The Crumbling Crossroads of America

Written by on September 19, 2015 in Indianapolis Collected - 2 Comments
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“Practically every great city has to be a geographic crossroads before it can become a great city,” the National Geographic Society wrote in its November 1925 bulletin. The crossroads of the sea at the Panama Canal, the crossroads of cable lines in Guam, the crossroads of the air in Prague and the crossroads of history in Palestine were among the world’s more remarkable crossroads, the article noted.

But closer to home, “[o]ne of the most important men in the United States is the traffic policeman at the intersection of Washington and Meridian streets, Indianapolis. ….The Washington and Meridian streets intersection in Indianapolis is the crossroads of the main transcontinental highways of the United States.”

Guard pole_Page_1

The Indianapolis News, September 28, 1925 (left); April 28, 1928 (right).

This nod to Indianapolis by the National Geographic Society in November 1925 was neither the first nor the last time that an Indiana location would be dubbed “The Crossroads of America.” Earlier that year, the Gary Post-Tribune used the term to describe Lake County. Even earlier – in 1920 — a Fort Wayne bank ran an advertisement claiming its home city was the crossroads of America. And at some point, Terre Haute managed to convince the Indiana Historical Bureau that it was the “real” Crossroads of America, as evidenced by an historical marker on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Seventh Street.

But the official recognition of Indy’s strategic location by the National Geographic Society — an entity that presumably knows its way around a map — finally gave Indianapolis a legitimate claim to the coveted title, “Crossroads of America.”

Imposters

In June 1926, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce officially adopted “The Cross Roads of America” as the slogan for the city of Indianapolis.  The Chamber worked with the Hoosier Motor Club in an effort to install new signs on the outskirts of the city that bore the slogan. The campaign to claim the title “Crossroads of America” continued the following year, when the Chamber launched a novel plan in cooperation with local police which was outlined in the Chamber’s newsletter:

When the automobile with a foreign license approaches a traffic officer he immediately hails the motorist with a smile and a word of greeting, handing him a ticket which reads: “WELCOME TO INDIANAPOLIS! The Crossroads of America.

No information is available as to whether this campaign was well-received by out-of-state motorists, but I’m guessing that the sight of a uniformed police officer approaching their car with what appeared to be a traffic ticket did not produce the intended effect.  But just 10 years earlier, those same motorists  would really have had cause to complain – that is, if they were actually able to reach Indianapolis, given the awful state of the roads.

US 40

A stretch of U.S. 40 west of Indianapolis shown before and after paving.

During the first 60 years of Indiana’s statehood, the responsibility for constructing and maintaining most roads was vested with elected township officials or the private companies that operated a network of toll roads.  In the 1870s, counties were granted the authority to issue bonds to pay for highway construction and maintenance, and were also authorized to purchase the toll roads so citizens could travel for free. However, the quality of roads by the turn of the century was consistently inconsistent as Indiana had failed to adopt any sort of uniform standards.

To make matters worse, millions of dollars were wasted each year on shoddy construction thanks to an antiquated law that enabled farmers and other able-bodied men to “work out” their taxes as untrained road hands. As an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture told The Indianapolis Star in February 1909, “the work of road building in Indiana is in the charge of men who do not know anything more about building roads than they know about astronomy.”

By 1910, 35 states had established state highway commissions to oversee road construction and maintenance and enforce uniform standards.  As usual, however, Indiana was moving in the slow lane.  Another seven years would pass before the General Assembly would enact legislation establishing the Indiana Highway Commission.

Trails

The Indianapolis Star, September 15, 1917.

Indianapolis was quick to celebrate the commencement of the “good roads” era in Indiana.  In September 1917, the city staged a ribbon-cutting ceremony and parade to mark the completion of the first paved stretch on the National Old Trails (U.S. 40) east from the city limits to the Hancock County line.  Unfortunately, the celebration turned out to be premature, as the 1917 law would later be struck down by the courts.  But this time, lured by the promise of matching federal funds, the legislature acted quickly to adopt rewritten legislation that would finally pass constitutional muster.

Trail signs

The Indianapolis Star, September 3, 1922. In 1917, the Hoosier State Auto Association laid out a series of trails criss-crossing Indiana. Signage was installed reflecting the popular names of trails, many of which survive today as state roads or interstate highways.

Within a few short years, the size of the state highway system would more than triple and hard-surface paving would replace gravel on most major roadways.   The first gas tax would be imposed at two cents per gallon, and a uniform numbering system would be adopted to aid the growing number of out-of-state motorists who were driving Indiana roads.

Then the unthinkable happened. This surge of transcontinental travel apparently prompted Mrs. William S. Dragoo of Fort Branch, Indiana, to suggest that the coveted “Crossroads of America” title should be stripped from the city of Indianapolis and bestowed upon the entire state of Indiana.
Plates

Mrs. Dragoo submitted her suggestion to Evansville newspaper columnist J. Roy Strickland, who had recently discovered that Indiana was one of only four states without an official state motto.  From December 1936 through February 1937, Strickland used his newspaper column “Paragraphy” to solicit suggestions for a state motto from readers of the Evansville Courier. Over the next two months, a total of 324 suggested mottoes were submitted.

In late February,  these suggestions were typed up and placed in a folder on each legislator’s desk. A committee of three state representatives and two state senators was appointed to make the final selection. Then on March 2, 1937, the Indiana General Assembly adopted House Concurrent Resolution 6, which designated “The Crossroads of America” as the official “motto or slogan” for the state of Indiana.

boots_di

Around the same time, a number of other pretenders to the title “Crossroads of America” also emerged, including Carthage (Missouri), Effingham (Illinois), and Vandalia (Ohio), which even boasted a “Crossroads of America” motel. In those pre-GPS days, it must have been very difficult for a traveler to reach his destination if the only directions provided were “Turn left at the Crossroads of America.”

But even as challengers to the coveted title were emerging from all sides, the state of Indiana would soon find itself struggling to maintain its famed crossroads.

SHC

Earlier this month, I purchased a 114-page report issued by the State Highway Commission in 1948 that echoed an article I had read that very morning in The Indianapolis Star titled “Highway Funding at a Crossroads.” In brief, both the Star article and the Highway Commission report had the same message, even though they were written nearly 70 years apart:

  • Indiana’s bridges are falling down.
  • Indiana’s pavement is crumbling.
  • Indiana is falling behind other states in funding highways.
  • If the state does not increase funding for roads and bridges, Indiana will lose millions in economic development dollars and Hoosiers’ lives will be imperiled.

*Sigh*

Crossroads

The Indianapolis News, April 28, 1928

During the upcoming legislative session, state lawmakers will AGAIN revisit the issue of funding for the crumbling crossroads of America. And while they’re at it, they may also want to revisit the issue of a state motto.  Because despite the widespread view that “The Crossroads of America” is the official state motto of Indiana, it has never been enacted into law.

House Concurrent Resolution 6 of 1937 is simply a nonbinding statement expressing the sentiment of a specific group of legislators at a particular point in time.  Unlike the statutes that designate the state bird (cardinal), state song (On the Banks of the Wabash), state flower (peony), state rifle (Grouseland rifle), and state aircraft (Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt), the “Crossroads of America” has never been officially adopted into the Indiana Code by the Indiana General Assembly.

This may come as news to some legislators, given the fact that “Crossroads of America” is listed as the state motto on several state websites and even in Wikipedia. But if you are a state legislator and are considering legislation that would legalize “The Crossroads of America” as Indiana’s slogan, you really need to think again. Because it’s already taken by the City of Indianapolis.

In 1988, the City-Council Council adopted Section 105-4 of the Indianapolis Municipal Code, which states:

The official slogan of the City of Indianapolis is: “Crossroads of America.”

But no worries. Even though the “Crossroads of America” is no longer eligible for piracy by the state of Indiana, there are 323 other suggested slogans that were submitted in 1937 that are still available for adoption as the official state slogan, including “Win with a Grin,” “The Boot without a Leg,” and “Indiana: The Fairest Freckle on America’s Face.” Not to mention my personal favorite, which was submitted by Edna Vandeveer of Owensville, Kentucky: “Let’s have more recreation and less wreckreation.”

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About the Author

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Faegre, Baker & Daniels, LLP, practicing primarily in the area of government affairs. A native of Kokomo, she became fascinated with historic preservation and Indianapolis history in the 1990s while working in the newly renovated Statehouse. She's an avid collector of "old Indianapolis"--books, photographs, advertising and other items--and loves to research and share information with others about the city's rich and colorful history. Libby, her husband and their two chronically misbehaving dogs live in an 1894 home in the Old Northside, where she serves on the board of the neighborhood association.

2 Comments on "The Crumbling Crossroads of America"

  1. Jean Maurer September 20, 2015 at 12:12 pm · Reply

    How and why did Indpls get the nick name of “Nap Town”? I assume it is due to the “nap” in IndiaNAPolis?
    Just curious. Thanks.

  2. Cindy R. September 23, 2015 at 12:10 am · Reply

    I always thought the name was started by the DJs at the popular radio station WNAP in the late 60s when I was a teenager.

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