Indianapolis’ West Washington Street

It goes without saying that Washington Street in Indianapolis has always been an important facility. Since 1821, when the town of Indianapolis was platted, Washington Street has had a prominent role in the expansion of the city. When the National Road came to Indiana, it followed that same town path through the fledging Hoosier Capital. But today, I am going to fast forward into the 20th century to discuss how it became a major concrete ribbon through town, at least on the westside of Indianapolis.

No matter how important Washington Street was to the city, it had, at least outside of downtown, been not much more than what we would call two lanes wide for the first half of its life. With the coming of the automobile, these old narrow cow paths were going to have to be put on a path to make them usable by more people at a time. Way back in the middle 19th century there were discussions, heated at times, about the width of sidewalks on the street, since only the center was covered with gravel for traveling.

The Indiana State Highway Commission decided that the National Road would be part of the state highway system. This, one would think, would automatically include West Washington Street. It didn’t. It just so happened that Washington Street made a direct connection between SR 3 (US 40) both east and west of the city. But Washington Street was still a city street.

In 1937, there was some talk about the Board of Works and Sanitation of the City of Indianapolis widening West Washington Street from White River west to the city limits…at that time near Tibbs Avenue. That plan was in the works, but there was one project approved for the area: widening of Washington Street between Traub and Tremont Avenues, in front of George Washington High School.

The Indianapolis News of 16 January 1937 ran a full page story about the history and pending expansion of West Washington Street. That article mentioned that the widening of the street in front of Washington High School would allow for the creation of safety islands for students trying to cross the busy thoroughfare. West of the city limits, the old National Road, by that time US 40, was already four lanes wide. Through the city itself was a bottle neck.

But the plan never got off the ground. That same year, the General Assembly passed legislation that would remove Washington Street from city control and give it to the State Highway Commission. This would make any widening of the road a state project, no longer a city problem. While the city could ask for something to be done, the state would be the ones to do it. And the wheels of progress sometime work very slowly at the state level.

Fast forward a decade, or so. “The State Highway Commission will receive a recommendation for the rebuilding of 2.1 miles of West Washington Street between White River and Eagle Creek.” So states the Indianapolis News of 20 May 1948. Three months, at that time, had been spent on surveys to figure out exactly how to widening the old National Road.

The end point to the west is important to note here. Around 1937, a new bridge was built by the State Highway Commission to carry US 40 and US 36 across Eagle Creek. This new bridge would be built north of the old structure, and would also entail moving the intersection of Washington Street and Rockville Road (US 40 and US 36 respectively).

MapIndy aerial photograph of the intersection of Washington Street and Rockville Road, 1937.

The 1948 project would include widening West Washington Street to 60 feet wide. That included four 11 foot wide travel lanes, two in each direction, and two eight foot parking strips (one on each side). The then current road surface, consisting of brick and blacktop, would be completely removed and replaced with concrete. New sidewalks were also part of the project.

There was to be a one block gap in the project, however, due to a planning and construction question. The plans included an underpass, allowing Washington Street to go under the Indianapolis Belt Railway at Neal Street. State Engineer of Road Design, William H. Behrens, recommended that such an underpass be postponed until construction costs could come down. “He said he favors a gap of 1 block in the new construction at this point.”

A spokesman for the Indianapolis Railways stated that when the construction was underway, the company would remove its unused streetcar tracks from Washington Street from the car barns near White River (where the Indianapolis Zoo is now) to a point 100 feet west of Tibbs Avenue.

The News pointed out that “the State Highway Commission has charge of the project because Washington Street is part of Roads 40 and 36. It is also part of the old National Road.”

Indianapolis Star, 19 August 1951.

The next reference I have found to the expansion of West Washington Street, I will let speak for itself. It is the news story from the Indianapolis Star of 19 August 1951 shown above. Apparently, this was the second annual party to celebrate the completion of the 1948 project.

Connecting 16th Street from US 52 to SR 29

When I posted about routes to get to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, someone of Facebook had posted a comment about the direct route using Indiana Avenue and 16th Street from downtown Indianapolis. I responded that part of the problem was that 16th Street, at the time (1919) did not exist between Lafayette Road and Northwestern Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street). After crossing the White River on the Emrichsville Bridge, the streets turned either north onto White River Parkway East Drive or southeast onto what was Crawfordsville Road.

The junction of Indiana Avenue/10th Street/Fall Creek/
Crawfordsville Road

It should also be noted that the most people, at that time, thought of Crawfordsville Road (now Waterway Boulevard) as the first choice as it was the one that had been in place the longest. Indiana Avenue came long after the Crawfordsville Road, and both of those streets connected to Indiana Avenue at 10th Street across Fall Creek. The moving of the south end of Waterway Boulevard, as it is today, didn’t happen until sometime after World War II.

But west of the White River, at 16th Street, was both US 52 (Lafayette Road) and SR 34 (16th Street). The state roads followed White River West Drive to Washington Street, because the road didn’t exist east of the river. This would connect US 52 (and possibly SR 34) to US 40 under what is now the Indianapolis Zoo.

It would be shortly after the 1919 map was published that 16th Street would be built from Indiana Avenue to the Emrichsville Bridge. But that was the extent of the new 16th Street. And even then, the 16th Street that was built was north of where it should have been. 16th Street through Marion County, of most of it, is along the half section line. Since the Emrichsville Bridge was angled north as it crossed west to east, 16th Street would be connected north of the half-section line where it belonged.

1926 Indianapolis map of the sections of 16th Street at that time between White River and Northwestern Avenue.

Fast forward to 1933. The Indianapolis Board of Public Works decided on several projects to be completed during the 1934 construction season. Two of the projects included bridges over Fall Creek. One of those would be on 16th Street. By this time, there was a short section of 16th Street from Gent Avenue to Fall Creek and just barely west of Northwestern Avenue.

The bridge over Fall Creek would allow connection between the two sections of 16th Street. Another part of the project would be widening the road that was there. In 1934 money, the project to construct and widen 16th Street from Northwestern Avenue to the Emrichsville Bridge would cost $280,000. The new bridge over Fall Creek would cost $250,000.

A remodel of the Emrichsville Bridge would also be part of the project. The northwest wing of the bridge would be cut off and the south sidewalk to be completely removed to create a better turning angle between the sections of 16th Street on either end. The city wouldn’t have to foot the entire bill for the new construction and widening. The city was working with the Indiana State Highway Commission for federal funding (at that time, a 50/50 split) for the project as the state would most likely (and did) add that section of 16th Street to the state highway system as part of US 52 and SR 34.

Another part of this project would be the widening of West Street from 16th Street to Bluff Road. From Washington Street north West Street was SR 29. From Washington Street south, it would become SR 37. Again, the cost would be shared between the ISHC and the federal government.

Indianapolis News, 27 October 1948

The Emrichsville Bridge would last another 14 years. It was torn down in 1948 to create a wider, more direct bridge for 16th Street/US 52/SR 34 across White River. Ultimately, the new 16th Street from White River to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street would look as it does in the Google map shown below. It would also remain a state road until the late 1970s, when US 136 (formerly SR 34) was removed from inside the I-465 loop. US 52 had been the first removed and rerouted along I-465 when that road was complete from the northwest side to the southeast side.