Indiana’s Historic National Road Part 3

This installment continues our tour along Indiana’s Historic National Road on Indianapolis’ near eastside. Ford Motor Company operated its Indianapolis Branch Assembly Plant at 1307-1323 E. Washington Street from 1914 to 1932. In its heyday, the plant’s capacity of 300 assembled cars per day was the highest output of any Indiana manufacturing plant.

1915 Ford Motor Company Indianapolis Branch Assembly Plant
1915 Ford Motor Company Indianapolis Branch Assembly Plant

Where Southeastern Avenue merges with East Washington Street, on the southwest corner, there is a monument erected in 1916 for Indiana’s Centennial with the following inscription: “The milestone marks the crossing of the National and Michigan Roads. Over these roads came many of the pioneers, who, by their courage and industry, founded the great commonwealth of Indiana.

The second near eastside auto plant was The Cole Motor Company at 730 E. Washington Street, which produced its line of prestige automobiles at 730 E. Washington Street from 1913 to 1925. For a brief period, Cole was second only to Cadillac in volume of sales in its price range.

At Meridian Street, turn right or (north) one block to visit Monument Circle. The Circle has always been the center of Indianapolis’ business and commercial life since the late 1820s. On October 9, 1908, Joseph J. Cole president of the Cole Carriage Company (predecessor of the Cole Motor Car Co.) completed his first “Solid Tire Auto.” He was so excited about the prospect of his “first drive” that he forgot that one important accessory was missing — the brakes — believe it or not. The 14 horsepower car was hitting on both cylinders as it was driven through the streets of Indianapolis. He spent most of his afternoon on this initial test run driving around and around Monument Circle until the car ran out of gas, providing the necessary means to stop the car.

In 1891, Charles H. Black garnered the dubious distinction of having Indiana’s first auto accidents while driving a German-made Benz on its maiden voyage in the commercial district just south of the Circle. During this six-block drive, Black crashed into a surrey when the horses became frightened-the first automobile accident. Damage to the surrey was approximately $85 which Mr. Black assumed, having it rebuilt at his carriage factory. At the next turn, the corner of Illinois and Washington Streets, Black lost control of the Benz and they crashed into a shop window in the Occidental Hotel-creating the second accident. Damage-$25. The third happened when they changed their course east on Washington Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. At this corner, control of the machine was lost again and another shop window was destroyed. Damage was another $25. Acting in accordance with the suggestions from the police, Black and his passengers drove back to his carriage factory, ending one of the first automobile journeys in America.

Go around the Circle and go South on Meridian Street one block and turn right or (west) back onto Washington Street.

Go west two blocks to the State Capitol. The State Capitol Lawn has two historical markers concerning the National Road. The first one, at the south entrance to the Indiana State Capitol along West Washington Street, celebrates the construction of the road from 1806 to 1839. The American Society of Civil Engineers National Road Monument dedicated in 1976, is located at the southwest corner of the State Capitol grounds.

Go one block west on the south side of Washington Street. The National Old Trails Association was formed in 1912 to mark the auto route and convince local and state officials to improve it. The National Old Trails Road originated on the East Coast and terminated on the West Coast at San Diego. In 1926, the Old National Route became the new U.S. 40. Completion of Interstate 70 in the 1960’s changed the importance of U.S. 40. Today, the National Road is a byway in Indiana’s transportation history.

The Old Trails Office Building at 309 W. Washington Street was designed by Pierre & Wright, was built in 1929. The building is an excellent sample of a terra cotta façade. Take a special note of the terra cotta features around the doors, near the top of the building, and in the vestibule. This romantic iconography is of Indiana heads and wagon trains that inspired early auto touring along the National Road.

Proceed west on Washington Street to White River State Park. One of the landmarks in the park is the Washington Street bridge. Built in 1916, the 844 foot concrete arched span replaced the original covered bridge that was built in the 1840s.

Restored Duesenberg Sign
Duesenberg Motors Inc.
Copyright ©2012 Dennis E. Horvath

Go west on Washington Street to Harding Street and turn left or (south) to the Duesenberg complex at 1511 W. Washington Street. Prior to moving to Indianapolis, the Duesenberg brothers – Fred and August – built extremely high-quality and advanced engines and automobiles. Part of their reason for moving here was to return to their racing roots and be near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where they had already enjoyed some success. They built the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company complex at 1511 W. Washington St in 1920. The only building remaining today from what is probably one of the most famous American built automobiles is this red brick Final Assembly building. The 1920 Model A Duesenberg was a luxurious car, which pioneered the use of straight eight-cylinder engines and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. E.L. Cord of Auburn, IN, acquired control of the company in1926. His mission, as he explained to Fred Duesenberg, was to develop the ultimate motorcar that would outclass all American makes.

The Model J, introduced at the New York Automobile Salon for the 1929 model year, was the most remarkable automobile in America: bigger, faster, more elaborate, and more expensive than any other car of its time. The make survived most of the Depression, but died in the collapse of the Cord Corporation in 1937. Model J production totaled 480 before the end. Over 75 percent of the original Model Js built are still roadworthy some 70 years later. No other American marque has been so fortunate. The complex was later used by Marmon-Herrington and American LaFrance companies for bus and truck manufacturing. Note the fading painted sign spelling out Duesenberg on the north side of the building.

This installment ends on Indianapolis’ near westside. Check back again to continue experiencing Indiana’s Historic National Road in the west central part of the state.

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

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