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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Michigan Road helped settle Indiana

Despite its name, the Michigan Road was not the primary route over which pioneer settlers reached the Michigan Territory. The Michigan Road’s name came from Lake Michigan, and it was the primary north-and-south route that settlers used to reach Indiana, which had become a state in 1816. 

The Michigan Road provided the shortest practical route between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes during the pioneer period (when waterways were the principal means of travel). It connected Madison, Indiana, which is located on the northern bank of the Ohio River, with what became Michigan City on Lake Michigan. 

The route of the Michigan Road through Indiana. (Map: historicmichiganroad.org)
The route of the Michigan Road through Indiana. (Map: historicmichiganroad.org)

History

The Michigan Road was one of the earliest roads in Indiana. However, as was true in many locations across the United States at that time, roads in early Indiana were often roads in name only. Often they were crude paths that followed old animal and Native American trails and had sinkholes, stumps and deep ruts. Indiana’s political and financial leaders realized that better roads were needed for the growth and economic health of the state. They encouraged the  construction of roads that would do for Indiana what the National Road was doing for parts of the rest of the nation. 

Therefore, just five years after becoming a state, the Indiana General Assembly appropriated funds for more than two dozen roads throughout Indiana.

A treaty between Indiana and the Pottawatomie tribe was signed on October 16, 1826. The treaty provided the state a strip of land that was 100 feet wide to stretch from the town of Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan. Ironically, the Pottawatomie used the Michigan Road when the last of the tribe was forcibly removed in the 1838 Pottawatomie Trail of Death.

The Michigan Road in Madison, Indiana. (Photo: NPS.gov)
The Michigan Road in Madison, Indiana. (Photo: NPS.gov)

A commission was selected in 1828 to survey the road’s route from Indianapolis to Lake Michigan. The commission was instructed to select the best harbor on Lake Michigan as the road’s trailhead. (What became Michigan City was formally selected to be the trail-end in 1832.) The right-angled turn at South Bend was created to avoid the swamps near the Kankakee River.  

The route selected for the Michigan Road went through 14 counties and stretched 267 miles, traversing Indiana by the shortest practical route. It began at Madison (on the traffic-laden Ohio River) because Madison offered a suitable landing nearest to Indianapolis (the new state capital), 92 miles away. The Michigan Road then ran 71 miles to the Wabash River crossing at Logansport; 68 miles through dense forest to South Bend on the southern bank of the St. Joseph River; and then west 36 miles to what became Michigan City on Lake Michigan.

In 1836, the state legislature passed the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act, which provided funds for the entire road. However, financial difficulties driven by overspending and the Panic of 1837 caused the state to enter partial bankruptcy before the entire length of the Michigan Road was built. That forced Indiana to hand control of the road to the individual counties in order to avoid losing it to the state’s creditors.

Construction on the Michigan Road began in the mid-1830s and lasted for nearly a decade. It was built from Madison to Michigan City via Indianapolis. About half of the pioneers that settled northwestern Indiana did so by using the Michigan Road to travel from the Ohio River to their destination. 

The Michigan Road ran through 14 Indiana counties. This is a book that provides the history of the road in one county. (Photo: IN.gov)
The Michigan Road ran through 14 Indiana counties. This is a book that provides the history of the road in one county. (Photo: IN.gov)

The “movers”

The pioneers were termed “movers.” They drove mainly covered wagons powered by teams of oxen through the hills of the state’s southern counties to the fertile prairies beyond the Wabash River. At that time, the Michigan Road was passable during the eight months of the year when the weather was fav­orable. However, during winter the road became a stream of mud that was virtually useless for travel. In central Indiana, the Michigan Road crossed a level plain covered with woods “so dense that the rays of the summer sun rarely penetrated to the forest floor.” There were also vast swamps and forest streams “choked with windfalls, underbrush and debris.” 

Despite the difficulties of the “dark, forested wilderness, the dismal swamps, the rocky and muddy stretches of the Michigan Road, the hostile Indians and the wild animals,” those early settlers made their way forward. Despite its obstacles, the Michigan Road opened Indiana to commerce and settlement. 

The Michigan Road was used by emigrants from Pennsylvania, New England, and other eastern states. They used flatboats, barges and rafts to float down the Ohio River to begin their northward journey at Madison. At the same time, settlers who journeyed northward from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas crossed the Ohio River from Milton to Madison. 

The Michigan Road near Madison, Indiana. (Photo: NPS.gov)
The Michigan Road near Madison, Indiana.
(Photo: NPS.gov)

The 20th century

The Michigan Road from Michigan City to South Bend was designated U.S. Route 20 and southerly from South Bend to Rochester as U.S. Route 31 in 1925. State Road 29 (SR 29) followed the route from Madison to Bryantsburg, and from Napoleon north to Logansport. SR 25 followed the original route to Rochester. 

Today

Parts of the Michigan Road still exist. What began as a dirt path through the woods is now a series of county, state and US highways, officially recognized by Indiana as a State Historic Byway in 2011. 

A Michigan Road sign in Indianapolis. (Photo: historicindianapolis.com)
A Michigan Road sign in Indianapolis. (Photo: historicindianapolis.com)