An Indianapolis Landmark: The National Road Covered Bridge

While this post is about the original bridge over the White River in Indianapolis, the inspiration comes from Indianapolis resident Christian Schrader, who was born in the city in 1842. Schrader lived almost his entire life in his birth city, mostly within a several block area downtown, save for this latter years when he resided in Colorado and then Madison, Indiana with his children. Schrader was artistic and enjoyed sketching, although his career turned towards business, and not art. In his later years he set about sketching and painting scenes of Indianapolis from his childhood, scenes which had since changed dramatically due to progress and the passage of time.


I’ve included some of Schrader’s sketches in past posts, most notably in those related to my personal favorite topic, the Central Canal, since Schrader’s sketches cover several modes of early transportation and infrastructure in Indianapolis. Past posts with his sketches include one about the Central Canal bridge over Washington Street and the lost lock of the Central Canal where the State Office building is currently located. Schrader's numerous sketches and a few oil paintings were donated to the Indiana State Library in 1930 his daughters. In 1987, the Indiana Historical Bureau compiled many of Schroeder’s sketches into an excellent book, Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader's Sketches of Early Indianapolis, and recently I was lucky enough to spot a copy on eBay.

As noted in the Introduction of the book, Schrader’s sketches provide an idealized view of Indianapolis, "on its best summer day," but his recollections of the city around 1850, are invaluable looks back at the history, and future development, of Indianapolis. Many future blog posts will likely feature his works, and the locations they depict, this present post included.


One landmark which Schrader used as a subject for multiple sketches was the original National Road bridge over the White River. His focus on this structure is understandable, since it was a significant feature in the still young city, and it carried the frontier-expanding National Road (also sometimes called the Cumberland Road), a federally funded 'highway,' into and out of the city. The National Road's arrival to the city was an occasion of great fanfare, and brought with it steady streams of people of goods. At its greatest extent the National Road stretched over 600 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. The sketch below shows the bridge from the approach on the eastern side of the White River. The inscription notes this is how the bridge appeared in 1840's and 1850's, when Schrader was in his pre-teen and teen years.

When Indianapolis was first established in 1820/21, the core of the settlement was along Washington Street, between Delaware and Illinois Streets. The White River was outside the original mile square, and to cross the river required use of fords (such as the one noted on the Sullivan map of Indianapolis where Kentucky Avenue terminates at the river) or a ferry, which was located where the line of Washington Street met the river. This map of Washington Street from 1825 shows the original settlement along Washington Street, and the ferry at the river, in the upper left corner.


Surveying and construction of the National Road in Indiana occurred between 1827 and 1839, with construction entering Marion County in 1830. The route through the middle of the recently appointed capitol of Indiana followed the line of Washington Street. The Indianapolis Democrat reported on March 19, 1831, funding, in the amount of $75,000, had been approved for construction of the “Cumberland Road” in Indiana, along with the construction of a bridge over the White River at Indianapolis. The road in Indiana was divided into a eastern and western division, with Indianapolis being the dividing point. The proposed bridge would be in the western division.

Indianapolis White River Bridge national road #indyturns200
Indianapolis Democrat, July 9, 1831

Invitations for the submissions of proposals for the White River Bridge were advertised in Indianapolis newspapers in June and July 1831 by the Superintendent of the western division of the road, Homer Johnson (see excerpt to the left). The specifications contained in the request for proposals noted that the bridge span would be 350 feet and have two arches (the White River was narrower at that time), with a stone pier in the middle of the span, and stone abutments on both banks. The superstructure of the bridge would be enclosed (a covered bridge) and the request for proposals called for the use of poplar or oak wood, with two “carriage ways” and two "foot ways" for bridge traffic. Plans and models of the bridge were available for review at the superintendent’s office, and the bridge was to be completed by November 1, 1832. The contract to construct the bridge was awarded on July 26, 1831 to the partnership of Lewis Wernwag and Walter Blake. Sources are conflicted on whether Wernwag designed the bridge, as he had done so in other cities, or that design was the work of a Lazarus B. Wilson. So anxious were authorities for the completion of the bridge that in 1833, the Indiana state Senate requested that the Committee on the affairs of the town of Indianapolis (since Indianapolis was still a town then) “inquire into the expediency of reporting a bill providing for the sale of the Ferry House and at least one acre of the ground reserved for the purpose of a ferry across White River…as soon as the bridge across said river shall be ready for the transportation of passengers.”


The bridge was eventually completed on June 7, 1834, at the cost of $18,000, although the partnership retained to construct the bridge had not survived the endeavor. Several sources note that Wernwag and Blake built the bridge together, but on February 3, 1832, less than a year after the duo won the contract, a notice was published in the Indianapolis Democrat that the partnership was dissolved. The bridge would be completed by Wernwag, and his new company Wernwag and Son. The bridge was constructed just north of the alignment of Washington Street, where the National Road branched off of Washington Street, and was arrayed on a roughly southwest to northeast line. As seen below in the 1887 Sanborn, the bridge crossed the river as a steep angle away from the line of the National Road.

Sanborn map Indianapolis covered bridge #indyturns200
Credit: 1889 Sanborn Map, IUPUI Baist and Sanborn Collection

The bridge was built as a covered bridge, and as stated in the specifications, consisted two arched sections supported by a stone pier mid-river. The exterior was then enclosed with planking, protecting the internal structural elements, along with the two driving lanes, and a pedestrian walkway on the each side, from the weather. Most images show the bridge with its sides enclosed, but the image found here, identified as taken in 1902, just before the bridge was demolished, shows the bridge without its wall planking, and the arched beams are visible if you look very closely. The mid span pier was detailed by Schrader is another sketch, below, whose viewpoint is along the eastern shore of the river, slightly upstream.

In the background of this sketch is the first railroad bridge built in Indianapolis in the early 1850's (which per the annotation on the image above was for the Terre Haute-Richmond Railroad) This bridge was was downstream of the National Road bridge, and followed the line of the railway which today runs just south of Victory field. An earlier iteration of the Hoosier State Mill depicted in the Sanborn map above was also painted by Schrader, below, although this mill would be destroyed by fire in the 1850's.

Schrader's sketches and paintings of the National Road bridge are not the only depictions of the structure. Plenty of photographs have survived, and some may have been known to Schrader and served to assist his memory when he was working on his pieces. A common image of the bridge is from the 1860’s when the steamboat, or as described by historian Barry Sulgrove in his History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, the "little picnic steamer," Governor Morton was tied up just north of the National Road Bridge. The creek seen emptying into the White River is actually the millrace depicted in the Sanborn map above, and in the foreground of the Schrader mill painting.

covered bridge governor morton white river #indyturns200
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Note that the American flag in this image was drawn in at some other date. Other versions of this image are available which shows no flag. The Gov. Morton was limited to short local voyages up and down the river, and was not involved in cargo operations. It sank at its mooring near the bridge after one year of service.


The National Road bridge had more endurance than the small steamboat, and was a constant in the city, its enclosed structure remaining steadfast as the city grew around it. Originally the only bridge across the river, the advent of the railroads in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s ensured it would not remain so, and as noted above, the Terre Haute-Indianapolis railway soon spanned the river, as did others as rail traffic increased. Despite this, the covered National Road bridge remained the only avenue for non-rail traffic for many years, until the original Washington Street iron bridge was constructed in the mid-1870's (consideration was also given to converting the National Road bridge to an iron structure) and bridges were built at Michigan Street to the north, and River Ave. to the south.


The National Road bridge was also eventually equipped with gas lighting, to help illuminate the way forward for those using the covered bridge at night, and to help discourage criminal behavior. Several reports were found of travelers being robbed as they crossed the span, or at entrance/exit on each bank. This concern was emphasized in February 1871 when the residents of Mt. Jackson, a small community near the Central State campus on the westside of the river, petitioned Marion County officials to construct the new iron Washington Street bridge. Part of the petition noted the National Road bridge was not large enough to handle the amount of traffic needing to use it, and because the bridge was a source of criminal behavior. The petition stated that "[s]aid bridge has been and is a resort for thieves and other bad characters because it is a covered bridge and its peculiar construction affords so many hiding places for evil-disposed persons."


The photo below shows some of the interior construction of the bridge, along with the walkways on each side, and the driving lanes. It is unclear whether this is looking at the east or western shore entrance to the bridge (I think the eastern side), but it was likely taken around 1900 when the Battle Ax Plug Tobacco (note the advertisement) was popular. Other advertisements can also be seen on the bridge, and a full size version of this image is available here. Note the difference in the roof design between this photo and the first Schrader image a the top of this posting, a possible indication of the repairs and upgrades done to the bridge over its lifetime.

National Road Bridge Indianapolis history #indyturns200 covered bridge
Credit: Indiana Historical Society

Through its years, the National Road bridge survived floods as well as the traffic of wagons, pedestrians, and livestock. In 1878, the Indianapolis News noted that the National Road Bridge "is not conspicuous as an ornament, but its strength and durability have enabled it to outlive many a younger and handsomer one made of iron." although as the years past, the bridge’s condition gradually declined. In the mid-1840's the bridge pier at midriver was beginning to deteriorate and fall apart due to the soft stone used to the construct the pier. The freeze/thaw cycle was resulting in the "crumbling away" of the stone, per the Indianapolis Indiana Democrat on March 13, 1846, the efforts were made, including a bill in the United States Congress, to repair the bridge. Another source reported that slate had been used at the time of the original construction, and the pier, and abutments, were replaced with more durable limestone.


A few news reports around the time the National Road bridge was built indicated stone was brought from the quarry at the Bluffs of the White River and Port Royal, north of present day Waverly for use in the construction of the bridge This same quarry was cited as a potential resource for the construction of the stone locks along the Central Canal, although it was later determined that the stone was not of sufficient quality for such work. If the original stone for the National Road Bridge came from this quarry, it seems the canal engineers were correct in their assessment.

Hoosier State Mills covered bridge Indianapolis #indyturns200
The Nat'l Road Bridge and the mill in the Sanborn map from the western side of the river c. 1902.

In 1898 the National Road bridge was shut down to traffic due to safety concerns with the condition of the bridge, although a repair project was implemented which included again replacing of the pier at the center of the span. The repairs were tested by the Indianapolis Street Superintendent driving a 20 ton “road roller” (maybe a steam roller?) over the bridge. The News declared that the bridge was “one of the few remaining landmarks of early civilization in Indianapolis,” and was now “regarded as safe for another long period.” A rededication of the bridge was held with many aged 'pioneers' in attendance.

Indianapolis Baist map white river national road bridge
1901 Baist Map #12. National Road Bridge highlighted in yellow, Washington St. iron bridge in red.

That long period hoped for by the News was only a few years. In 1902 the National Road bridge was again found to be in an unsafe condition, although it had somewhat outlasted its iron successor, the West Washington Street bridge, built directly to the south, after that structure partially collapsed on January 16, 1902. The Indianapolis News reported in an extra edition that day that just after 1 pm the central span of the iron bridge collapsed, sending two cars (either autos or streetcars) and four wagons into the river, along with eleven men and several horses. The bridge had just been reopened a few days before after undergoing its own repairs.


A few days later on January 20, 1902, the National Road bridge was shut down once again for supposed safety concerns, and police posted on each side to prevent use. It seemed the shutdown was out of an abundance of caution following the partial collapse of the other bridge. Earlier reports on the bridge had shown that the arch supports were out of "plumb," (no longer straight and sagging) although the bridge was deemed safe. But within two weeks, the city determined that a new and larger iron or stone bridge was to built directly in line with West Washington Street to replace the partially collapsed iron bridge at that site. However, the location of that proposed bridge, and its larger size, 70 feet wide, would conflict with the National Road bridge. That combined with the decaying condition of the National Road bridge, sealed its fate to be demolished.


Efforts to preserve the bridge were undertaken, especially by groups of old settlers and residents of the city. One suggestion was to remove the bridge to Riverside Park, where the "light traffic" of the park would be easier on the structure. This was not acted upon, and the pleas to preserve the bridge were not heeded and the bridge was taken down in 1902-1903. However, some pieces of the bridge did survive in the form of walking canes. The Indianapolis News in December of 1906, while reminiscing about the now gone bridge, noted that John McGregor a county commissioner, had obtained some pieces of wood from the bridge which he had crafted into a number of walking canes for "personal and political friends."


However, the new Washington Street bridge which replace the old covered bridge did not last long and fell victim to the flood of 1913. The old Washington Street Bridge still in place today (sorry for any confusion with the discussion of all these bridges) which provides a pedestrian-only connection between White River State Park and the Indianapolis Zoo was built in 1916 as a replacement for the bridge lost in 1913. Today, the site of the National River bridge is not far from the location of the rock commemorating the approximate site of McCormick’s cabin.


Below is a set of 'then and now' images of the entrance to the National Road bridge on the east bank of the White River using Christian Schrader’s often reproduced sketch of the entrance to the bridge, and the site today. The red square in the modern image represents the entrance to the bridge, or at least a close approximation based on maps and aerial imaging. McCormick’s Rock is in the center of the image, the White River Trail to the right distance, and the NCAA museum behind the viewpoint of the photo. The 1916 Washington Street bridge is on the left.


Due to the extensive construction and redevelopment which has taken place on both sides of the river since 1902, and the natural forces at work in the river itself (including the catastrophic 1913 flood), there are no remains of the National Road bridge on either bank. In fact the western bank of the river when the National Road bridge was in place was actually about two third of the way across the river as it appears today. As mentioned, the river has changed a lot in the past 120 years, especially the western bank, and the current pedestrian bridge was a post-1913 flood construction. As the original request for proposals stated in 1831, the bridge was to be about the 350 feet in length. The image below depicts where the National Road Bridge was located (from the IndianaMAP GIS website).

The remains of the one pier of the National Road bridge, located mid-river just northeast of the middle of the still standing old Washington Street bridge, could potentially still remain on the riverbed. However, a period of low water, such as during a drought, would be needed to explore that theory. The image below is from a 2018 aerial and if you squint, it almost appears to be some debris or other clutter along the alignment of the National Road bridge, and where the pier would have been.

Of course, this is speculation based off a less than clear aerial image. If I get a chance, I'll take my kayak downtown during a period of low water and toss my GoPro camera (in a water proof case and attached to a rope) overboard to see if there are any remains of the National Road bridge in the riverbed. Otherwise, the only remaining piece of the bridge may be an old walking cane sitting in a antique store or someone's closet.



Sources


Schrader, C. (1987). Indianapolis remembered : Christian Schrader's sketches of early Indianapolis. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Historical Bureau.


Indianapolis Indiana Democrat: March 19, 1831, July 9, 1831, February 3, 1832, March 13, 1846


Indianapolis Indiana Journal: June 25, 1831, January 2, 1833, December 22, 1870, February 6, 1871


Indianapolis Daily State Sentinel: February 3, 1864


Indianapolis News: August 16, 1878, April 16, 1897, May 25, 1898, July 6, 1898, July 11, 1898, August 18, 1898, December 12, 1901, January 15, 1902, January 16, 1902, January 20, 1902, January 30, 1902, June 16, 1902, July 18, 1913, December 6, 1906


History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, (1884) Sulgrove, Berry R.


Centennial history of Indianapolis: an outline history (1920) M.R. Hyman


Journal of the Senate of the State of Indiana, 1835


Steamboat "Governor Morton" near West Washington Street Bridge, circa 1860s (Bass #31201), Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/234/rec/1


Acme Evans Milling Co., Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/dc012/id/13519/rec/15 (Note: The date given for this image is 1932, which is incorrect since the National Road bridge has been demolished 30 years prior)


Old Bridge Over the White River, n.d., Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll28/id/122/rec/35


1901 Baist Map #12, IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection


1889 Sanborn Map, IUPUI Sanborn and Baist Collection


Annual Message of Mayor of Indianapolis, 1902, Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections




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