Finding Your Way – Yesterday and Today

In a time with Google Maps and GPS navigation systems, you have it easy finding your way along America’s highways. During the automobile’s early days even road signs were scarce.

Carl G. Fisher w 1913 Packard Runabout
Carl G. Fisher w 1913 Packard Runabout

A story about Carl G. Fisher, one of founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, illustrates the lack of adequate facilities for traveling any distance in the early days of the automobile. Around 1912, Fisher and a few friends were driving in unfamiliar territory nine miles outside Indianapolis’ city limits. Night fell along with a torrent of rain. In an open-top car, Fisher and his friends were drenched in seconds and miserably lost. There were no street lights to guide them in the pitch-black night, nor road signs marking the way.

They did, however, feel comfortable that they had guessed the way back home until they came to a three-way fork in the road. No one could be sure which fork to take, but someone thought he saw a sign at the top of a pole. Fisher lost the competition as to who would have to climb the pole to read the sign. So he shinnied up the pole and lit a match so that he could read the sign. One match after another was extinguished by the rain. Finally, one lit so that Fisher could read the sign – “Chew Battle Ax Plug.”

The experience may have contributed to Fisher’s vision in making night travel and long-distance drives a reality. He was instrumental in developing head light systems and building modern highway systems.

In 1913, few people had knowledge of roads beyond a 15-mile radius from home, and road maps and signs were nearly nonexistent west of Chicago, Illinois.

Guidebook’s provided some help, but one had to rely on local landmarks in directions. Here’s an example from 1916 Scarborough’s Official Tour Book Central States Edition to travel from Monument Circle in Indianapolis to Lebanon, IN, a 23.6 mile trip.

0.0 Leave Indianapolis at the Circle. Go north on Meridian St. ½ block. Turn left on Ohio St. 0.1 mile. Angle right onto Indiana Ave. and straight out.
0.7 Over canal bridge and straight out Indiana Ave.
1.3 Cross iron bridge over Fall Creek and angle left immediately onto Crawfordsville Rd. and Speedway Blvd.
2.0 Slow. Cross railroad.
2.6 Slow. Turn left thru archway and over concrete bridge at White River.
2.8 Turn right.
3.0 Indianapolis Canoe Club on right.
4.2 Flackville. Straight ahead.
5.1 Slow. Cross railroad.
7.8 Snacks. Straight ahead.
10.3 Boot Jack. Straight ahead.
11.6 Traders’ Point. Cross iron bridge and straight ahead.
12.2 Brick school on right. Up hill.
14.6 Iron Bridge.
15.2 Slow. Up hill and straight thru. Royalton.
17.8 Brick school on right. Straight road thru.
23.2 Angling crossroad. Straight ahead.
25.9 Slow. Cross railroad. End on Indianapolis Ave.
26.1 Turn left on Main St.
26.3 Lebanon. Court House on right. Turn right onto Lebanon St. E. A. Brenton Garage.

Hotel English 1916 ad
Hotel English 1916 ad

These tour books offered a plethora of information on hotels, garages, and other miscellaneous auto items. Indianapolis listings included the Hotel English on the northwest quadrant of Monument Circle (the terminus of all official auto routes), Horace F. Wood Garage at 210-16 N. Meridian St., Modern Electric & Machine Co. auto repairs at 936 Ft. Wayne Ave., The Briskin Mfg. Co. radiator repair 539-41 N. Capitol Ave., North Side Garage at 30th & Central Ave., French Steam Dye Works cleaners at 49 Monument Circle, Carl L. Rost jewelers at 25 N. Illinois St., Denison Billard Club in the Denison Hotel Lobby, Lieber’s Gold Medal Beer brewed by Indianapolis Brewing Co., and Dan Smith’s Bar at 117 N. Illinois St.

If you were planning a long automotive trip of any kind, it was wise to consult one of these guidebooks. In addition to the information noted above, the books provided information about official information stations and popular travel destinations like Shades State Park and French Lick Springs.

If you are looking for a touch of nostalgia, be sure to locate one of these guidebooks like Scarborough’s to travel off the beaten path. We use them to retrace some of the early Indiana auto routes.

For more information on Indiana rides & drives follow this link.

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