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Indiana’s Old Michigan Road
nominated for historic byway

Designation would encourage
‘heritage tourism,’ officials say

By Laura Hodges
Contributing Writer

April 2011 Edition Cover

April 2011
Edition Cover

(April 2011) – Michigan Road has linked Madison, Ind., to the rest of Indiana for more than 175 years.
Beginning as little more than a cleared path through the forest, Michigan Road was the way early settlers made their way north to less populated locales, business people moved their goods and American civilization spread. From the end of West Street in Madison, it stretches north to Lake Michigan at Michigan City, a distance of 264 miles.
Michigan Road is an important part of the history of Jefferson and Ripley counties, along with the other 15 counties through which it passes.
The route of Michigan Road was possible because of an 1828 treaty with the Potawatami Indians. Sadly, Michigan Road was also the route by which the tribe was forcibly removed from the state in 1838.
With its long and colorful history, Michigan Road has been nominated to be recognized as a Historic State Byway. In December, a steering committee representing 17 counties submitted the application to the Indiana Department of Transportation. The steering committee is composed of individuals from the counties through which the historic route passes. Members include elected and appointed officials, Main Street Program directors, economic development and tourism directors, historians and business owners.
In Jefferson County, Ind., the representatives are Linda Lytle, executive director of the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Rhonda Deeg, executive director of the Madison Main Street Program.
Ripley County members are Katherine Taul, Ripley County Tourism Director, and Susan Craig, executive director of the Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
Taul thinks the byway proposal will encourage heritage tourism. “It not only emphasizes the historical aspects but also some of our unique communities and it will encourage people to come visit them.”
The initial champions of recognizing Michigan Road as a historic byway were Jim Grey of Indianapolis and Kurt Garner of Plymouth, Ind.
Garner, who calls himself a “historic preservation geek,” first traveled the length of the route in 1999. It was his choice of a vacation trip after he won a bet with his wife about how much snow they would get in Plymouth. He remembers reaching Madison on St. Patrick’s Day, enjoying Irish music at a Madison nightspot and staying at a charming bed-and-breakfast. His idyllic Hoosier getaway became the germ of an idea. He wrote about the experience on his blog, “Hoosier Happenings.”
In Indianapolis, Grey read of Garner’s Michigan Road trek on the blog. Coincidentally, he had been blogging about Michigan Road, too.

Stone Bridge

Photo courtesy of Katherine Taul

The old stone bridge north of
Jefferson Proving Ground in Ripley
County, Ind., is mentioned as a
possible interpretive site for the
Michigan Road. Built in 1913 by C.R.
Yates, it is known locally as the
Nobbs Ford-Shepard Bridge.

Grey had grown up in South Bend, four blocks away from Michigan Street, and had moved to Indianapolis, where he lived close to Michigan Road. He had a hobby of researching old road alignments.
“Through that research I came to learn that not only was Michigan Street in South Bend and Michigan Road in Indianapolis part of the same road, but it went all the way to Madison.”
He made his first trip to Madison in 2008. Traveling on Saturdays that summer, Grey took more than 1,000 photos of Michigan Road. Many of them can now be found on the project website, www.historicmichiganroad.org.
Garner and Grey got together in August 2008 and started talking about ways to celebrate the once-famous Indiana road that had been nearly forgotten. A partnership was born.
They introduced the Historic Michigan Road Byway project at an Indiana State Byways Conference in Aurora in May 2010. Work on the application began in June. The idea has garnered wide support. In fact, when the final application was submitted in December, it was accompanied by 80 letters of support.
“People understand it will be a vital economic revitalization tool for their communities,” said Garner.
In the application, Garner and Grey make a strong case for recognizing Michigan Road. “The Michigan Road’s history is no less than a microcosm of Indiana’s history. Our state’s early growth, its booms and busts, its proudest and most shameful moments – all have been played out along the Michigan Road. The Michigan Road was arguably the most important transportation route in the fledgling State of Indiana,” says the nomination.

Children with marker

Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County
Historical Society Research Library

A group of children pose in front
of the Michigan Road stone marker
at the D.A.R. monument unveiling
held Sept. 23, 1916, in Madison
for the new highway. The children
are (from left) Elizabeth Barber,
Margaret Rea, Ellen Garber, Mary
Kealty and Mary Goode Garber.

The Indiana legislature commissioned Michigan Road in 1826, just six years after the founding of Indianapolis. As the first state road, it was envisioned to link the Ohio River and Lake Michigan, by way of the new state capital.
Although Madison was the state’s largest city at the time, it was not a foregone conclusion that Madison would become the southern terminus.
In 1828, the Indiana House selected Evansville for that honor, while the Senate chose Madison. Madison finally got the nod on Jan. 6, 1830, with the governor approving the choice a week later, according to the late Hanover, Ind., historian Frank S. Baker.
Baker quoted journalist David Barnett of the Logansport Pharos Tribune for the “inside story” of Madison’s selection. It was told in a seven-part series in the Logansport Pharos Tribute in December 1949 and January 1950.
The story goes that Jefferson County representatives in the state Legislature threw their support behind an appropriation for the Wabash Canal, with the understanding that legislators from that part of the state would reciprocate when it came time to decide which Ohio River city would get the Michigan Road. Although there was an expensive lobbying campaign by Cincinnati interests to build to Lawrenceburg, Jefferson County’s James R. Wallace stepped forward and reminded the Wabash Valley legislators of their promise. At that point, “Lawrenceburg” was struck from the bill and replaced with “Madison.” It was passed in that form, and Madison got the Michigan Road.

An application nominating the 270-miles Michigan
Road between Madison and Michigan City in
Indiana as a historic byway was submitted to
the Indiana Department of Transportation on
Dec. 21, 2010. It included more than 80 letters
of support. Supporters hope the designation will
promote heritage tourism along the route. To
learn more, visit: www.HistoricMichiganRoad.org.

In the less-settled northern part of the state, the proposed road had other complications. It would have to traverse Indian territory. The solution was an 1828 treaty with the Potawatomi tribe. The Native Americans ceded a strip of land 100 feet wide from Lake Michigan to the Wabash River at Logansport, as well as one section of good land contiguous to the road for each mile. The total land grant was approximately 168,000 acres.
The United States promised to pay the tribe an annuity of $2,000 in silver for 22 years, a sum of $2,000 annually for Indiana education, funds to build a mill and provide for a miller, and 100 bushels of salt per year.
These promises were soon forgotten. By 1838 the tribe was marched out of Indiana – along part of the Michigan Road itself – to be resettled in Kansas. The route of their travels has been labeled the “Trail of Death” because of their suffering. More than 40 people, mostly children, died of typhoid or exhaustion on the march.
Construction of Michigan Road from Madison to Logansport occurred between August 1830 and November 1831.The contract commissioner who supervised the project was Noah Noble of Brookville, Ind,. He worked on the project until he was elected Indiana’s fifth governor in 1831.
The portion of the road between Madison and Logansport was 163 miles. By the end of 1831, approximately 132 miles of road had been cleared, with the remaining 30 almost finished.

Construction contracts for the 163-mile section from Madison to Logansport totaled $62,070, or $380.80 per mile. This was substantially more than either the National Road ($220 per mile) or the northern part of the Michigan Road ($288 per mile), apparently due to the number of bridges needed on the Madison-Logansport section. The southern section had 19 framed bridges, 199 puncheon bridges and 264 graded hills, while the northern section required five framed bridges, 87 puncheon bridges and 93 graded hills.
The entire length of Michigan Road was substantially completed by 1834, although the lack of bridges over the Tippecanoe and Eel rivers caused headaches for several more years.
By today’s standards, road conditions were poor. The original requirement was that a 100-foot-wide swath be cleared of trees, with no tree stumps more than one foot high. In the middle 30 feet, tree stumps were to be grubbed out. There was no requirement that the road be graveled or paved. It would have been rough going for the horse-drawn vehicles traversing it.
With no state highway commission, counties were responsible for road maintenance. In order to make improvements, some parts of the road were awarded to road building companies who charged tolls. A common way to improve the roadway was with wooden planking.
Barnett, the Logansport journalist, quoted from a journal written by a traveler who used Michigan Road in 1833. The journal reveals: “I have just reached here (Madison) again, after as miserable a ride as I have ever had. I have rode 40 miles since half after 11 today, over the same dull interminable Michigan road, in a more dreary, muddy and lonesome day than that of my first ride upon it. No one can form an idea of the utter desolation of such a ride until he tries it. The road is hemmed in on both sides by a dense wall of trees, towering up in the swamps and bogs, except in a few precious places, where rises a new log cabin, which is announced to you, some time before you see it, either by the sign post or a tavern or the barking of a dog.”

Michigan Rd. Crossing Sign

Photo by Don Ward

This crossroad sign stands at the
origination of Old Michigan Road in
downtown Madison, Ind. The road
traverses the entire state of Indiana,
from north to south.

The historic byway designation, if it is granted, could lead to increased heritage tourism for cities and towns along the route, especially Madison, the southern terminus, which is already positioned to attract travelers with history on their minds.
“Kurt and I say all the time we couldn’t have asked for a better anchor city for the Michigan Road,” said Grey. “In the north we hear, ‘Heritage tourism – what’s that?’ But in the south, in Madison, you get it.”
Because Michigan Road was an important route on the Underground Railroad, the byway application mentions Madison’s Georgetown District, the 19th century home of many free African-Americans, as a potential interpretive site. Michigan Hill, the busy city street that connects the center of downtown Madison with the hilltop, could be another interpretive site.
North of Madison, Michigan Road merges into and follows the route of U.S. Hwy. 421. It forms the eastern border of the U.S. Army’s Jefferson Proving Ground.
The original alignment of Michigan Road veers off Hwy. 421 in Ripley County, just north of the proving ground. It continues through New Marion and Dabney before rejoining Hwy. 421 in Napoleon.
In Ripley County, the old stone bridge north of Jefferson Proving Ground is mentioned as another possible interpretive site. Built in 1913 by C.R. Yates, it is known locally as the Nobbs Ford-Shepard Bridge. Bonaparte’s Retreat Restaurant in Napoleon was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to Taul. There is an opening in the restaurant’s basement that connects to an escape tunnel.
For motorists wanting to better understand Indiana’s history and heritage, Michigan Road represents a pleasant journey through beautiful country sides and fascinating small towns. With interpretive maps, literature and signage, Michigan Road will continue to offer a drivable history lesson for generations to come.

• To learn more about the history of Michigan Road, visit www.HistoricMichiganRoad.org. To view Jim Grey’s images of Michigan Road in Jefferson and Ripley counties, visit: www.JimGrey.net.

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