National Road at Reelsville

1952 USGS topographic map of the Reelsville area.

When the National Road came to Indiana, part of the requirements for the building of the road was that it be in as straight a line a possible connecting Indianapolis to Vandalia, Illinois (then the capital of that state). Southwest of Indianapolis, the terrain got a little rough to be able to maintain a straight line. Especially in Putnam County. But the surveyors did a very good job in keeping it as straight a line as possible.

1864 map of southwestern Putnam County courtesy of the Library Of Congress. The National Road runs through the southern part of Section 19, the center of Sections 20 through 23. The Big Walnut Creek bridge that washed out in 1875 is in the eastern central portion of Section 20.

And so, the National Road chugged along for around four decades. In 1875, a bridge over Big Walnut Creek, southwest of Reelsville was washed out…and not replaced at the time. Since the National Road, at the time, belonged to a private company, they decided to reroute the road through the town of Reelsville. This would solve the connection problem, road wise, between Terre Haute and Indianapolis, but would create a few more while it was at it.

The Terre Haute & Richmond (TH&R) Railroad was chartered on 24 January 1847 to connect the two title cities through Indianapolis. By 1852, the TH&R had built a railroad connecting Terre Haute to Indianapolis. This railroad, near Reelsville, was to the north of Big Walnut Creek from where the National Road was, and connected to the town of Reelsville proper. There was even a station at Reelsville. On 6 March 1865, the Terre Haute & Richmond became the Terre Haute & Indianapolis.

The National Road replacement route took travelers up a long hill into Reelsville. At the town, the new road, which had been in place long before being used as a bypass, followed and crossed the TH&I several times before reconnecting to the original National Road. These railroad crossings were considered some of the worst in the state, especially due to the angle of the crossing.

1912 United States Postal Service map of southwestern Putnam county showing the roads around Reelsville. Notice that the National Road, marked as Mail Road RE 2 east of Reelsville, does continue after turning north to enter Reelsville proper. The old road did still contain houses, even though through traffic had been gone from the route for 37 years.

The Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad ceased to exist as a separate entity on 1 January 1905. That was the day that the TH&I, the St. Louis, Vandalia & Terre Haute, the Terre Haute & Logansport, the Logansport & Toledo and the Indianapolis & Vincennes merged to become the Vandalia Railroad Company. Among the items that were taken up by the new Vandalia was the crossings near Reelsville. Money was set aside in 1907 to correct the problem. By the end of 1912 (October to be exact), the Brazil Daily Times was reporting that no such work had been completed to date.

Part of the plan in 1912 was to return the original National Road route to use. According to the same article in the Brazil Daily Times, this would cut 1/2 mile off of the route then in use through Reelsville. And, the railroad crossing situation, with its inherent dangers, would be addressed…and partially eliminated. But, as with other well laid out plans, this did not go to schedule. At all.

The National Old Trails Road, an Auto Trail that, through Indiana, mostly followed the original National Road used the Reelsville cut off when it was created. The old route was still out of commission at Big Walnut Creek. This situation would not be resolved until after the (second) creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1919. ISHC surveyors were out in the field looking at ways to improve the situation at Reelsville, with the decision made that a bridge would be built in the same location that had been used over 80 years prior when the National Road, now called State Road 3, was built. The new bridge would be a concrete arch facility.

Even then, the new bridge for the National Road would take some time to get started. Over two years, as a matter of fact. Construction started on the replacement of the National Road in January 1922. The winter that year was relatively mild, allowing for construction to start very early in the year. But it was decided that the new route of State Road 3 would skirt the Pennsylvania Lines (the then operators, later owners, of what was the Vandalia Railroad) to the south, bringing the new National Road closer to the Big Walnut Creek.

Even then, the replacement route would only be in place for less than two decades. The Highway Commission made plans to make a true four lane highway across Indiana along what was then the US 40 corridor (which was original State Road 3 until the Great Renumbering of 1 October 1926). The new new road would take a straight course through the area south of Reelsville, the railroad and the old new path of SR 3/US 40. This realignment would occur in 1941.

Editor’s Note: This post took a long time to convince me to write. There are several subjects that I have been avoiding because they are MUCH better covered by others. In this case, my Co-Admin of the Facebook ITH Group, Jim Grey, covered it much better than I ever will. And, generally, he has done a great job covering the entire National Road. His post, “Puzzle solved: The National Road at Pleasant Gardens and Reelsville in Indiana,” served as the spring board for this post. The irony is that some articles that I posted in the ITH Facebook group led to the puzzles being solved for Jim. Such is the way of the world in this field. I recommend checking out Jim’s stuff when you get the chance. He is more of a road trip person, going out to see what’s on the ground. I tend to look more into the documented history of the same scenes.

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