The Beginnings of Interstate 70 in Indiana

When I was younger, before I really started getting into becoming a road geek, the only road that I could tell you anything about was Interstate 70. It was the first one that I could remember. This was because I spent, at least in the back seat of the car, a LOT of time on that road. It was the first road that I remember learning things like exit signs and mileage markers. My family is from Pennsylvania. I describe getting to my ancestor’s location as driving on I-70 to the end, and keep going. (The end being New Stanton, PA. I-70 changes into US 119 there.) But, this is an Indiana Transportation History blog, not a history discussion about me.

Interstate 70 has been voted by some YouTubers the greatest of the cross-country interstates. The first newspaper reference that I have found about it came from the Muncie Star Press of 29 November 1957. The Headline read: “‘Interstate 70’ Name of New Highway.” The story went on to state “Federal Interstate Highway 70 is the name officially chosen for the projected New York-to-St. Louis federal super-highway that is to follow a course roughly parallel to U.S. 40. Its marked will be a shield with a red, blue and white background carrying the word Interstate across the top, the word Indiana at the bottom and in the center the figure 70.”

The National Road Traveler of Cambridge City reported, on 27 March 1958, that the Indiana Farm Bureau met with about 150 Henry County farmers to explain the rights of property owners along the new route. “The right-of-way for Interstate 70 will be 300 feet, which amounts to about 30 acres per mile.” The farmers were told that when considering the value of the property, keep in mind everything there – buildings, wells, septic tanks, fences and the cost of the land.

When the decision was being made about where to locate Interstate 70, there were a lot of things in play. Believe it or not, there were financial things taken into consideration. The plan was to put I-70 from 1.75 to 2 miles north of U.S. 40 According to the Tri-County Banner, Knightstown, of 6 February 1958, “highway engineers believe that the corridor between the two highways would be wide enough to constitute valuable industrial and business sites, conveniently located to rail as well as highway facilities.” Yes, you read that right. The location of railroad facilities was considered, at least in Indiana, for the location of the interstate.

Another thing mentioned in this article is that the plan was to try to use section lines as much as possible. Given the information put out, it would put the interstate, according to the newspaper, south of Spiceland. This would be located south of the Central School in the area. But the section line actually ran along the south edge of Spiceland, and through the school itself. That section line is located 2.5 miles north of U.S. 40. “Survey crews are already at work north of Richmond and it has been announced that the proposed highway will be slightly more than 2.6 miles north of U.S. 40 at Centerville, but will then swing slightly southward. The road will leave Wayne county about two miles north of U.S. 40 at Cambridge City.”

The Richmond Palladium-Item of 18 December 1958 reported “Record-Breaking Road Plan Includes Bypass.” The Chairman of the Indiana State Highway Commission was interviewed about the pending project. Chairman John Peters mentioned that the bids for the I-70 project at Richmond would be taken in March 1959. Right-of-way purchasing would also be started in early 1959. He also mentioned that three changes in the routing of the bypass, at the request of residents of both Richmond and Wayne County, have delayed the project for about a year.

This is just a small snippet of what went into creating Interstate 70 across, at least, eastern Indiana. At some point, I will be covering western Indiana. And the other interstates in the state.

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.

Bridge at New Harmony

Along the Wabash River is the town of New Harmony. The town dates from 1814, founded by the Harmony Society under the leadership of George Rapp. The Harmony Society was a group of German Lutherans that had separated from the official church and immigrated to the United States. That group, by 1824, moved back to Pennsylvania. The town then was purchased by Welsh industrialist Robert Owen for the purpose of creating a utopian community. That plan failed, but the community did contribute to American society.

Fast forward around 100 years. On 1 May 1928, the United States Congress chartered a private company, the Big Wabash Bridge Company of Carmi, Illinois, to build and maintain a bridge crossing the Wabash River between Carmi and New Harmony. Built by the Nashville Bridge Company of Nashville, Tennessee, the bridge opened to much fanfare on 30 December 1930. The bridge, as originally designed, is just shy of 2,600 feet long, with a 20 foot wide roadway on 47 spans.

Shortly after opening, the Indiana State Highway Commission made the New Harmony Toll Bridge a part of SR 66. Within a decade of that opening, ownership concerns began occurring. A bill passed through the Indiana General Assembly in 1939 created what was to be called the Indiana Toll Bridge Commission (ITBC). The ITBC was immediately asked by the Harmony Way Bridge Company, the then current owners of the bridge, to purchase the structure. Opposition to the bill creating the ITBC was questioning the end purpose of the commission, as State Senator Roy Dentiston, Rochester, stated, the bill was introduced in “an attempt to pull the irons out of the fire for somebody.” (Source: Indianapolis Star, 12 August 1939)

The bill became law without the signature of then Governor M. Clifford Townsend. Once the ITBC was created, questions also crept up about the fact that the commission was meeting behind closed doors. Meetings were held with various people “in the event the commission should buy the New Harmony bridge.” “‘No commitments have been made to anybody,’ George C. Simler of Corydon, commission president, said.”

The plan to buy the bridge went through in 1940. The ITBC agreed to buy the bridge, built for $640,000, for $945,000, with a surplus fund of $105,000 for emergencies. Governor Townsend had already blocked an effort, in 1939, to purchase the bridge for $1.3 million. The ITBC was in the process of not only buying the bridge at New Harmony, but building a toll bridge at Mauckport. Bonds for the purchase were sold, dated 1 October 1940 with a maturation date of 1 October 1960. But, the ITBC pointed out, that tolls collected from the bridge would not only retire the bonds in eight to ten years, but that the bridge would be made free to use around the same time. Operation costs were estimated to be $15,000 to $16,000 a year including painting, maintenance, and insurance.

The fallout from both the creation of the ITBC and the pending purchase of the Harmony Way Bridge was massive. Lawsuits were filed in the matter. The Indiana General Assembly heard a bill repealing the creation of the commission. The biggest complaint was the purchase price of the bridge. A. S. Thomas, representing the Indiana Farm Bureau, “said engineers have estimated that the bridge could now be built for approximately $475,000.” (Source: Indianapolis Star, 29 January 1941) “We consider the purchase price not based on good judgment. I am not trying to keep anyone in southern or western Indiana from having a bridge, but we are interested in the people who use that bridge,” Thomas added. Attorney for the ITBC, Lew O’Bannon (grandfather of future Governor Frank O’Bannon), explained that “at the present rate of income from the bridge it would be paid for in approximately 10 years and then converted into a free bridge.”

In the end, the state did not purchase the New Harmony bridge. Later in 1941, the United States Congress created a joint Illinois-Indiana agency called the White County Bridge Commission (WCBC) to purchase the structure for $895,000. This would be the organization that still owns the bridge to this day.

Tolling facilities had been on the eastern end of the bridge until replaced, in 1951, with the toll house that still exists on the Illinois side of the river.

In 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that the structure was in danger of being destroyed or cut off by the Wabash River. (Source: Terre Haute Tribune, 31 May 1957) Testimony occurred before the House Public Works Appropriation Subcommittee asking for $405,000 for the shoring up of the west bank of the Wabash. The river had been developing a series of new bends. These threatened the stability of the bridge. The new channel being created by nature could have cut the bridge off from Illinois completely. Louis C. Rabaut, Democrat Representitive from Michigan, pointed out that during the Wabash Flood of 1943, the New Harmony bridge was the only crossing of the Wabash that remained open.

In 1961, the operations of the White County Bridge Commission came under Congressional scrutiny. Senator Robert S. Kerr, Democrat of Oklahoma, Chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, announced that “his committee now wants to learn all about the manner in which the bridge at New Harmony, Ind., is operated. He said full investigation and hearings will be held.” (Source: Indianapolis Star, 22 September 1961) The whole ordeal was started by Representative Winfield K. Denton of Indiana, who had been trying to end the White County Commission for the previous six years. The effort was to free the bridge of tolls. Denton had put in a “secret amendment” into a bridge auditing bill to allow the Secretary of Commerce to name a new commission for the bridge, after wiping out the then current one. Denton stated that the facility had collected $4 million in tolls since the creation of the commission, but was still a toll bridge. The General Accounting Office had issued a scathing report in 1955 about the commission, prompting the entire scenario. After these hearings, the commission was left in place.

Funding became a serious issue, coming to a head in 2001, when the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs granted the WCBC a total of $120,000 for upgrades to the facility. The plan was to close the bridge at the end of 2001. At this point, the facility was in such poor condition that neither state wanted to take over operations and maintenance. It was, according to the Indianapolis Star of 12 December 2001, estimated that $2.2 million to $3.6 million would be required to bring the bridge up to Federal standards. It was also estimated that it would cost $25 million to replace.

According to the same article, the bridge had dropped its tolling earlier in 2001. This didn’t last very long. Daily average crossings, in 1999, numbered 2,660 vehicles. In October 2001 it was announced that the bridge would be closed by the end of that year. That ended up not happening. Officials of New Harmony were pleased with that news, as “closing the bridge would double the driving distance between the two towns (Carmi and New Harmony) from seven to 14 miles. That could be dangerous for emergency vehicles or people trying to reach a hospital.”

September 2007 did see the closing of the facility…but not permanently. Damage to one of the concrete piers warranted the closing for emergency repairs. At this time, the WCBC was operating on an annual budget of $460,000, not enough to keep the bridge in good condition. Again, the commission asked the departments of transportation of both Illinois and Indiana to take over the bridge. And again, this was shot down due to the cost of bringing the bridge up to federal standards. The bridge would reopen in April 2008.

In September 2011, it was made public that the bridge was in need of $8.4 million in repairs to bring it out of “structurally deficient” status. (Source: Seymour Tribune, 30 September 2011) This status was also applied at the time to the Sherman Minton Bridge carrying Interstate 64 over the Ohio River near Louisville. The difference between to two structures was that the Sherman Minton Bridge was a state owned facility. It also carried much more traffic. The end of the bridge’s useful life came to an end in May 2012 when it was announced that it would be closed at noon on 29 May 2012. This was announced by the WCBC on 21 May 2012. Unfortunately, that 29 May date was pushed up to immediately, as in 21 May 2012.

Today, the bridge still stands. It has been cut off from both ends, abandoned in place. Indiana SR 66 and Illinois SR 14 are still maintained up to a point near the approaches to the old structure. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having received that honor in 2007.