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Feel the Need for Speed in Indy

Cumberland Historic District

Cumberland Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

Transportation was the reason Indianapolis was founded. Legislators thought establishing the capital at a central location with good access to all parts of the state would serve both local and national ambitions. The goal of improving transportation never subsided and has had an impact on every era of the city’s growth. Beyond just getting there from here, transportation affected the way Indianapolis developed, industrialized, and even the way the city planned parks.

In the beginning, planners hoped that a strong combination of the National Road, Michigan Road, river travel, and canal trade would bolster the economy. George Washington had suggested construction of a road from the Northwest Territory to the eastern United States. Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation for the National Road in 1806, and construction began in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1811. From 1827 to 1834, workers completed the 156-mile route across Indiana. A large number of Indiana’s 90,000 new settlers each year traveled the National Road. Alexander Ralston’s 1821 plat of Indianapolis named the road Washington Street as it passed through town. This made Washington the main commercial street, a distinction still seen in the Washington Street-Monument Circle Historic District. The National Road also spurred development of villages within Marion County, such as Cumberland.

Indiana had federal backing to hire contractors for the Michigan Road, which slashed diagonally across Indiana. Eventually, toll companies took over the Michigan Road. A tollhouse and the Aston Inn remain on Michigan Road from this early era. With all their baggage and wagons, pioneer families could hope to make 5 to 10 miles a day on these early roads.

Nickel Plate Locomotive No. 587

Nickel Plate Locomotive No. 587
Indiana Division of Historic preservation and Archaeology

The Indianapolis & Madison Railroad arrived in Indianapolis in 1847, linking the capital more firmly to the national economy. In some cases, the railroads sapped the vitality of the city’s early wagon and carriage roads. New Augusta, an intact railroad village, is a good example of changing fortunes due to changing transportation routes.

In 1853, Union Station was built to handle all the rail lines coming into Indianapolis. The site of this Union Station became, in 1888, a new landmark Union Station and a symbol of the city’s status as a major rail center. The area along South Meridian and Illinois Streets became home to businesses that sold rail-shipped goods. Today, this area is called Indianapolis Union Station—Wholesale Historic District, or, just simply the Wholesale District. One locomotive from the steam rail era is on display near Indianapolis, Nickel Plate No. 587, a light Mikado-class freight hauler. This 300,900 pound locomotive could haul a full load of coal and cars at about 30 to 40 mph, depending on load, grade, and line conditions.

In 1894, Indiana entered the auto age when Elwood Haynes of Kokomo rumbled down a back road in his home-engineered gasoline-powered carriage. Indianapolis carriage makers soon were fiddling with their light carriage designs, devising ways of adding internal combustion engines to them. By 1910, Indianapolis was a city of over 233,000, and already had 17 automobile plants or auto parts manufacturers making it fourth in the nation in auto production. By the ‘teens, Ford and the Detroit factories had outstripped Indianapolis, but local makers found another niche – the luxury auto. Cole, Stutz, Duesenberg, and Marmon were brands known internationally. Cole cars of the 1920s, for example, were better known for their excellent fit and finish than for their speed and affordability. A typical Cole sedan had a top speed of about 60 mph and cost about 4 thousand dollars, the average price of a decent single family house in Indianapolis at the time.

Indiapolis Motor Speedway

Harroun's Marmon Wasp
Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Auto magnate Carl Fisher and a group of fellow auto industrialists built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. Fisher’s initial purpose for the 2½ mile oval was as a test facility for automobile engineering and safety. Testing would be by way of grueling competition. In 1911, Fisher and business partner James Allison established the first 500 Mile Race. Ray Harroun, driving a locally made Marmon Wasp, won the first race with a breakneck average speed of 74.59 mph. Along with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Allison and Fisher planned the industrial suburb of Speedway, just south of the track. Many residents of Speedway worked in the auto industries there, including Fisher's Prest-O-Lite auto headlight and battery plant. Allison was also interested in aircraft engines, and workers at his Allison Experimental Company produced the Liberty engine during World War I. Allison Experimental became the Allison Division of General Motors.

In the 1920s and 30s, plant engineers invented the V-1710 engine, which, with improvements, powered the Tomahawk, Lightening, and Air Cobra fighters during World War II. The P-40 Tomahawk with its Indianapolis-made piston engine could cruise at about 300 mph, approximately the speed current Indy Cars reach on the front stretch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway! The Allison firm continued to make history with new jet engines in the late 1940s and 1950s. Allison merged with Rolls Royce in 1995, but the tradition continues. Very likely, as you read this, a Rolls Royce/Allison-powered aircraft is breaking Mach 1 somewhere.

The need to accommodate the auto helped shape the built environment in Indianapolis. Carl Fisher promoted the idea of a “Dixie Highway,” now U.S. 31, to connect north and south. Indianapolis auto entrepreneurs popularized the suburban Cold Springs Road area, overlooking White River, and built impressive estates there. The Allison and Frank Wheeler estates are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 1925 Test Building is another unique response to the auto age, with its built-in parking garage.

Making room for the auto age even extended to park planning in Indianapolis. In 1909, in his plan for the Indianapolis Park and Boulevard System, George Edward Kessler called for sweeping auto pleasure drives following the meandering creeks of Central Indiana to connect all parts of Indianapolis. Driving the park and boulevard system is an excellent and leisurely way to experience Indianapolis, but please pay attention to the posted speed limits. After all, you’re not in the Indy 500!