IN SEARCH OF . . .
THE DIXIE HIGHWAY IN OHIO
By the fall of 1914, Carl G. Fisher was no longer at front and center in the improvement activities of the Lincoln Highway Association. Instead, much of his attention was being directed to the development of a “jungle-like peninsula” of palmettos, mangroves, and marshes that we now know as Miami Beach, Florida. The threat of war in Europe had helped to slow the sales of lots, but Fisher was quick to recognize the ultimate need for a good road to connect the cold industrial North to the warm tourist-friendly South.
In its original scope, the Dixie Highway was conceived by Carl Fisher as “a great highway from Indianapolis to Miami.” Indianapolis was Fisher’s home town, and he had begun wintering in Miami in 1910. With the help of W.S. Gilbreath of the Hoosier Motor Club, Carl “made plans for a new road, mapping routes and lining up participants” in much the same fashion as had been done for the Lincoln Highway. It is not clear when the original northern terminus was revised to Chicago, but in November 1914, Gilbreath was in Atlanta to attend the fourth annual meeting of the American Road Congress, “trying to obtain approval from the governors of all the states through which the highway…would pass.” He promoted the newly proposed road as the Cotton Belt Route. With the optimistic promise of new tourist dollars that in other times would have gone to a peaceful Europe, he challenged the southern states to improve their deficient highway networks, especially in the form of interstate highways.
By April 1915, the new north-south highway was being called the Dixie Highway. According to one web site, the name was chosen “to honor fifty years of peace between North and South.” At that time, Fisher and Gilbreath were part of a conference in Chattanooga at which the Dixie Highway Association was formed. This new association was modeled after the Lincoln Highway Association, and there seems little question that Fisher’s experiences with that great east-west transcontinental route proved valuable in this new endeavor. The Indianapolis News reported that “every town in every state wished a place in the Dixie Highway sun,” and some feared that the keen competition would kill the project altogether. Fisher was reportedly quick to suggest a compromise idea at a May meeting of the highway commissioners. Thus, instead of one highway, the commissioners settled on two routes—a western route from Chicago to Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville, which likely resembled Fisher’s original idea; and an eastern route from Detroit to Cincinnati, Lexington, and Knoxville. The routes had a junction point at Chattanooga.
From this concept of parallel highways funneling traffic south to Miami Beach, the Dixie Highway system grew into a network of interwoven vines on a trellis of eastern states. On the 1923 map, Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina are waypoints on a later addition to the system. On that same map are parallel Dixie Highway routes in the lower peninsula of Michigan which joined at Mackinaw before reaching a northern endpoint at Sault Sainte Marie. There were also multiple routes in Florida.
In Ohio, the selection of the first Dixie Highway route was accomplished over a quick but colorful course of several weeks in 1915. To the benefit of this writer, the Lima newspapers offered almost daily coverage of the planning activities for the highway. With intentions to improve the proposed route in Ohio, the Lake Loop District of the Dixie Highway was formed in Lima on June 4. Representatives were present from nearly every city between Cincinnati and Detroit.
Unfortunately, promoters in Lima soon found themselves in a difficult position, with boosters in other nearby cities trying to align themselves on altered versions of the first proposed route. From the start, Lima and Findlay had worked together with Piqua, Sidney, Wapakoneta, and Bowling Green in seeking to improve their part of the projected route, which already had a historical precedent as Main Market Route Number Seven. However, Ottawa and Napoleon fought a spirited battle to sway the route away from Findlay and Bowling Green. Likewise, the cities of Springfield, Urbana, Bellefontaine, and Kenton lobbied for a Dixie Highway course that would pass through that line of county seats. The local newspapers shuddered at the thought of Lima losing the route, especially after being a lead player in the original plan. By August, the local councils from Lima had finally restated their endorsement of a route which paired their city with Findlay. In the end, the route that was originally projected was the route that was chosen.
The importance of the Dixie Highway was not lost on the writer of one Lima Daily News editorial. On July 29, 1915, he opined the following:
The Dixie Highway will be more valuable in one minute than the Lincoln Highway in one year, for the very reason that the resorters and persons planning trips up to Michigan will take the Dixie Road to reach their destinations. This will bring benefits to Lima business men, Lima hotels, and Lima in general. Get the highway, and let the other fellow fight about the route.
History would prove that writer to be somewhat correct. However, in modern times, most vacationers are now heading south, while it is the many hunters and fishers that still head north. Regarding traffic, today’s version of the Dixie Highway is essentially the crowded route of Interstate 75, which carries five times the traffic as U.S. Route 30, the modern equivalent of the Lincoln Highway.
In an earlier editorial published in the May 16, 1915 issue of The Lima Sunday News, the existing Lincoln Highway was seen as a potential beneficiary of the Dixie Highway. As it was written:
Lima should be on [the Dixie Highway], if for no other reason than the fact that it will be a junction point with the Lincoln Highway. This would ensure the coming of tourists who would be seeking a trip out of Chicago, yet would prefer to come through a new territory in reaching eastern points…While the Lincoln Highway has not been the wonderful success that originally was expected…the Dixie Highway should go a long way toward solving the problem…[putting] the Lincoln Highway on the map more forcibly than by any other means.
Lima would in fact become the original point of intersection for the Lincoln Highway and the eastern branch of the Dixie Highway. The 1920 Automobile Blue Book states that a monument was located in the Lima Public Square to recognize this fact, but this author has never found any photographic evidence to support this statement. Alas, the relocation of the Lincoln Highway in June 1919 to the long straight course through Beaverdam would have rendered the memorial a moot point.
In tracing the route of the Dixie Highway through Ohio, I have relied on a combination of three guide books from the 1920s, plus numerous official Ohio Department of Highways (ODH is now known as ODOT) maps. The Ohio Department of Transportation has scanned over ninety years of official highway maps and has posted them on their web site. Thus, knowing the locations of State Route 6 (between 1923 and 1926) and U.S. Route 25 (after 1926) makes it much easier to trace the routes of the Dixie Highway in Ohio.
Beginning at the Michigan border, there have been two popular routes between Detroit and Toledo, witnessed by the closely parallel routes of U.S. 24 (Telegraph Road) and U.S. 25 (Detroit Avenue) for many years. Once upon a time, the federal routes actually overlapped on Detroit Avenue in Toledo, but today only U.S. 24 is marked, while the U.S. 25 designation was dropped in deference to Interstate Route 75. The Dixie Highway would have reached downtown Toledo by way of Collingwood Avenue and Jefferson Avenue (one guide has Madison Avenue) before turning southwest at St. Clair Street. Modern travelers will now have to follow Summit Street out of downtown, because St. Clair Street is no longer a through street.
Only 34 miles of today’s State Route 25 remain in northwest Ohio to continue the legacy of that once important federal highway number. The southbound terminus of the route is partway down the entrance ramp of the I-75 interchange at Cygnet.
Leaving downtown Toledo, the earliest guide books chart a preferred route which crossed the Maumee River at the old Fassett Street Bridge, which disappeared from the highway maps after 1959. In 1923, this would become the path of State Route 6, passing through Rossford before turning south at Perrysburg. On the 1926 map, a tentative U.S. 25 shield is shown on this same alignment. However, subsequent maps indicate that U.S. 25 was moved to the north side of the river, following Broadway Street out of Toledo and into Maumee—crossing the river at the historic bridge at the south end of Conant Street. The Dixie Highway route through Rossford was then renumbered as a part of U.S. 23. By the 1940s, the route of U.S. 25 would completely avoid downtown Toledo with an alignment that followed the newly constructed Anthony Wayne Trail easterly from Maumee to an intersection with Detroit Avenue, where it turned north for several miles to meet the previous alignment.
To reach the Rossford side of the river, turn left from Summit Street to cross the Anthony Wayne Suspension Bridge, which hosts State Route 2, State Route 51, and State Route 65. Follow the signs of State Route 65 out of the Toledo city limits, by way of Oak Street, Fassett Street, and Miami Street to meet the original alignment. In downtown Rossford, State Route 65 curiously becomes either Dixie Highway (southbound) or Superior Street (northbound), depending on which side of the boulevard one is traveling. Between Rossford and Perrysburg, the route is marked as Dixie Highway, then River Road.
In Perrysburg—a historic and photogenic town that is worth a day trip all by itself—the old route follows Front Street into downtown, then turns south for three blocks on Louisiana Avenue (diverging from State Route 65), west for two blocks on Indiana Avenue, and south again on Findlay Street, which will eventually merge into State Route 25. In Wood County, the numbered route is also marked as Dixie Highway and can easily be followed to Bowling Green. Several establishments along the route make use of the Dixie name, including one old-fashioned motel court just south of the I-475 Bypass.
One mile east of downtown Perrysburg, and along the north side of U.S. 20 (Sandusky Street), is Milestone Park, which features milepost one of the old Maumee and Western Reserve Road. This historic road was laid out in the 1820s to cross the swamplands between Perrysburg and Lower Sandusky, which is now named Fremont. West of town is the site of Fort Meigs, where the British were turned back in the War of 1812. This site was recently expanded by the Ohio Historical Society to include a large welcome center.
One of my favorite stops whenever I travel this route is the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green, completed in 1896. Perrysburg, which is one of only four Ohio towns surveyed by the national government, had been the first county seat, but as the county grew, the government offices were moved to this more central location. The beautiful courthouse interior is enhanced by two large murals which recall two eras of history—one is a tribute to Fort Meigs, and the other recalls the fascinating era of oil drilling which boomed the area in the late 1800s.
South of Bowling Green, State Route 25 becomes an example of four-lane redundancy rendered by the completion of an adjacent portion of Interstate 75 in the late 1960s. Especially interesting is the presence of concrete arch replicas at two new bridges which now span all four lanes of the divided highway. These bridges are recent replacements for two unmatched pairs of old bridges in both the original northbound and later-built southbound lanes. The concrete arches are modeled after similar Marsh rainbow arches that were constructed in the 1920s on the original two lane alignment.
Right. Based on an advertisement in the 1922 Automobile Green Book, the town of Portage was also home to the Dixie Garage.
A third concrete arch bridge, in original form, can be found about three miles south of the Cygnet interchange (I-75 Exit 171). To reach this bridge—plus a rare snippet of antique roadway—follow the service road now marked as Insley Road along the west right-of-way fence of Interstate 75. From the Cygnet interchange, the service road can be reached by following State Route 25 a short distance down the southbound ramp toward the four-lane highway, and then turning right where the numbered route abruptly ends. In this few miles, the interstate highway was actually built on top of a revised two-lane version of U.S. 25 that was opened in the 1930s to eliminate sharp curves in the original road—such as those on the undisturbed parts of Insley Road. Thus, despite its age, this particular bridge had an unusually short lifetime on the federal route. Beyond the old bridge, it is not hard to imagine the old road blending into the present alignment.
(click) This original Marsh rainbow concrete arch bridge built in the 1920s is three miles south of the I-75 interchange at Cygnet, on a remnant of the Dixie Highway now marked as Insley Road.
Just south of Quarry Road, travelers should merge into Interstate 75 at an odd interchange (because it has no bridges), but only long enough to cross over the busy double-tracked mainline of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Then, after leaving the four-lane freeway at Exit 167, turn east (left) on State Route 18 toward the opposite side of the interstate, watching for another service road along the east right-of-way fence of the highway. At a point opposite McDonald’s, turn south (right) onto Wood County Road 588—which will become Hancock County Road 220 after just one-half mile—and resume with a two-lane alignment of the old Dixie Highway.
Hancock County uses road numbers and not road names outside of incorporated areas, so the Dixie Highway name is temporarily suspended here in favor of the County Road 220 designation. The road runs due south through the village of Van Buren on a township line that was set off by surveyors in 1820, at sixty miles from the Indiana border. In the early stages of the War of 1812, General William Hull had marched over 2200 soldiers north though this same general corridor, only to controversially surrender to a smaller British force at Detroit.
In Findlay, the historic routes of the Dixie Highway and U.S. 25 pass through a still-vibrant downtown on Main Street. The office building of the Marathon Oil Company dominates the city skyline. In the south part of town, the routes turn southwest toward Lima on Lima Street and Lima Avenue, appropriately. Like Bowling Green, Findlay’s demographics are enhanced by the presence of a university which bears the city’s name, and impressive new facilities are evident on the north side of town. The opulent Hancock County Courthouse in downtown Findlay—completed in 1888 on the heels of a prosperous gas boom—features several impressive works of stained glass (each piece beveled) that are unsurpassed by any in the state, and is always worth a visit. A bronze statue of John Hancock, for whom the county is named, overlooks the city.
Beyond Findlay, the routes of the Dixie Highway and U.S. 25 cut a remarkably straight diagonal all the way to way to Lima, with only a brief change of direction at a sweeping reverse curve northeast of Bluffton. In Hancock County, the highway is signed as County Road 313, but the Dixie Highway name is revived beyond Bluffton in Allen County. This is still a pleasant drive that I often make today, if only to relax and to avoid the aggressive traffic on the interstate. In Bluffton—as in many other towns to be visited on this tour—the route of the Dixie Highway is on Main Street. Much of the community’s culture fronts on this neatly-kept street that is always colorfully decorated with American flags. Another namesake university is also an integral part of the community.
Three miles southwest of Bluffton, the diagonal Dixie Highway crosses a railroad at a common point with the north-south Phillips Road, which was laid out on the section lines. This location is locally known as Gratz Crossing (named for an adjacent landowner), and improvements made here in 1934 were intended to improve a notoriously dangerous grade crossing, while also eliminating four turns. Prior to the construction of the surviving superelevated reverse curve, there was no diagonal road between Hillville Road and Phillips Road. Unfortunately, just beyond the end of the curve, the original Dixie Highway is again obliterated by the construction of Interstate 75, and can not be recovered again as a two-lane road until just northeast of Beaverdam. By taking Hillville Road one mile west, then turning south (left) on Swaney Road for another mile, the route of the original Dixie Highway can be picked up again and followed into Beaverdam.
At Beaverdam, the Mid-Ohio Chapter of today’s Lincoln Highway Association has erected a brick pillar replica on the original concrete base of a similar previous marker. The fate of the first pillar is unknown, but any driver who failed to stop at the Main Street intersection could have smacked into the original bricks (please do not let that happen again). At the replica marker, a new plaque of dedication appropriately commemorates Carl Fisher, founder of both the Lincoln Highway and Dixie Highway. Beginning in 1919, several blocks of Beaverdam’s Main Street have been shared by the traditional paths of the two great transcontinental highways.
Today it captures the imagination to picture the interesting strip of tourist services that would have once existed here. Included among them would have been the Dixie-Lincoln Restaurant, which is believed to have had three different locations, and the Parks-Klay Service Center, an easily-recognized building which is still the site of a local grocery. It is almost laughable to compare these modest services to the huge truck plazas at the nearby I-75 interchange, but they would have more than adequately served their purpose in their day.
Southwest of Beaverdam, the diagonal course of the Dixie Highway is twice obliterated by modern four-lane highways. The original route is reached again by turning south (left) from Main Street at the only flashing signal in downtown Beaverdam, onto West Street/Napoleon Road. After passing over Interstate 75 and under U.S. 30, immediately turn west (right) onto a service road marked as Dixie Highway. Eventually, the road will angle southwest and resume with the original alignment toward Lima. In a most unusual engineering design, several residences are on an isolated remnant of the old highway that is virtually trapped between the two four-lane freeways—accessible only by way of an expanded exit ramp.
The Dixie Highway does not change direction again until reaching a recently improved intersection with State Route 81 east of Lima. Enter Lima by following State Route 81 into the downtown, bearing west on Findlay Road, south on Jefferson Street, and west on North Street—passing beneath another line of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At the fourth traffic signal past the Allen County Courthouse, resume south toward Wapakoneta with a left turn onto Metcalf Street. A fine old cottage-style Pure Oil station is now disguised as a doughnut shop on the southeast corner of this intersection. The Allen County Museum, on the west side of Metcalf Street in the block between High Street and Market Street, is one of the best county museums anywhere, and has a children’s garden with a Lincoln Highway interpretive site. (book a hotel in Lima)
The above instructions match the 1927 route of U.S. 25 through Lima. As mentioned in the early part of the article, the original Dixie Highway would have passed through the Public Square on Main Street, intersecting the early route of the Lincoln Highway at Market Street. In later years, the numbered route would have passed under the old Pennsylvania Railroad by way of Union Street and Pearl Street, and not under the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as charted above. The latter underpass, designed by the firm for which this writer is employed, was opened in the late 1980s to improve traffic flow through the city.