norristown road, south and west to Hope.” Again, the selling point of the state highway system was used to raise the money. “It is figured that at the end of the three years the road would be taken over as a part of the State system of highways.” Along with marking the route, signs at all points of danger were also posted, as were curves along the route. The road was marked at road intersections along the way.

Backers of the road were many. According to the Greeenfield Daily Reporter of 26 August 1925, towns that had contributed to the plan were listed: Elkhart, Goshen, Warsaw, Wabash, Marion, Alexandria, Anderson, Pendleton, Shelbyville, Columbus, Seymour and New Albany. One sentence in the article is tinged with irony. “Every town and city in the State through which the road passes has contributed its quote of finances except Greenfield.”

Not all outside Indiana were onboard with the project either. An editorial in the Grand Rapids Press, republished in the South Bend Tribune of 14 May 1926, mentions that “Western Michigan had better make serious inquiry into the why and wherefore of the Indiana Riley Highway proposition before it subserviently hands over its Mackinaw trail designation and its established good will to the purposes of a one-man promotion scheme from another state.” It wasn’t finished there. “In the first place, it might be a wise precaution to send investigators into Indiana, to discoved (sic) what actual possibilities there are behind the optimistic ‘Riley highway’ plan to run another north and south road through that state. It is one thing to name a road and another to build it.” The editorial goes on to question what the ISHC would say about the project. “What does the Indiana state highway department say about this proposition? What does it say about the projected highway from Alexandria to Wabash, dodging the present state route?” The article ends with the question “wouldn’t cooperative work toward these highway linkings be a more practical and profitable plan for Michigan than the blind surrender of our Mackinaw trail with its traditions dating back to the romance of earliest Michigan history?”

Greenfield City Council voted in April 1926 for the improvement of “Riley avenue from Main street south to Tague street, and thence west on Tague street to the west corporate limits, by grading, draining and paving with cement or concrete in such manner and to such extent as may be ordered bu the county commissioners in a petition for improvement of this part of the proposed Riley highway, now pending before said Board.” (Hancock Democrat, 22 April 1926)

Though only parts of the ultimate route would be marked by the white and yellow bands of the Riley Highway, the name was used all over the state to give directions. Especially for the section from Greenfield south to Hope. A popular location in Shelby County was the Flat Rock Caves. Those caves were just off the Riley Highway at the Flat Rock River. The road is now Vandalia Road connecting Shelbyville to Geneva and Greensburg. (The road was originally part of the state road connecting Franklin to Greensburg.) The caves are still there, but have been closed for many years.

Ultimately, it looks like the national trail idea fell through. From what research I can gather, the Riley Highway designation was mostly only used from Pendleton to Seymour. This was especially true in Shelby County, which still maintains that as the name of the road, even though south of Shelbyville it is marked as SR 9. Most of the road can still be followed between these points, with a few places where the state replaced turns with curves. And, with the exception of Pendleton itself, and the section from Greenfield to Shelby County Road 750N, the route was, indeed, taken into the state highway system as SR 9.

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