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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

National Road part of county's history

Friday, May 21, 2010

Putnam County contains pieces of one of our nation's proudest symbols -- the historic Old National Road (US 40).

This road runs across the center of the state of Indiana and stretches from one end of Putnam County to the other. All together, it covers 156 miles in the state from Richmond to Terre Haute.

The idea of the road was originally George Washington's, although it did not become a reality until 1806 when Congress passed legislation during Thomas Jefferson's administration.

The nation's first federally funded road, it was first intended to connect the eastern seaboard in Maryland to the western interior in Illinois.

The road reached Indiana in 1827 and was completed in 1834. It was nothing more than a dirt path with trees cut just high enough for Conestoga wagons to get by. But it brought thousands of pioneers to the state.

The Indiana section of the road was designated a State Scenic Byway in 1996 and a National Scenic Byway in 1998. In 2002, the entire road from Maryland to Illinois was designated an All-American Road because of its historical and cultural significance. It is the longest byway, crossing the greatest number of states to receive this honor.

Numerous historic sites can be found along the roadside including some in Putnam County.

Behind the old Walker Motel lies a section of the original National Road. One can drive down the hill behind the motel to an enormous concrete bridge over Deer Creek. If you look to the south, you can see where early pioneers forded the river and where the original covered and iron bridges crossed the creek.

The concrete bridge eventually replaced these structures and served as the only way across the creek until the highway was rerouted to its current location. From this one spot, travelers can see four generations of the historic road.

There are other sections of the old historic road denoted with historic markers along the newer sections of road. One area about a mile past the intersection of US 231 and US 40 has a small section of the old road running both east and west.

Even the Putnamville prison that not only houses federal prisoners, but also contains an old museum, is considered a historic spot along the road.

Old abandoned gas stations, stores, towns and motels are all a testament to the passage of time along the road. As Interstate 70 was completed in the early 1970s, the flavor of the old historic highway changed lives forever.

The small towns of Manhattan and Reelsville, like so many towns along the road, slowly lost populations and thriving business and faded into history.

Near Putnam County, one can drive to other historic locations situated along U.S. 40.

Stilesville was settled in 1823, before the National Road reached western Indiana. This area is a small town with a unique past. The cemetery, which is unusually large for a town this size, was created when town founder Jeremiah Stiles buried his wife there.

Not long after, a group of pioneers who were traveling the road through town stopped to rest and eat supper. Unfortunately, several in the group got food poisoning. Fourteen died and were all buried in the cemetery, thus creating a large cemetery in a small town.

Just outside Stilesville on the Putnam County border is Rising Hall. Melville F. McHaffie built this extraordinary Italianate home in 1872 at a cost of $2,500.

McHaffie raised mules and received a commendation from President Lincoln for providing the Union Army with the largest number of mules during the Civil War.

McHaffie's son Ernest later ran the farm as breeding and training facility for race horses. The famous trotter Dan Patch even trained on the farm at the turn of the 20th century. This home is an excellent, little altered example of the Italianate style. Rising Hall is a private home and is not open to the public.

At the western end of our county lies Clay County. It also has several historic spots located along U.S. 40.

The brick and coal industries fueled much of the Brazil area's growth during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Brazil block coal was considered "unsurpassed and almost unequalled in the entire Mississippi Valley." By 1908, there were 24 mines, each producing well over 1,000 tons of coal per day.

At the same time, clay industries were booming as well. In fact, Brazil's clay works produced most of the brick used to pave the original road across Indiana. So, you could say the road built Brazil and later Brazil built the road, literally. The Brick and Coal Museum located in Brazil is a link to town's illustrious past.

On the west end of town, just two blocks from the Historic National Road, is the Mansfield Stone Quarry. The quarry has been producing sandstone of building quality since the 19th century. Many of the brownstones in New York City and Chicago were built with stone from this quarry. The giant limestone state of Indiana sculpture at the entrance to the new Indiana State Museum was sculpted with stone from the quarry as well. The quarry is open to the public and tours are available.

For information and maps about historic U.S. 40 in Indiana visit www.indiananationalroad.org or www.route40.net.

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