First Steps Toward Indiana’s Interstate System

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. This law created what is now known as the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” The major provision in the law was that the “interstates” would be controlled access roads, connecting major points throughout the United States, and be paid for using 90% Federal money. As opposed to the 50-50 split that had been used to finance road projects to that point. The Act of 1956 was the third such Federal Aid road law passed to that point, with others in 1916 and 1921.

When the law passed, it was believed by many people that it was going to be money spent on upgrading and/or the most important highways in each state. An “interstate highway system” had been designated in 1944. This system used mainly US Highways to ensure the ability to get personnel and materials throughout the country to help in the war effort. This was the idea that started the Eisenhower Administration on its way to creating the interstate system we know today. In Eisenhower’s case, however, it was trying to traverse the United States across the Lincoln Highway in 1919.

Map of the Interstate Highway System as of July 1956. This shows the various highways, at the time, deemed of National Importance. This map was created right after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

It was, however, made quite well known that the new interstate system would be modeled after the Autobahn in Germany, a national system of controlled access and high speed highways. General Eisenhower came to appreciate that highway system when he was exposed to them as World War II in Europe was on the way to ending.

When the routes of the interstates, and their numbers, were released for general knowledge, the present system (with the exception of I-69 southwest of Indianapolis) was pretty much in place. One thing that wasn’t as nailed down was the route of I-65, at least according to news stories at the time. The Seymour Tribune of 19 October 1957 announced that the new highway that would traverse the are was to be called Interstate 65. But, it was also announced in the very same article that “interstate 65 is to start at South Bend and run south through Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery and on to Mobile, Ala. It is scheduled to run through much of the area now served by U. S. 31 and 31-W.”

Interstate 65 never made it to South Bend.

Less than a month later, the Indiana Highway Department announced their 1958 construction plans, mainly concerning the new Interstate system. On the plan was a bypass of Richmond, which would become part of I-70; a new highway through Marion and Shelby Counties that would replace US 421 and become I-74; and three sections of what would become part of I-65 – from Jeffersonville through Clark County, east of Seymour through Jackson County, and from northwestern Marion County to west of Lebanon. Another major project that year was to be the widening of the US 31 Kokomo bypass…a subject that had long been a thorn in the side of the agency running highways in Indiana over the years.

Indianapolis News, 26 September 1957.
Map showing new highway numbers
assigned to the interstate system in

The interstate system was still in flux through the first several years of its existence. While most of the general routing was already in place, there were some questions about additions and where some of the roads would actually run.

A look at the Indianapolis News map of 26 September 1957 (shown at left) shows that Interstate 64 was to take a very more northern route across Indiana. The original plan was to take I-64 along the US 50 corridor from New Albany to Vincennes. And this make sense. Two of the other “major” east-west US Highway corridors were already being mirrored by the new interstate system. I-90 traversed roughly the same area as US 20, and I-70 plays tag with US 40 for almost its entire length across the United States. An interstate along the US 50 corridor through the state would have fit right in.

In the end, I-64 followed a minor US highway corridor. It found itself along the route of US 460, a daughter route to US 60 which runs through northern Kentucky. US 460 started in Virginia Beach, close to the beginning of the new I-64, and ended in St. Louis, the ending of the same interstate. In I-64’s case, it would basically replace US 460 across most of the states it traversed. Because the new I-64 would take a southern straighter route across Indiana, the Indiana Highway Department did throw Vincennes a bone, if you will. US 50 would have a bypass of the city built. While not part of the Interstate system, it did help with traffic flow…and would allow a bigger highway to be built later should the need arise.

A question comes up when it comes to the interstate numbering across Indiana. If US 50 was to be mirrored by I-64, why wasn’t I-64 actually to be numbered I-60? A quick glance at a map of the United States shows no Interstate 50 or Interstate 60. The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), the agency in charge of both US Highway and Interstate Highway numbers, decided that there would be too much confusion if 50 and 60 were included in the plan. Because the Interstate system was numbered exactly opposite of the US highways (higher numbers east and north, as opposed to west and south with the US highways), the possibility of US 50 and I-50 (and US 60 and I-60) being too close to one another was high…so to avoided. And avoided it was until the late 20th Century when North Carolina started building I-74…along the US 74 corridor.

One part of the Highway Bill of 1956 that had been both addressed and removed was that of the toll roads. In Indiana, the Toll Road across the northern part of the state had already been mostly built. It was mainly to then interstate highway standards. It connected Chicago with points east as it connected directly to both the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes. There was some discussion about reimbursing the states that had toll roads that were acceptable into the new interstate system. But that language was removed from the final bill…with the ability to address it later when needed.

A sticking point in the early interstate highway rush for funds was Indiana’s place near the bottom of the list when it came to contracts for the new system. “Indiana Ranks 47th In Value Of Contracts In Big Federal Interstate Highway Program” read the headline in the Richmond Palladium-Item and Sun-Telegram of 20 August 1957. That article points out that there was only one contract on the Indiana list – a whopping 0.6 miles of SR 100 on the southeast side of Marion County. Of the billions to be provided to the states for the new highways, Indiana’s share, as of that time, was $365,000. And even then, the Feds were only giving Indiana 60% of that – or $219,000 – since it wasn’t, technically, part of the interstate system. The contracts list for July 1957 put Indiana in 47th place, with Utah (0.2 miles) in 48th, Delaware (0.1 miles) in 49th and West Virginia, with no contracts whatsoever, in last.

The construction of the interstate system hit full stride when contracts were let for the 1959 construction season. More information about the entire interstate system in Indiana can be found in the post “The Interstate System In Indiana,” published on 10 February 2020.

2 thoughts on “First Steps Toward Indiana’s Interstate System

    1. I honestly don’t believe it was. Everything I have seen, except some newspaper stories, shows what would become I-65 connecting Indianapolis to Chicago. It does make sense, actually. And now, it turns out that, at least in Michigan, an interstate (quality road) is being built along the US 31 corridor, just like it is slowly being built in Indiana. I almost expect there to be an I-67 in my lifetime from Grand Rapids to Indianapolis.


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