In the days before the interstate system, Terre Haute was at the center of travel.
By Karen Grundin
Take a step back in time, to a downtown Terre Haute bustling with activity.
Pedestrians strolled past Sears Roebuck & Co. and peeked at the goodies in the Fannie May window. Bellmen rushed to carry luggage into the Terre Haute House. Studebakers, Cadillacs and Pontiacs, carrying vacationers bound for Florida, lined Wabash Avenue as their passengers dined or shopped. Semitrailers screeched their brakes, halting on Seventh Street. In the days before the interstate system, Terre Haute was at the nation's crossroads.
U.S. 41 - a major north-south artery - crossed U.S. 40 - the most well-traveled transcontinental route of its time - in the heart of downtown.
"The intersection there was of great importance," said Tom Roznowski of Bloomington, who serves as host for public radio's "Hometown" series and is working on a book about Terre Haute. "It was such a prominent place."
From the 1920s until Interstate 70 opened near Terre Haute in 1967, the Crossroads drew out-of-town traffic from nearly every corner of the nation.
"We had all kinds of people who came through Terre Haute because of the highway system," said Joy Sacopulos, a lifelong Terre Haute resident.
Sacopulos remembers sitting in the back seat of her parents 1950s Buick.
She and her sister scanned license plates along Wabash Avenue. They'd make a game of who could find the most states.
Wisconsin. Minnesota. Michigan. Iowa. Missouri. Nebraska.
And if they were really lucky, one of them - usually Jan, the elder sister - might spy something extraordinary, like the time they noticed a "South Dakota" plate.
"I remember we were really excited" but also grateful not to be inside that vehicle, Sacopulos said. "We were glad we weren't riding in the car that long."
Years later, Sacopulos saw Indianapolis referred to as "Crossroads of America." She set out to prove that historically, only Terre Haute deserved that designation.
Eventually, she was able to persuade the Indiana Historical Bureau to place a "Crossroads of America" marker at the northwest corner of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue. Two other privately funded markers are on the north and west sides of Old National Bank.
John Woelfle, who helped Sacopulos with the historical marker effort, remembers when I-70 drew the shopping district south to Third Street.
"That really had an impact on the downtown area," he said.
Woelfle, however, is hopeful about recent developments at the historical Crossroads and believes the city's downtown is making a comeback.
"It will never be what it was, but it can be better than it was," he said. "I'm the eternal optimist."
And he'll always have the memories of riding the bus downtown to catch a movie at the Grand Theater at Seventh and Cherry.
There were the afternoons spent riding his bike along a bricked - and heavily traveled - Seventh Street.
"Those were the good old days," Woelfle said.
CROSSROADS OF AMERICA FAST FACTS
-- Terre Haute's claim as "Crossroads of America" dates back to the roaring '20s, when the city boasted newly paved U.S. 40 and newly designated U.S. 41.
-- One 1920s-era photo from Martin Photo Shop refers to the downtown Terre Haute intersection as "Crossroads of the World."
-- The corner of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue inspired the march "Where the Highways Cross." Harold Bright, first director of Indiana State University bands, composed the song around 1939.
-- The Terre Haute intersection officially became designated the historical "Crossroads of America" on July 4, 1988.
-- The National Road was built through Terre Haute in 1834.
-- During its heyday, U.S. 40 stretched from Atlantic City to San Francisco and carried more automobile traffic than any other transcontinental highway. With the construction of the interstate system, many western portions of the highway were decommissioned. The highway now ends in Silver Creek Junction, Utah, about 800 miles shy of the Pacific Coast.
-- In 1951, Indiana's portion of U.S. 41 was named "Paul Dresser Memorial Highway."
-- The north-sound highway runs from Copper Harbor, Wis., to Miami.
Sources: Public radio host Tom Roznowski, ISU professor emeritus George Graesch, local historical markers, www.route40.net