Straightening of SR 135 in Northern Washington County

Sometimes, the state moves very slowly when it comes to improving routes that, well, from first glance, should have been higher on the priority list. When SR 35 was created with the Great Renumbering of 1 October 1926, a lot of the route was pretty straight forward. That was until you got to just south of the Muscatatuck River in Washington County. Here, the road was the definitive hilly road.

Monroe Township, Washington County
1878

And the road had been that way for a long time. The 1878 map snippet shown to the left shows the Millport Ferry, which was in the location, roughly, of the current SR 135 bridge over the Muscatatuck River. From there, the “direct” route to the next post office, that being at Millport, winds its way through the hilly territory south of the river.

And this routing hadn’t changed. Until the Indiana State Highway Commission started designing a new road to replace the old one in 1954. Yes, nearly three decades after it became a state road, SR 135 (formerly SR 35) was getting some work to make it safer for travelers.

The bridge just west of the old bridge at the location of the old Millport Ferry was opened for bidding in September 1954. The design of the bridge was to be of seven spans, 28 foot of right of way for drivers, and 26 inch pedestrian walkways on each side. The bidding, opened on 21 September of that year, only included the bridge itself. Approaches to the bridge were to be let in another contract. It also didn’t include the tie in to the then current road north of the river.

The bridge that was being replaced had been contracted in 1883. The superstructure of that bridge, to be built completely of iron, was contracted to cost $23.00 a linear foot.

Work on the design of the new SR 135 section was completed in March 1954. According to the Seymour Tribune of 18 March 1954, “It is understood plans for the new highway are normally straight, with the new location scheduled to eliminate the present many curves on the highway, which now has about 40 turns, many of them sharp, in less than two miles.”

Construction on the new section of the road began on 6 June 1955, and according to the Jackson County Banner of 3 August 1955, was expected to “be completed about the first of next year.” The contract connecting the new SR 135 to the new Millport Bridge would be let later, as the bridge had not been completed by that time. Until that bridge was complete, the old bridge would be in use, and the new SR 135 would connect to the old SR 135 just south of the new bridge. The following Google Map snippet shows the old road, the connection to the new road, and the location of the old bridge.

The new section of road would open in mid-December 1955. The entire route was concrete, with the exception of the south approach to the new Millport bridge, which was graveled to allow traffic access to the new bridge. The gravel would be replaced with concrete the following summer. The old iron Millport bridge would be removed soon after the opening of the road.

Farmers Ferry

Greene County, 1989. A ferry across the White River, owned by Greene County, is sold to private interests. The ferry had been in roughly the same location for over 120 years. The Greene County Commissioners decided that the cost of maintenance and insurance was getting too much to keep giving the free service to the public. Slowing use didn’t help much. With no income, and an outlay of between $10,000 and $15,000 annually, the county sold the ferry, ending a service that had seen its fair share of tourists and mishaps over its history.

1950 USGS Topographical Map of Farmers and Farmers Ferry.

Farmers Ferry began life crossing the White River at the unincorporated town of Farmers, an Owen County community 12 miles south of Spencer on both the Indianapolis & Vincennes Railroad and the Indianapolis-Vincennes state road (which would, eventually, become SR 67). The town was named after a merchant in the area. The railroad, which had commenced construction in 1867, built a station at the town called Farmers Station. A post office there opened in 1869. That post office was changed from Farmers Station to Farmers in 1882, and closed in 1931.

The ferry was used, once the railroad was in operation, to move cattle and hogs across the White River to be loaded onto trains to be sold in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Stock Yards were located close to the Indianapolis end of the I&V, making this railroad convenient for farmers in the area. The ferry service chugged along its merry way until 1918, when a change of course of the White River caused the service to migrate downstream by about one half mile into Greene County. The wooden ferry boat was replaced with a steel one in 1930. The moving of the river caused the town of Farmers, which at the turn of the 20th Century, had “three doctors, two drugstores, three groceries, and ice plant and a feed mill,” (Source: Indianapolis News, 3 August 1977) to become, by 1977, a place described as “although you can find Farmers on the official Indiana highway map, there is nothing here but a pump with no handle.”

Local residents were working on replacing the ferry as early as 1940. According to the Linton Daily Citizen of 28 February 1940, petitions had been filed with the Greene County Board of Commissioners asking for the old SR 54 bridge across the White River at Elliston be moved to replace the ferry near Farmers. Dirt approaches had been built, but the cost of moving and maintaining the bridge were too much for the county to bear. At the time, the ferry cost around $6,000 yearly.

One of the best descriptions of the Farmers Ferry was published in the Indianapolis Star of 1 February 1948. “Just south of the Owen-Greene County line a winding country road branched off Indiana Highway 67, meanders through cornfields and woodland and after a mile or so comes to an abrupt end in front of a cottage-like dwelling on the west bank of White River. Tied up at a rude landing below the little house is the Green (sic) County Navy – an unimpressive two-craft fleet but, nonetheless, the only county-owned navy in all Indiana.” The ferry operator at the time was George Baker, referred to, jokingly, as “Admiral Baker.” At the time of this article, “the officials of Greene County presently are engaged in modernizing their fleet. They have on order, with delivery promised soon, a new flagship – an all-metal 10 feet longer than the present ferry.” “I ought to get a new uniform to go with the new boat,” Baker says.

Over its history, the ferry had seen its share of mishaps. In 1957 or 1958, due to poor loading of the ferry, two loads of cattle were dumped into the river. Clyde W. Thompson, local resident, stated recalled the story that happened to his father. The cattle swam back to the bank and climbed out of the river “after their dip.” (Source: Indianapolis Star, 2 July 1989). “One ferryman had the distinction of sinking the same truck – his own – twice: once when it slipped off the ferry, and again when it rolled into the water from the bank.” A truckload of lime slipped from the ferry on 17 April 1956. (Source: Linton Daily Citizen, 18 April 1956) The truck was declared a total loss, and the load of lime was swept away by the swift currents of the White River.

The South Bend Tribune of 1 November 1981 interviewed the ferry operator at the time, Bernard Calvert. With the $700 a month he was paid to run the ferry, he was helping support poor families in Malaysia and the Philippines. His personal history was covered in that story. I don’t plan on going into it here. Suffice it to say after losing almost everything, he decided that it wasn’t going to happen again.

By the time an article was published in the Princeton Daily Clarion on 14 May 1965, there were only two intrastate ferries left in Indiana. One was Farmers. The other was southwest of Bloomfield, which had began operation in 1957 to replace a 400-foot long covered bridge built in 1889. The bridge approaches were undermined by the 1957 spring floods, forcing the county to decide a ferry was cheaper than building a new bridge. This made Greene County unique in that it operated two toll-free ferries, as the Linton Daily Citizen of 20 June 1960 pointed out, “across a stream that’s considered ‘not navigable,’ White River.” The two ferry boats were referred to as the “Greene County Navy.”

Martinsville Reporter-Times, 27 June 2004, picture showing the Farmers Ferry in 1987, two years before it was closed. The article attached to this photo is a “this week in history.”

The Farmers Ferry, by 1987, had dropped to an average usage of six people a day. The ferryman at that time, Jesse Burton, made roughly $7,000 a year to run the facility. Those people worked the fields in the area. They used the ferry to avoid the 26 mile journey to cross the river otherwise.

The Greene County Commissioners sold the ferry to Carter M. Fortune, who had just purchased a ranch along the river. The ranch, known by locals as the “Flying-T,” who sold to Fortune by the family of Clyde W. Thompson, mentioned above. Fortune’s goal was to keep the ferry active, but due to insurance concerns, only for private use. At that point, the Farmers Ferry had been listed in tourist brochures as the “last passenger ferry in Indiana.” With the closing of the Farmers Ferry, crossing the White River required travelers to either go south to Worthington, where SR 157 crosses the river, or to Freedom where the CR 590 bridge allows passage. These crossings are ten miles apart.