Daniel Lee finds in the memory of the historic Dixie Highway a reminder of the old America, the optimistic, enterprizing, Get-Things-Done America, that was so different than today’s endlessly complaining, obstructionist, afraid-of-everything America.
Martinsville, Ind. â€” 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 wouldnâ€™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.
Itâ€™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 Iâ€™m stopped in construction traffic. Old roads donâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€” the forgotten slivers of crumbling cement, asphalt, and sometimes brick they call â€œalignments,â€ 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 â€” especially another Fisher creation, the resort city of Miami Beach.
The Dixie â€” at first merely a skein of loosely connected local roads â€” 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 Americaâ€™s innumerable tiny villages, the Dixie Highway became in a sense the nationâ€™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 wasnâ€™t easy. Ingram describes the fractious process of choosing the Dixieâ€™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 â€œThe Second Battle of Chattanooga.â€
Eventually, Fisher and the Dixie Highway Association simply chose not to choose, essentially doubling the communities it served by creating two northâ€“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 Indianaâ€™s southern leg of I-69 â€” the work presently underway here â€” was also a rough road, so to speak. There were lawsuits, protests, and angry slogans painted on the statehouse. But this time people werenâ€™t clamoring to be included; they wanted out. They demanded that the highway project be stopped or rerouted away from them. …
Finally, a judge allowed the project to go forward, but the contrast between the enthusiastic can-do spirit of a century ago and todayâ€™s donâ€™t-you-dare mood couldnâ€™t be more stark. In the earlier era the impulse was to find a way to get something done. Now, itâ€™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 exposÃ© of millionaire Carl Fisherâ€™s â€œhidden Miami Beach real-estate holdings.â€