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.

Bicycling the National Road West from Indianapolis

Route map from the Indianapolis News, 11 April 1896, showing bicycling routes.

Today’s Bicycling Thursday I want to go back to the Indianapolis News of 11 April 1896, which covered routes west of Indianapolis, starting with the National Road. While the article mentions shorter routes that use other roads back to the city, I want to stick to what is now Washington Street.

The first part of the journey was pretty much straight forward: “starting from Meridian and Washington streets, the run is out Washington street, which is paved some distance west of White River.” Before this point, the crossing of the White River could be done using one of two bridges, with more information available at “Indianapolis: Washington Street & National Road Bridges.” “Beyond the pavement, to the point where the National Road proper begins, the street is badly cut up.” This would be the section from roughly the Belt Railway to Mount Jackson, mentioned later. It was also mentioned that, while the road was in bad shape, the “going is good in the center of the car track.” Keep in mind that the “car track” mentioned here is that of the street cars.

1889 map of Mount Jackson and Haughville along Washington St.

“The National road starts from Mount Jackson, three miles out, and runs off a little southwest.” The town of Mount Jackson stretched from what is now Belmont to Tibbs Avenues, south of Washington Street. (Haughville proper was along the same stretch, north of Washington Street.) At what is now Warman, the “Indiana Insane Hospital” property was located. This property would be later named Central State Hospital.

At the edge of the hospital property, “a dirt road running northwest, skirting Haughville and crossing the Osterman (10 Street from White River to the Danville State Road), Crawfordsville and Lafayette roads.” This is now Tibbs Avenue.

1889 map of the National Road from the Eagle Creek crossing west, also showing the original connection of the National and Rockville Roads.

After passing the hospital, the old road passes over Eagle Creek “on a good iron bridge, the approaches to which are easy.” It then crosses the Big Four railway, which at the time was an at-grade crossing. The road then turns more to the southwest. Here “there has been a liberal supply of fresh gravel distributed over the road for about one mile, but there is a hard path at the side.” Also, there are two dirt roads branching from the main road in this section. One goes to Maywood, which is now Tibbs Avenue south of Washington Street. The other is between Tibbs and the place where the original Rockville Road turned northwest from the National Road (that intersection is now where Holt Road meets Washington Street).

About a mile from Rockville Road, the old road crosses a toll road that is a continuation of Morris Street from Indianapolis (and has that name today), the Emma Hanck turnpike. “Six miles from the city is a grocery and blacksmith shop, which may be used to good advantage by unfortunates.” This is between Morris Street and High School Road, which was called the Forsha Turnpike, which connected the National Road to Ben Davis Post Office. At seven miles from the city, a “pleasant resting place for the first riders” at a big saw mill. A dirt road near this point, running north and south, could allow a rider wanting a short ride to connect back to the city via “half a dozen turnpikes running east and west.”

At a point 9.5 miles from the city, where the road passes through a small, well shaded village called Bridgeport. The road then continues over White Lick Creek and rumbles toward Plainfield over what was a recent installment of fresh gravel. Finally, before leaving Marion County, the rider will come across a “large nursery, with green and white buildings and storehouses, situated on the side of a hill” just at the edge of the county line.