Sunday, February 12, 2017

Old Highway Alignments

Before roads were widely numbered, people relied upon AAA “Blue Books” to help them get around. You’d need a navigator every time you drove much distance in an unfamiliar territory! That’s because roads were imperfectly marked and followed zigzagging, sometimes informal paths. I’ve a copy of the 1915 AAA Blue Book. Here’s part of the directions if you were driving from St. Louis to Vincennes (p. 291):

66.2 7.3 4-corners, church and blacksmith shop on right; turn left and take first right crossing RR.
66.6 0.4 End of road; jog left and take first right, following poles.
70.2 3.6 End of road; turn right across RR. And immediately left, bearing right away from tracks. Go straight ahead into
75.9 5.7. Salem, Court House on left. Keep straight ahead cross R.R. 76.4. Road is direct with poles. Jog left and right, 77.2, winding through woods 81.5 past Xenia (on right—92.8)

That’s actually one of the easier routes!

I found physical evidence of a very old, winding road like this. It's on U.S. 51, about twenty miles south of my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. As you approach a small rest area, just north of Sandoval, IL, you're southbound but you can see seams in the pavement where the road once made a left-hand curve. Turning there, you visit a small rest area, from the era when people (like my dad!) fixed their own food for road trips. Following the old road south, you soon come to a tall bridge for the narrow pavement. I love the bridge partly because you rarely see concrete bridges this tall (over four feet), and partly because the bridge has a plaque that preserves the name of the builder). Continuing south, you can also see the seams where the old road curved to the right. After a short while, the road rejoins the modern pavement of U.S. 51.

But think back to the early days of automobile travel, and you realize that  a major highway would’ve once included such an indirect pathway! You have to assume that the original highway routes followed the paths of existing local roads.  If you look on 1920s and 1930s Illinois maps, you can see how this road is depicted with these turns. The photos below are from a February 2017 road trip.

Locating such early alignments is interesting. I’ve spotted other abandoned alignments along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. U.S. 40 between Troy and Highland, and near Marshall, Illinois, parallels abandoned and overgrown stretches of roadbed, presumably from the 1910s or the 1920s. Heading back north to Vandalia, you come to the small communities of Patoka and then Shobonier, and you can see the old pavements at the outskirts, where old 51 had once got straight through those towns, instead of a short distance around them.

I remember another interesting find, which I haven't revisited for years. It's a highway bridge deep in timber. I was scouting the remains of a pioneer town, Old Loogootee in Fayette Co., Illinois. I found a few bricks from buildings, but I also found that narrow bridge fording a stream. There was little evidence of a road there, the old Vincennes Road that became state route 185. The bridge was haunting in its incongruity.

At Vandalia, the original path of Route 40 has until recently been signed Illinois 140 but, for reasons having to do with state and local maintenance, it carries no number at all until the outskirts of Mulberry Grove.  I wish I had a picture of the Abe Lincoln Motel that once stood well within the city limits on the old route (in town called St. Louis Ave.); one of my earliest memories was the small motel (no more than ten rooms) and a sign along the street.  It had not operated for many years as a motel before it was finally razed in the late 1990s.  But just beyond the city limits, an early alignment veers off the old road and makes a curve of several hundred feet.  This is a remnant of the original automobile highway, State Route 11 or National Old Trails Highway of the teens and twenties.  Further east, just beyond Hagerstown, a 1920 Route 11 bridge sits alongside the modern pavement, overgrown with small trees.

A few years ago I found a wonderful book about landscape exploration, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999. If a person is interested in evidences of 20th century American culture (not just roads but railroads and small town life), Stilgoe is a good author for ideas and inspiration!

Rest area/old US 51, curving toward the main road northbound

Rest area/old US 51, curving toward the main board northbound

After taking the previous photo, I turned around and looked south:
the original road dead-ends but soon resumes southbound
toward an old bridge

Old US 51 and bridge, about 4-1/2 feet fall

Bridge plaque, dating it to 1920,
when this stretch of old US 51 was still
Illinois State Route 2.

Bridge plaque, identifying the builder! 

South of the bridge, old 51 curves to the right and
rejoins the present alignment. 

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