1917: Main Roads to Fort Benjamin Harrison Need Work

When Fort Benjamin Harrison was built in Lawrence Township, in northeastern Marion County, getting there was quite the chore. It has been built along the Big Four’s Bellefontaine, or Bee, line. This allowed steam locomotives to pass by the new Army post on a regular basis. The Big Four, with its affiliation with the New York Central, could get Army traffic to and from the fort to almost any place in the United States without much effort.

The workforce for the new fort would come on either the Bee line, or the new Indiana Union Traction line that connected Indianapolis to Anderson, Muncie and Fort Wayne. Although it didn’t last much more than three decades, this was an important way to access the fort. The station for that interurban line still exists…and is open to the public as a Mexican restaurant (as of this writing) called the Hacienda.

But automobile traffic was becoming more and more important. Even more important was the transit of Army vehicles to and from Fort Benjamin Harrison. To that end, in the spring of 1917, the commander of the station, General Edwin F. Glenn, sought to get improvements to the road system to the fort. With this in mind, he held a conference with Marion County government and business leaders to share what he had in mind.

The Indianapolis Star, 10 June 1917. Map of the north east side of Marion County, showing improvements needed to access Fort Benjamin Harrison.

First and foremost in the General’s mind was the main road to the fort – the Pendleton Pike. Technically, the Pendleton Pike started at the limits of the City of Indianapolis at Bee Line connection to the Indianapolis Belt Railway just east of Brightwood Avenue (Sherman Drive). West of that point, it was called Massachusetts Avenue. The county had taken over the Pendleton Toll Road in the late 1880s. But little was done for its improvement or maintenance. By the time the Army created the fort, the road was little more than a connection to other roads in rural Marion County and downtown Indianapolis. Many battles were fought about the improvement of the road, lasting past the end of World War I, when such improvements were vital.

The Pendleton Pike, in 1917, was being improved…slowly but surely. The plan was to concrete the road from the Indianapolis City Limits to 38th Street, just west of what is now Shadeland Avenue. From there, the first of the two sections to the fort’s main north-south entrance, would be improved with heavy stone. This would take the heavy stone from 38th Street to the old Noblesville-Franklin State Road, or Franklin Road. The next section would be graveled. This section ran from Franklin Road to the Yerger or Acre Free Gravel Road, now known as Post Road. The section of the Post Road, connecting Pendleton Pike to the interior of Fort Benjamin Harrison, was being hard surfaced with a “special preparation,” according to the Indianapolis Star of 10 June 1917.

The next road to get attention was the “54th Street Road,” connecting west from the fort to Millersville. Those of you from the area might be a little confused. The village of Millersville was along the Fall Creek, just inside the Washington Township border at what is now Emerson Way. The main drag from Fort Benjamin Harrison is now called 56th Street, not 54th. That road was built along the half-survey line starting where the Millersville and Fall Creek Free Gravel Roads come together near what is now Emerson Way at Millersville Road. The highlighted section of the following MapIndy photo, from 1952, shows the original route connecting the Millersville Road to the old Fall Creek & Mud Creek Road. (At the time, what is now Rucker Road continued south of what is now Fall Creek Road. It would be that way until sometime before 1962, when two lakes were built. The Rucker Road extension would finally be taken out sometime between 1979 and 1986.)

The Millersville Road, according to the Indianapolis Star “is by no means a direct route to the fort. It begins at Thirty-eighth street and Fall Creek and meanders northeast about eight miles to the famous Baker’s bridge and thence southeast a quarter of a mile to the fort grounds.” Baker’s Bridge is along the old Noblesville-Franklin State Road, now called Boy Scout Road, in the northwest corner of the Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds. General Glenn wanted the entirety of the Millersville Road covered with gravel…a job that, according to the General, with five wagons in two days. The first three miles of the Millersville Road had already been improved with asphalt. The next half mile being oiled gravel. The rest of the road was gravel…and work was being done at the time to repair damage done by large, heavy, loads transiting the road.

Other roads being worked on for access to the fort were the National Road from Irvington to Acre Road, Emerson Avenue, Arlington Avenue, 34th Street and the Acre Road itself.

At the time, National Road was the actual name of the Washington Street extension outside the limits of the City of Indianapolis at Sheridan Avenue in Irvington. West of Sheridan, it was Washington. East of that point, it was the National Road. The first mile of the National Road, from Sheridan Avenue, was being concreted. That would end near what is now Shortridge Road and Washington Street. The next two miles from Shortridge Road east were already concreted at that time. That would take it to a point east of Acre (Post) Road. The Acre Road, as of 10 June 1917, was closed for construction of a stone road stretching five miles north to the Pendleton Pike and into the fort.

Emerson and Arlington Avenues were also under construction at the time. Both were being concreted from Washington Street (both are west of Sheridan Avenue) to the Pendleton Pike. Emerson Avenue met Pendleton Pike at roughly 30th Street. Emerson Avenue, at least the southern section of said, ended at the Bee Line. Neither 30th Street nor Emerson Avenue crossed the railroad tracks, and passage past those tracks was done at an underpass on 32nd Street.

Arlington Avenue meets Pendleton Pike (now Massachusetts Avenue) at 34th Street. Improvements along 34th Street included asphalt paving from the Lake Erie & Western (Nickel Plate) Railroad crossing for three miles to the east to what was the northern section of Emerson Avenue. From there to Arlington Avenue, 34th Street was a stone road. Prior to being called 34th Street, the road was the Fall Creek & Warren Township Free Gravel Road.

It would take some time until the roads were improved for to the General’s liking. With the creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1917, the National Road was taken over as Main Market Road #3. It wouldn’t be until 1923 that the Pendleton Pike would find itself part of the state highway system, entering that system as Original State Road 37. By then, the war was over, and traffic to Fort Benjamin Harrison had, while not stopping completely, had slowed considerably as it normally does after the completion of a war. The fort would, eventually, get its connections to the road system other than SR 67/US 36 (Pendleton Pike). In 1941, 56th Street west out of the fort would become part of SR 534, a designation it would only hold for a few years before that state road was routed straight down Shadeland Avenue. With the building of the Interstate system, which was technically built for the defense of the United States, Fort Benjamin Harrison would find itself with two exits from I-465 (Pendleton Pike and 56th Street) and one on I-70 (Post Road). I suppose the Post Road exit on I-74 could technically be listed as part of that…but it is quite a distance from the Fort.

Toll Roads In Marion County

Toll Roads. In Indiana, they were a way of life for over half a century. The reason they started was very simple. The counties, after having the state build a road for them, found themselves in a bind when it came to maintaining those roads. So the solution became to sell the roads to private companies, and let them do the work of maintaining the road.

By the 1880’s, the non-existent love affair with the toll road companies was becoming just flat out hatred. Citizens, mainly farmers, were tired of paying to get to the city. This led to just ignoring the toll houses, or finding another way to get to town. This led to the toll companies to lose money. Both sides were arguing for legislation to eliminate toll roads. Residents to make travel cheaper. Businessmen in town to eliminate what they saw as a tax on people to use their businesses. And toll road companies to throwing money at the roads. This led to the counties purchasing these old toll roads back, which I covered in the article “Toll Roads, And State Takeover.”

At one point, Marion County had over 200 miles of toll roads. The county started buying the roads back one at a time. The last road to be purchased, as reported in the Indianapolis Journal of 13 August 1896, was the Pleasant Run Toll Road. The entire four mile length of the road was purchased for $100 a mile. The Pleasant Run Toll Road purchased started at what is now 21st Street and Arlington Avenue, going east for those four miles to end at the Mitthoefer Free Gravel Road. Bet you can’t guess what that road is called today.

The National Road east of Indianapolis started on the way to free road status in September, 1889. The Indianapolis News of 19 September 1889 reported that the “the owners of the Cumberland Gravel Road turned the road between this city and Irvington over to the county this morning and it is now a part of the free gravel road system.” Another benefit of the turnover, at least to Irvington, is that the next day, the Citizen’s Street Railway Company would be granted permission to build a street car line along Washington Street/National Road to Irvington. The plan at the time was to build the street car tracks along the south edge of the road, leaving a 16 foot wide path on the north side of the road for drivers.

In the very same issue of the Indianapolis News, it was reported that “there has been a turnpike war on the Three-notch or Leavenworth road, leading south from Indianapolis to Johnson County.” Residents were claiming that the road was in disrepair, raising money to fight the owner of the turnpike. Many people were running the gates along the road, as there was an agreement to not pay tolls. “At the second gate from the city the pole was cut down by the ‘opposition,’ and there has been trouble all along the line.” A court case in Franklin, the day before, saw the toll road company winning, and the people paying tolls again.

An editorial in the Indianapolis News of 22 June 1892, calls for the remaining toll roads to be taken over by the county. It goes on to talk about the “shun pikes,” local roads built to avoid paying to use the toll roads. The first such “shun pike” in Marion County was English Avenue. It was improved by locals as a way to Irvington without using the Cumberland Toll Road. The next one was Prospect Street, from Fountain Square east.

One toll road that came in from the north became so valueless that the owner of the road tried to give to the county free of charge. Apparently, this wasn’t jumped on by the county commissioners. So the owner went to Noblesville, and had the deed for the toll road transferred, legally, to Marion County. It took twelve months after the deed was registered for the county commissioners to realize that the transfer had even taken place.

The Indianapolis News was the newspaper that was arguing, per an editorial of 22 January 1883, against the county buying the toll roads back. “Why should any county purchase a toll road and make it free? Those who never use it ought not to be taxed to make it free to to (sic) those who benefit by it. While it is a toll road, those who use it pay for it, as they ought.” My, how things can change in less than a decade.

It shouldn’t be lost on people that as the toll roads were being eliminated, the “Good Roads Movement” was starting. While this movement was started by both the post office and riders of bicycles, it would lead directly to what would be known as the Auto Trail era.

Toll roads reached in all directions from the city. In the end, most of the major roads that we use today have been in place for almost two centuries…and had spent time as a toll road. I recommend checking out the following map, which shows the improved roads as of 1895 (Palmer’s Official Road Map of Marion County, Indiana).

Bicycling the Shelbyville Road

Today, I want to focus on the Indianapolis News of 21 March 1896, and one of the bicycling routes contained there in: the Shelbyville Road. The original road was the first connecting the county seats of Marion and Shelby Counties. Today, not only does Shelbyville Road still exist, but a major south side street still keeps a name that is a remnant of the same. That street is called Shelby Street.

The article starts by very plainly stating “one of the pleasantest rides around the city, and one which will probably come nearest suiting all classes of riders, is over the Shelbyville road.” The road is listed as being in “good condition the year round.” However, it is mentioned that the road has “few, if any, picturesque spots.” But, with no big hills and not as traveled as other roads. It is also mentioned that while there are a lot of trees along the route, shade is scant and it is not recommended to ride this route in the heat of summer.

The bicycle ride of the Shelbyville Pike starts at the “head of Virginia Avenue,” the corner of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington. “The run out is on the asphalt until the end of the avenue is reached” at what is now Fountain Square. The road then turns south on Shelby Street, but “the cyclist will have to ride with a little care until after crossing the Belt railroad.” Two blocks after that crossing is the official beginning of the Shelbyville Pike. The road has a hard pathway on each side, making bicycling a very nice ride. A grove of cottonwood trees appears shortly after along what is called a branch of Pleasant Run, which is actually Bean Creek south of Garfield Park. These trees are located on the east side of the road, little value to an outbound traveler.

A mile after the Belt Railroad, the Pike turns southeast (along what is now Carson Avenue). A quarter mile later, a dirt road crosses east-west across the Shelbyville Pike. This road is now Troy Avenue. This area would be unofficially called McClainsville, and, at the time of the article, there was a blacksmith shop here. It would also be the location of a school, called McClainsville, which would be replaced by Indianapolis Public School #72, Emma Donnan. The dirt road that is Troy Avenue would allow the rider to connect to the Churchman Pike a little less than two miles to the east at what is now Beech Grove’s 17th Avenue and Albany Street.

The Shelbyville Pike continues on its southeastern journey for almost two miles, where it crosses Lick Creek. A turn to the south after crossing the creek, the road continues for about one-half before turning due east along what is now Thompson Road. One path for a shorter ride is to turn west instead of east, allowing the rider to connect to the Madison Turnpike for the journey back to Indianapolis. Within one half mile after turning east onto Thompson Road, a dirt road heads to the north to connect the rider, two miles north, again to the Churchman Pike. And, again, it is at what is now the corner of 17th Avenue and Albany Street in Beech Grove, as this dirt road is now Sherman Drive. This can also be used as a short ride, as well.

When the Shelbyville Pike turns southeast again, following the dirt road east allows connection, once again, to the Churchman Pike. Also, with a couple of turns later along that line, the rider can get to New Bethel (now Wanamaker) on the Michigan Road. The road to Wanamaker, however, is “out of the question at the present time, and it will probably be two months before they are fit for riding.” Part of this route, at that time, included what was created as the Franklin-Noblesville State Road, now Franklin Road. It is recommended that instead of heading toward he Churchman Pike or Wanamaker, the rider continue southeast on the Shelbyville Pike.

Before the road turns southeast, a pump and tin cup “on the left hand side of the road will tempt many a rider to stop for a brief rest under the trees.” The road then passes an old brickyard, and a grove of heavy timber. The road here had been recently graveled for about one quarter mile and was in rough shape. After that, the road got to be in excellent shape for the following two miles. Two dirt roads, a mile apart, connect north and south. The first “runs through to Irvington and on as far north as Millersville.” This is now Emerson Avenue. The second skirts the end of the Churchman Pike and connects to the Michigan Road. This is now Arlington Avenue. Both are reported as will shaded and have some picturesque spots.

Further along, before crossing Little Buck Creek, the rider will be tempted to take a rest at an orchard just to the south of the road. There is a house here, sitting almost a quarter mile back from the Pike. Ten miles out on the road, the rider will come across a wagon and blacksmith shop owned by Sam Crouch. Across the road from that shop is a very nice well used by farmers that travel the route, but is as inviting to bicyclists. “Crouch is a genial sort of man, and always likes to have the riders stop and shat with him a bit. He is not a novice at bicycle repairing, and last season enabled many an unfortunate rider to pedal back home instead of walking and carrying the wreck of his wheel with him.”

The next landmark, at the 12 mile mark, is the Five Points School House. “It is an unwritten law that all wheelmen shall stop at the school-house for a brief rest, and only the century men (those doing a 100 mile ride in one day) who are going against time take the liberty of evading this law.” A pump is available, as well, here, although a cup may not be at the site all the time. The Five Points School House is located at the intersection of three roads: the Mathews Road which crosses the Shelbyville Road, and a road due west that connects to Glenn’s Valley on the west side of Marion County. The latter is nine miles west of this point. Taking this route would allow the rider to connect, at Glenn’s Valley, to the Bluff Road. It also crosses both the Madison Road and the Three Notch Road. This cross county road was originally called Frye Road, but is known today as Stop 11 Road.

Some riders, at this point, continue the 20 miles onward to Shelbyville through Boggstown. Most, however, will turn toward Glenn’s Valley or turn east on a winding trek towards and into Acton. This is recommended as the Shelbyville Road conditions are not as good and encounters quite a few small hills along its path. Getting to Acton requires using what is described as a mud road that passes Ed Frye’s farm (hence the current name of Frye Road), then turns north on the Franklin-Noblesville State Road to the McGregor gravel road. The McGregor is a in excellent condition and an easy ride for its journey to Acton. More on Acton will be included in a later post.