Indiana Highways and Where We're Headed as Americans

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A highway project in Indiana prompts thoughts about where we’re headed as Americans.

Martinsville, Ind. — Just visible through the trees off Indiana State Road 37, south of Indianapolis, there was for many years a derelict iron bridge carrying a fragment of an older incarnation of the highway.

You wouldn’t have known to look at it, but that old pony-truss bridge was an indirect ancestor not only of State Road 37, presently being converted to the southern-Indiana leg of Interstate 69, but of the whole American interstate system.

The conversion of Indiana 37 is the latest step in a controversial project that began near Evansville in 2008 and has been marching up the 142 miles between southwest Indiana and Indianapolis ever since. Presently there are about 30 miles to go.

Waiting in my car amid the dust and roar of earth movers recently, I noticed that the old iron bridge was gone, finally giving way to time and progress, cleared to make room for a county road exit ramp.

It’s too bad. The bridge was one of the last remnants of the old, winding two-lane State Road 37 that was replaced in 1976 by the four-lane on which I’m stopped in construction traffic. Old roads don’t just magically vanish when bypassed. Through the years they tend to fade slowly away, a bit like Cheshire cats, leaving traces of themselves behind. The bridge was one of those traces.

Old 37 today is just a lane here, a weed-covered track there; in places a longish driveway. A piece of it winds for a lovely ten miles or so through the Hoosier National Forest above Bloomington, along wooded ridgetops and past old rural settlements like Hindustan and Dolan, now just loose scatterings of well-lived-in roadside homes.

Some places it’s plainly marked as Old 37. Other pieces bear different names: New Harmony Road, Liberty Church Road, Hacker Creek Road. The practiced eye can spot these ghosts of the old highway by their character of meandering Indian trail (which they quite likely grew from) compared to the squared-off grid of county-road systems.

There are people who make a hobby of finding and tracing these old tracks — the forgotten slivers of crumbling cement, asphalt, and sometimes brick they call “alignments,” the tag ends of early motor-age roads like the old east-west Lincoln Highway and its successor, the more famous Route 66. These hobbyists are a bit like explorers of an America that is in the sad process of disappearing, buried by time and poor choices.

As it happens, the old, two-lane 37 was in its turn the descendant of one of these older traces, call it the ur-37, the Indiana portion of a route from the Midwest to Florida known as the Dixie Highway, which existed under that name from about 1915 to 1926, when the country moved to a more uniform highway-numbering system.

The brainchild of Indianapolis businessman Carl G. Fisher, a principal in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and an auto-parts inventor and salesman, the Dixie Highway was created to be an escape route from bitter Midwestern winters to warm, sunny holidays in the South — especially another Fisher creation, the resort city of Miami Beach.

The Dixie — at first merely a skein of loosely connected local roads — zigzagged through parts of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, labored up and through the mountains of Tennessee and northern Georgia, and then coasted down through the tobacco fields and pine barrens into Florida. At a time when roads almost invariably centered on and served rural America’s innumerable tiny villages, the Dixie Highway became in a sense the nation’s first primitive interstate-highway system.

It also prefigured and midwifed the birth of the automobile age and the explosion of travel by road. As detailed in the book Dixie Highway, by Tammy Ingram, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, road-building then shifted from a chaotic, locally controlled process-on-the-fly to a high-priority national project.

But it wasn’t easy. Ingram describes the fractious process of choosing the Dixie’s route, with communities vying for its promised tourism dollars and access to regional markets. A 1915 planning meeting in Chattanooga brought the competing parties together and promptly devolved into a donnybrook that earned the nickname “The Second Battle of Chattanooga.”

Eventually, Fisher and the Dixie Highway Association simply chose not to choose, essentially doubling the communities it served by creating two north–south branches instead of one main trunk. Connector roads between the branches almost accidentally gave the Dixie its prototypical highway-system character.

Like the Dixie Highway, the planning process for Indiana’s southern leg of I-69 — the work presently underway here — was also a rough road, so to speak. There were lawsuits, protests, and angry slogans painted on the statehouse. But this time people weren’t clamoring to be included; they wanted out. They demanded that the highway project be stopped or rerouted away from them.

The reasons they gave were manifold: The funding violated the debt-averse Indiana constitution. It would ruin the folksy character of the countryside. It might damage the karst system of caves and sinkholes honeycombing the limestone beneath south-central Indiana. A vocal minority made it sound like the highway would kill the lifestyles of thousands of Hoosiers, but many just wanted to come and go without hours spent on winding two-lanes that were old in the 1950s. I grew up in far southwest Indiana, and I can testify that the lack of decent highways linking it to the rest of the state was a matter of dour humor down there for decades.

Finally, a judge allowed the project to go forward, but the contrast between the enthusiastic can-do spirit of a century ago and today’s don’t-you-dare mood couldn’t be more stark. In the earlier era the impulse was to find a way to get something done. Now, it’s to find a way to get things stopped. Today, the Dixie Highway might have been stopped before it was started by a 60 Minutes exposé of millionaire Carl Fisher’s “hidden Miami Beach real-estate holdings.”

It’s comforting that Indiana, and the Midwest in general, is among the last redoubts where things like this very necessary project can get past the small number of squeaky wheels that keep holding up traffic elsewhere.

But too often now everything is vulnerable. Want to support private schools? No, that kills public education. Want to put a political sign in your yard? Your homeowners’ association will want to speak to you. Want to send kids back to school because practically everyone — except the teachers’ unions, oddly enough — thinks it’s best for them? The first allergy sneeze will cause a panicked stampede for home.

We seem to be frozen in fear of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as places like Portland and Seattle are abandoning the rule of law in the face of rioters. Could it be that America’s tradition of risk-taking and civic spirit has also been undermined and bypassed like that old bridge near Martinsville?

The modern truism that it is much easier to apologize than to get permission only demonstrates how common the don’t-do-it default has become.

We didn’t use to be like this. The Dixie Highway when it opened in many stretches consisted of tailbone-pounding dirt roads through fields, forests, and occasionally streams. Automobiles were held together with baling twine and good works. At sunset travelers didn’t look for a Holiday Inn Express; they pulled into some fallow field or alongside a river, set up camp, and settled in for the night. It was a risk, but people were happy to take it to get where they were going.

Today, even with all our roads and planes and high-speed rail and cars that will park themselves and slap you back into the correct lane when you wander, we sometimes seem afraid to move. It’s no surprise we end up going nowhere.

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