Early State Roads

An oft-heard claim when I am out an about is that the Michigan Road was Indiana’s first state road. While I will never deny the importance of that road (heck, my job is on the Michigan Road in Hamilton County, and I use the section in Shelby County quite a bit to visit the in-laws), it is not, by far, the first. It was the first to connect the state from north to south, but not the first in general.

The National Road, in its importance as well, was finished before the Michigan Road. And even then, the National Road was preceded by a less known road called the Centerville State Road. When the National Road came into being, any reference to the older state road became lost to history. I covered that road here: The Tail of Two Roads: National Road and Centerville State Road.

But the idea of state roads in early Indiana was completely different that it is today. Any look at newspapers of the late 1820’s through the late 1830’s would show a long list of state roads spanning the state in all kinds of directions for all kinds of purposes. A common criticism of the state road “program,” such as it was, in the early days is that the state would build a road to a specific person’s land, or ferry, or whatever. If it was politically expedient to build to Miller’s Ferry over the Smallerthana River, such a road was built. Or, more to the point, financed to be built.

There was no central authority when it came to state roads in that era. As a matter of fact, those early roads financed by the state were actually passed into law by the General Assembly. So the vast system of roads that were financed by state money, the very definition of a state road in the early days, had to have majority approval to be constructed. So the very notion of political favors became very important if Mr. Miller wanted to get some state money to connect his ferry over the Smallerthana to the towns of Widespot and Tensalloons on either side.

A lot of the early state roads, however, did serve the governments of the state and counties. Many roads were financed that would connect county seats to one another, or to Indianapolis (technically a county seat, as well). The above mentioned Centerville Road was built from Indianapolis to the then county seat of Wayne County…Centerville (or, as it was originally, Centreville). Richmond, at that time, was a just a town close to the Ohio State line on the Whitewater River.

As the state grew, the state roads that had originally been built to service the county seats no longer did so in some cases. In the article The National Road, and County Seats, I mentioned that when the National Road was surveyed, it connected three county seats of the eight counties it traversed: Wayne County (Centerville); Marion County (Indianapolis); and Vigo County (Terre Haute). Two would be added later. First would be Greenfield (Hancock County), platted specifically on the National Road. Next would be Brazil (Clay County), which would become the county seat after having been moved from Bowling Green.

As the state capital, Indianapolis had more than its share of state roads emanating from it. In a circle starting at the north, Indianapolis had the Westfield State Road, Fort Wayne State Road (Allisonville Road), Pendleton State Road, National Road (Washington Street), Brookville State Road, Michigan Road (Southeastern Avenue), Shelbyville State Road, Madison State Road, Leavenworth State Road (Meridian Street), Paoli State Road (Bluff Road), Mooresville State Road, National Road (again), Rockville State Road, Danville State Road (10th Street), Crawfordsville State Road, and the Lafayette State Road. That doesn’t include several that cross through Marion County without actually going to Indianapolis. The one that comes to mind is the Noblesville-Franklin State Road (Franklin Road), which would connect the two title towns via Fenton, Lanesville, Lawrence and Fisher’s Station.

And here the other major difference in early state roads and the modern variety comes screaming into the spotlight. When the state General Assembly approved a road, the financing was done by the state. The road wouldn’t belong to the state. As soon as construction was complete, the state would turn the road over to the county. If it was to be maintained, the county was responsible for it, not the state. The major reason that turnpikes and toll roads came into being at all was due to the fact that the counties had “state roads” going every which direction, sometimes for no appreciable reason, that the County Commissioners were responsible for keeping passable. Honestly, most counties failed in this. Hence, sell the road, let someone else take care of it, and the county gets an influx of cash they don’t have to spend on roads.

One last point. The words “state road construction” gives the impression that there were actually roads built. This was mostly not true. The state would spend the money to improve the road, not (usually) build a new facility. A quick glance at any map of Indiana, even todays, show a bunch of roads that start, run for a while, turn for no apparent reason, run some more, and just appear to end in the middle of nowhere. Two examples that come to mind from the Indianapolis area are the Shelbyville Road and the Mooresville Road.

The latter would become the route for SR 22 in 1917, and SR 67 in 1926. A look at the twists and turns in that road would give anyone a good idea why there has been a LOT of moving around of SR 67 over the past 100 years. The former leaves Marion County as Shelbyville Road, then just ends in eastern Johnson County. Or, at least as it is marked. I have been trying to trace the old state road from Indianapolis to Shelbyville. In Indianapolis, it starts as Shelby Street. In Shelbyville, it starts as Boggsville Road. In between, it gets really kind of fun.

But this was due to the fact that Indiana really only built, from scratch, one state road. Most were improvements county roads that were already in place. That one state road that Indiana had built brings us back to the start of this article: The Michigan Road. The state did build that one from scratch. In that case, I guess that DOES make the Michigan Road the first state road in Indiana. It all comes down to semantics. It doesn’t really matter in the end. With the creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1917, the concept of the state road would change. And most of the Michigan Road would ultimately, once again, become a state road.

3 thoughts on “Early State Roads

  1. I have personally perpetuated the misinformation that the MR was the first state road. I know it’s not fully true, but as you point out it isn’t exactly wrong, either. Lately I’ve refined my framing to say that it is one of the first state roads, or is a very early state road. But now thanks to this article I can say that it was the first new construction state road! I knew it to be true but I never thought about it enough to articulate it. My understanding is that from Madison to Indy they did use at least some existing roads, but in the north they built it all new, and by built I mean cut a 100-foot-wide path through the forests, usually leaving the stumps as the wagons could just go over them.

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  2. I actually did, after more than one attempt, trace the Shelbyville Road all the way there and then repeated it a few times, but this was SO long ago, in the 80s, that I don’t remember the way exactly. I’ll have to see if I made some notes on this route.

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