Michigan Road at White River

Indiana tends to be an enigma. The people, generally, tend to look at maintaining the status quo when it comes to government and institutions. Yet, somehow, the motto of “progress, progress, progress” rings when it comes to places and roads of historic value. There has been a lot of history torn out around Indiana in the name of progress. And this is very evident when it comes to the paths and trails that served Indiana, but are best left either bypassed or destroyed by the march of progress.

Indianapolis News, 30 August 1919

This subject started while looking for an article about the Michigan Road…and it being accepted into the state highway system. I will have to get back to that subject at some point. Anyway, I found an article in the Indianapolis News talking about the Michigan Road Bridge over White River (the one near Butler University) with the headline “Michigan Road Bridge Over White River, Numbered Among The Doomed, Will Give Way To A Modern Structure As Its Contemporaries Did.”

The bridge in question had been there so long that locals didn’t know what the County Commissioners were talking about when they called it the Northwestern Avenue bridge. It had always been (and still is today) the Michigan Road bridge, calling back to the time when the road was the primary north-south route from Indianapolis to South Bend. “The pioneers forget that Indianapolis is a growing city, and that the one far distant Michigan road bridge is now at the edge of town.”

The News goes on to talk about the interesting and romantic history of the old bridge. First, the talk of the cycling path for the days that riding a bicycle was all the rage. The cycling path in question ran along the southern/eastern bank of the Central Canal at the southern end of the Michigan Road bridge. A toll house on the cycle path (apparently, the path was a toll road for bicycles) was located at the Michigan Road bridge. “Wheelmen,” as bicyclists were called at the time, would detour to the cycle path to ride toward downtown. The cycle path would later cross Northwestern Avenue later, near 16th Street.

The White River sits between two rather large hills along the Michigan Road. When the age of the automobile came, climbing out of the White River valley was quite the chore. Of course, these hills were a challenge to the bicycles before the cars…and the horses before the bicycles. By 1919, the treacherous hills on both sides of the valley had been reduced in grade. In the early days of automobiles, the two hills were used for engine testing in hill climbs. Announcements months in advance would tell of the coming time to test your motors climbing the Michigan Road hills.

Closeup of the above image from the Indianapolis News showing just the Northwestern Avenue (Michigan Road) bridge over White River.

The bridge that was in place in 1919 was a replacement for an original wooden covered bridge at the site. “It has been gone for many years, having failed to stand up under heavy and constantly increasing strain of travel over the Michigan road.” The first image in this article also shows the Northwestern Avenue bridge over Fall Creek, or at least the one that had been replaced prior to publication of the 30 August 1919 article.

Despite the amount of traffic carried by the Michigan Road, it would take several more years before this section would once again become a state road. The replacement of the bridge over White River was taken on by Marion County, not the state.

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.

National Road Tidbits

Over the long history of what was the National Road, there are tons of stories told. Tales of lives, tolls, decisions, and other things that have been basically lost to history.

A brief history of the road screams to be told. President Thomas Jefferson signed the law creating the Cumberland, or National, Road on 29 March 1806. The commission that charted the road decided that Braddock’s Road would be followed from Cumberland, MD, to Brownsville, PA. Pennsylvania only approved the road if it would pass through Uniontown and Washington, PA. So, the road followed a native american trail from Brownsville to Washington. From there, the road was was to go to either Wheeling, VA (now WV) or Steubenville, OH. Wheeling won after some influence of Henry Clay.

It would not be until 3 March 1825 that the Congress gave the green light to extension of this road. Appropriations were outlaid to build the road to Zanesville, OH, and survey the route through the capital cities of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. By 1832, the National Road reached the Indiana-Ohio State Line. (An astute reader now asks the question why the National Road doesn’t connect to Springfield, IL. Well, the capital of Illinois at the time was Vandalia, which is one the National Road. Springfield became the capital in 1839.) Hence, the history of the building of the National Road…in shortcut fashion.

But local stories abound when it comes to the road. For instance, in Richmond, according to the Richmond Paladium-Item of 2 October 1910, “Main street turns near Ninth and makes a slight curve towards the northwest. One hundred years ago there was a large mud puddle north of Main street and when the National road was constructed the contractors built it around the puddle. Main street retained the curve.”

The National Road would also be the site of a County Seat War in Wayne County. Wayne County’s government had been located in Centerville since it was legally moved from Salisbury with an act of 21 December 1916. (The last meeting of county commissioners was held at Salisbury in August, 1817. [Indiana Boundaries: Territory, State and County, available on ancestry.com]) Later, a Wayne County courthouse was built in Richmond. Richmond officials went to Centerville to move the government. Centerville refused. The Richmond interests actually used cannon fire in the effort to move the county seat from Centerville to Richmond. According to the Plymouth Weekly Republican of 24 December 1874, the United States Supreme Court, with a unanimous decision, ended the county seat war in favor of Richmond. “The struggle between Richmond and Centerville has been protracted nearly two years.”

On 3 May 1919, the Indianapolis News published a story about the conditions and construction of the National Road through Indiana from the perspective of “caravans of motor lorries during war.” Very little of the old road was improved at the time of World War I. While most of the wartime traffic occurred by railroad, quite a bit went by truck. Very few roads at the time were improved, making travel no better than it had been for years. And, with the increase in truck traffic, the “Famous Old Highway Has Gone to Wreck – Miles of Hard Going Are to Be Found Along the Indiana Link of the Road Between Richmond and Terre Haute.”

The story of a couple of farmers in Wayne County is also worth mentioning. On the old road, west of Richmond, lived a man and woman “around which is woven one of the first romances of the National road in Indiana.” The story of their romance isn’t covered, being that it “does not concern us here.” Anyway, they bought a farm and became successful. However, a toll gate was built not far from their farm, requiring a toll to be paid to reach Richmond. They objected to this toll, to the point of building a road, on their property, around the toll gate.

With the National Road came the tavern. There were numerous taverns built along the way. Keep in mind that a tavern, at the time, included anything that a traveler needed to rest: food, drink, beds, and stables. One of the things reasons that US 40 is such a slow route across Indiana is the tavern. Towns sprung up around the tavern. Towns were placed at convenient intervals depending on the distance one could travel in a day. In the motoring era, these “convenient intervals” led to the motor hotel, or motel. In the four miles that I travel the National Road daily, from Cumberland to I-465, there are still three motel buildings in existence. I remember many more that have been demolished over the 50+ years that I have been alive.

In Indianapolis, the last vestiges of the National Road in downtown survived into the 20th century. Early in the century, the old National Road bridge, a covered bridge that originally carried the National Road over the White River, was finally removed. That bridge had been in place for over 70 years, although most traffic, at that point, had been using the Washington Street bridge. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that the original road, called Washington Avenue, was removed. Today, a walking path has been built along the path of the old road.

Over the 180+ years of the National Road in Indiana, there have been many lives affected. Their stories are out there. I hope to find more of them in the future.

Carroll County Toll Road Violence

In the late 19th century, laws were passed to allow county governments to purchase the toll roads that existed. The toll road was appraised, and an offer was made by the county to the owners of the road. Often times, it was a pretty straight forward deal. Sometimes, it wasn’t.

In Carroll County, it was not.

Most of the toll roads in the state were gone by the start of the 20th century. However, there was at least one in existence, the Burlington Turnpike. As late as August, 1900, the Burlington road was still a toll road. The Indianapolis News of 23 August 1900 reports that the turnpike company was offering a $2,000 reward for the arrest, and conviction, of the person, or persons, that dynamited a toll house along the road on 21 August 1900.

To that point, according to the article, people opposed to the toll company have destroyed two bridges and two toll houses. The toll keeper at a third toll house received a letter on 22 August, warning him to leave the toll house by that night. He complied. There was thoughts at the time that the third toll house would be dynamited, as well.

The people of Carroll County are up in arms that this old road is still a turnpike. There are several forces at play in the situation, as well. Carroll County commissioners refuse to buy the road. This is also supported by the businessmen of Delphi, that believe that trade would migrate to Logansport. They believe that would take business away “which rightly belong to Delphi.”

Other argue, contrary to the state law concerning such things, that if the road becomes free, it should do so without Carroll County spending any money at all on the project. Cass County already purchased their share of the road. Carroll County offered $400 a mile for the Burlington Pike. The owners in Logansport turned it down for being too low.

The county commissioners, at this point, found themselves in a precarious situation. While it was the goal to make the Burlington Pike a free road, as it was the last toll road in Carroll County, it brought on two very different mindsets that led to a mob rule situation. First were the people that wanted the road purchased but balked at the price. On the other hand were the people that demanded that the toll road company just give it, for free, to the county.

And then the fecal matter hit the rotating air movement machine.

“When it finally became apparent that nothing was to be expected of the commissioners, mutterings of mob law were heard, and in May the big bridge over Deer creek, near Burlington, was burned. A few nights later the Rock creek bridge was fired, and the Rock creek toll-house was destroyed by dynamite. A guard had been stationed at the gate, but he meekly obeyed the leaders of the mob when told to hitch up his horse and get out.”

As if that weren’t enough, the Rock Creek “bridge was not damaged much, and on the following evening the work was completed by a charge of dynamite.” The toll road company responded by placing guards at bridges and toll houses. They also places armed men to patrol the nine miles of road between the Carroll County line and Burlington. “This plan proved effective until Monday night, when it was tacitly understood that hostilities would cease, pending a decision as to purchase. It developed, however, that this change of front was simply a ruse to rid of the guards, and the dynamiters got in their work again Tuesday night.”

The toll road, constructed in 1867, was built using subscriptions and work solicited along the route. The response was great. But the claim was that there was a promise to make the road free after 20 years, or 1887. Certainly not going into 1900. To add insult to injury, the residents of the area claim that very little had been done to the road over the past fifteen years. “The bridges were in poor repair, so that it was unsafe to run traction engines and heavy loads over them.”

Carroll County officials were, apparently, of no help. “The Carroll county officials have offered no assistance. Cass county condemns the lawlessness over the border and declares that such violence would not be tolerated in Cass.”

Another Indianapolis News article, dated 8 May 1901, states that the toll road company and Carroll County officials finally made a purchase agreement. The final purchase price was listed at $3,600. An astute reader will notice that the purchase price agreed to was $400 a mile. I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

The last article mentioned that “this turnpike is a part of the old Government plank road from Indianapolis to Michigan City.” The section that I see six days a week going to and from work still has the original name: Michigan Road.

A follow up news story to the Burlington Road incident discusses the dynamiting of the old Wabash and Erie Canal dam across the Wabash River at Pittsburgh (unincorporated location across the Wabash River from Delphi) twenty years earlier. The guard was overpowered, and the northern half of the dam was blown up. According to the Indianapolis News of 24 August 1900, “no prosecution followed, and it is the opinion of many people now that the efforts of the turnpike company to prosecute those who used dynamite on the Burlington Road will also come to naught.”

As an aside, apparently mob rule in Carroll County was a big problem. Someone started a saloon in Burlington, only to have it repeatedly dynamited. The exact word used in the newspaper was “frequently.”