The Old Elkhart Road

by Tim Ashley


A 1915 Atlas shows the Elkhart-Goshen Road.

Very Early Years

It was May of 1832 and Elkhart County was in its infancy. The three Elkhart County Commissioners met in Fort Wayne to authorize a state road, simply known as Road No. 3 at that time, to be located and surveyed from Fort Wayne through Goshen and ending in South Bend.

The State Legislature had acted in February that same year to allow the road to be surveyed as a state road.

Part of the route of that road would include what is now commonly referred to as the Old Elkhart Road and also known by other names. Through the long and colorful history of the Old Elkhart Road, it has served as a state road, the Lincoln Highway and a county road.

For many years the Old Elkhart Road was the main route connecting Goshen and Elkhart. U.S. 33 as it is today did not exist until the late 1920s or early 1930s.


This modern photo shows old state highway right of way marker near the CR 17 bridge across CR 45.

Documents on microfiche at the Elkhart County Archives give some details of Road No. 3 being surveyed. A clippings file in the library of the Elkhart County Historical Museum contains a copy of an article that appeared in the March 8, 1998, edition of the Elkhart Truth newspaper. In that article it is stated the original road surveyed in 1832 followed an old Indian trail for the most part, but the road was surveyed on the opposite side of the Elkhart River from the trail between Goshen and Elkhart.

The road was surveyed to South Bend, but the trail ended at Lake Michigan.

Original road survey notes from 1832 reveal some details, though it does help to have some knowledge of surveying terminology. Mileposts were set at each mile, which is the equivalent of 80 chain lengths.

Another historical account says the road was 66 feet wide.

Along the way some description is given of the terrain, such as trees and hills. A milepost was set in Benton Township at a place described as Sugar Ridge, which likely refers to the Sugar Hill Farm where sugar maple trees existed in abundance. It is no longer an active sugar farm, but at times maple syrup is still extracted from the trees.

Today the old farm would be located along U.S. 33, south of Benton near County Road 137.

Going to the north, still in Benton Township, the surveyors crossed the Elkhart River. The notes reveal a bridge was to be built across the river.

Keeping to the north, the road was surveyed into Goshen on what was then Market Street. Today it is known as Lincoln Avenue. The road went west on Market, north on Main Street and possibly west on Third Street, though the writing is difficult to discern. Still in Goshen, the road again crossed the Elkhart River.

Eventually, the end of the Elkhart County portion of the road was in Baugo Township. Today it is known as State Road 933 or also Old U.S. 33.

This 1919 photo shows eight miles of 16-foot-wide concrete between Elkhart and Goshen. (UM Library Digital Collections. Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection. Accessed: June 19, 2014.)
This 1919 photo shows eight miles of 16-foot-wide concrete between Elkhart and Goshen. (UM Library Digital Collections. Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection. Accessed: June 19, 2014.)

Early Plat Maps

Two of the earliest plat maps for Elkhart County available for public research, 1861 and 1874, show this road. Without being able to interpret surveying terminology, it is difficult to determine the entire exact route within Goshen, but it is known what is now Wilden Avenue was part of the state road.

Wilden Avenue was named after Abraham Forry Wilden, who was a banker in Goshen and lived from April 19, 1834, to Sept. 5, 1915. He owned a large amount of land around the road named after him, including areas near the Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Up until the 1920s, Wilden Avenue was not a through road. Going to the west past Oak Ridge Cemetery, the road stopped at Indiana Avenue and did not cross the river. From there it crisscrossed the nearby railroad tracks and also interurban tracks several times on the way to Elkhart.

In the early years before roads were given numbers they were simply known by names. This particular road was known as the Goshen-Fort Wayne Road and likely the Elkhart Road, too. Beginning in 1913, much of the road was part of the original alignment of the Lincoln Highway. Today signs are posted along some of the route designating it as a historic 1913 Lincoln Highway route.

Then in the 1920s major changes starting taking place with roads. Automobiles were starting to become entrenched and displace other long time forms of transportation such as the horse, horse and buggy, wagons and eventually the interurban, too. This meant much more attention was placed on road building.


This modern photo shows a remnant of an old bridge on an original alignment of the road when it went back and forth across the railroad tracks. This bridge crossed Rock Run Creek in Concord Township.

The route referenced above that crisscrossed the railroad tracks multiple times – extremely dangerous and unsafe – was straightened out and became a through road by the end of the 1920s. In approximately 1929 a two-span pony truss bridge was built across the Elkhart River on Wilden Avenue and now one could get on the road in Goshen and drive all the way to Elkhart without ever having to cross the railroad tracks.

As a footnote, that bridge was replaced in 2002 by a concrete I-beam bridge and half of the old truss bridge is now used across Rock Run Creek as part of the Goshen trails system in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Also in the 1920s old maps and road right of way plans clearly show old Road No. 3 was now designated as State Road 2. This was still in the days before U.S. 33 was built. If you look close enough, there are still a few of the old concrete state highway right of way markers along the road. One in particular is along County Road 45 underneath the County Road 17 overpass.


Route of the Lincoln Highway through Goshen.

People and Places Along the Road

There are many interesting stories involving either places or people along the Old Elkhart Road.

One involves an old house built on what is now Wilden Avenue in Goshen where it intersects with Greene Road. The first portion of the frame house was built in 1850 for Moses and Israel Hess. The Hess family had settled in Elkhart County in the 1830s.

After going out west to the California Gold Rush of 1849, the Hess clan came back to Elkhart County in 1850 and Moses starting developing land. In 1902, a child named Miriam was born into the Hess family (she was a daughter of David Hess).

Many years later, Miriam shared vivid memories of her early years through a series of letters written to David and Laura Coyne, who now live in the house on Wilden Avenue. She recalled, for example, whole trees were squared for the floors to build the house. It was remodeled in 1905 by Aaron Hess, a farmer who grew wheat, oats, corn and rye, and also raised pigs and cows and had a team of Western horses.

Miriam remembered picking strawberries on the Big Four Railroad bank nearby and dandelions on the New York Central Railroad bank. She described the interurban (also running parallel with the two railroad tracks) as her “pretty little train.” At night the interurban had to be flagged by a lantern or flashlight.


A modern photo of the barn on the former property of Guy Rieth at CR 45 and CR 117.

The Hess family also owned the Hess Canning Factory west of Greene Road that operated until 1964.

Another story is that of Guy Rieth, who lived on a farm where the road intersects with what is now County Road 117. County property records show a house and a barn – both still standing – were built in 1930. Both structures, especially the barn, stand out now as many of the surrounding homes were built later.

Rieth died Oct. 11, 1930, at the age of 53 and according to his obituary was a well known farmer who was born in Jackson Township. He was a member of the Fairview Grange – also along the old Elkhart Road – which is still active today.

County Road 117 was the original alignment of what is now Old County Road 17. A beautiful steel bridge built in 1901 by Bellefontaine Bridge and Iron Co. across the Elkhart River was removed in the late 1970s and at that time the road was realigned and a new bridge built to the west still in use today for Old CR 17.

Today there is a property in the 2600 block of West Wilden Avenue that looks to be abandoned with a lot of brush and tree growth. For many years the Books brothers, Alonzo and Alzo, lived on this property and operated a slaughterhouse.

Neither brother ever married. Alonzo died March 9, 1946, of liver complications and his obituary said he lived on the same farm for more than 50 years. Alzo died Aug. 26, 1957, and lived alone for 10 years.

There have been businesses along the Old Elkhart Road for many years. One of the most notable was the Elkhart Packing Company not far from the Elkhart city limits. It was founded in 1923 and sold bacon, hams, sausages and luncheon meats in the Elkhart and South Bend areas under the Yellow Creek brand name.

The corporate name was changed to Elcona Foods in February 1969 and at that time the plant produced more than 80 processed meat items plus all cuts of fresh pork and beef. Then in October 1975, Elcona Foods was bought out by Plumrose, the Danish food packing plant. Plumrose USA still operates the plant at 24402 CR 45 and mostly packages bacon. Thanks to the Elkhart Public Library for providing this information.


Aerial photo of the Elkhart County Home, c.1950.

Then there was the Elkhart County Home, which first opened in 1887 and was otherwise known as an “asylum” or the “poor farm.” It was a home for men, women and some children who were poverty stricken or could not take care of themselves because of mental or physical conditions. The last resident left the home in 1977.

Nearby is the large Ox Bow County Park, which opened in 1969.

Twin Pines Mobile Home Park was opened in 1960 on the Goshen end of the road. Some may not realize an old abandoned cemetery, Studebaker Cemetery, is on the property of the mobile home park near the back end on a small hill close to the river bank. Very little evidence exists there was a cemetery here, though it can still be found on a map. But no tombstones still stand and only fragments of stones have been found recently.

Of course as time went along more and more houses were built along the Old Elkhart Road, including subdivisions. Pickwick Manor subdivision in Concord Township was originally platted Feb. 7, 1973. And Pickwick Village was platted in June of 1983.

Conclusion

Old Elkhart Road is officially known by several names today. In Goshen, it is Wilden Avenue. Between Goshen and Elkhart, it is County Road 45. And in Elkhart, it is known as Hammond Avenue.

Not nearly as much traffic is carried on the road as nearby U.S. 33 with its extensive commercial development, but the old road still serves as an important transportation corridor.

Rich in history, the road lives on.

Sources:

“Illustrated Historical Atlas of Elkhart County Indiana” pub. By Higgins Belden & Co. 1874

“The Roads to Here” , Elkhart Truth, March 8 1998, by Dave Overton

“Fort Wayne Road Surveyed in 1832” Elkhart Truth, Sept. 13, 1958, author unknown

“Fort Wayne State Road” manuscript, author unknown