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5 Postcards from a US-31 Roadtrip

Sea to Inland Sea…Redux

Today’s mini-trip on a US-numbered highway takes Roadtrip-'62 ™ to US-31, which currently runs 1280 miles from just south of Mackinaw City, Michigan to Spanish Fort, Alabama. In 1962, it was a little longer on both ends. The north end went to the Mackinac Bridge and before 1957, it went to the nearby Michigan State Ferry Docks. It shared this location with the beginnings of both US-23 and US-27, which I discussed in more detail on the first day of my US-23 roadtrip. The south end went into downtown Mobile, Alabama through the Bankhead Tunnel. From Mobile to Indianapolis, Indiana, much of the route runs near or together with a freeway, I-65. I have to confess that I have not driven any of the route south of Kentucky, but I have some favorite spots on the Michigan portion. The highway passes through five states, just missing Florida’s Panhandle corner by approximately 1000 feet.

 
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Empire, Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Empire, Michigan (Yes, they really have that steep, 40o slope!)

While Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is well known for its spectacular sand dunes and sweeping Lake Michigan views, it’s too far from US-31 for my five-mile Roadtrip-'62 ™ rules. However, many other dunes are within the limit, including Ludington State Park, at Ludington, Michigan. You can hike up and down dunes for the entire day if you want, beginning with the low dunes on the south end and ending with miles of open high dunes on the north end. Trails abound and will also take you past the Big Sable Point Lighthouse, along the scenic Hamlin River for some salmon and waterfowl watching, and through some deeply shaded woods. My favorite trail is the Lost Lake Trail. This trail uses a series of boardwalks to hop from island to island in Hamlin Lake, and makes an easy loop of about 2¼ miles. I’ve seen deer, swans, frogs, beaver, herons, and even river otters on this trail! On the other hand, if you want to enjoy things from the water, you can rent canoes, kayaks, or paddleboats and paddle around Hamlin Lake on the canoe trail. Or just stay out on the great beach all day and enjoy the lovely sunset at night! If you would rather catch your sunset back in Ludington, head back to town at the end of the day and watch it with an ice cream cone from Park Dairy House of Flavors. They’ve been around since 1948 and have both great food and a great hometown ice cream parlor atmosphere.

Other sand dunes are all along the Lake Michigan shore and are also easy drives off US-31. You can find them at Lake Michigan Recreation Area in the Huron-Manistee National Forest just south of Manistee, Charles Mears State Park at Pentwater, Hoffmaster State Park at Norton Shores, Saugatuck Dunes State Park at Saugatuck, and Van Buren State Park at South Haven.

 
Races of Man sculpture, Holliday Park, Indianapolis, Indiana
Races of Man sculpture, Holliday Park, Indianapolis, Indiana

Near Lapaz, Indiana we cross US-6, which we last saw on day 18 of our roadtrip down that highway. Our next stop down US-31 is at Indianapolis, Indiana, the capital of the state. Here, we cross many US-numbered routes, which radiate like spokes on a bicycle wheel from downtown: US-36, US-40, US-52, US-136, and US-421. On the west side of town along US-136 is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the oldest motorsport tracks in the world. We’re stopping at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (IMSM). The museum was established in 1956, and moved to its current building in 1976. It houses both passenger cars and race cars, trophies, photographs, racing records, memorabilia, and fine art interpreting motorsports. The passenger cars lean toward those built in Indiana, including Duesenbergs, Marmons, and Stutzs. In addition to race cars, other vehicles that have set world land speed records are displayed, including motorcycles and dragsters. The museum displays about 75 cars at any given time, including the winning 1962 Watson Roadster driven by Rodger Ward.

Other sights to see in Indianapolis are the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Garfield Park Conservatory, and Holliday Park. The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site is a museum and memorial to the only U.S. President elected from Indiana. Harrison was the 23rd president of the United States and this building was his home. He and his wife Caroline built the house in 1874-1875 and lived here except when he was a US Senator and President. After Mr. Harrison’s death, his second wife rented the property out until 1937, when she sold it to the Jordan Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory maintained the artifacts and certain rooms as a museum, and offered tours by appointment only from the 1950s to 1974. After a renovation that year, it was opened as a full time museum.

I’ve visited the Garfield Park Conservatory several times. It’s an enjoyable stroll through their 10,000 square foot tropical rainforest and outdoor Sunken Garden and fountains. The original building was designed and constructed in 1916 and consisted of a palm house, two show houses, two plant houses, a propagating house, and a service building. In 1955, that aging wooden Conservatory was replaced with a welded aluminum-framed building. This art deco style building was the first aluminum building in the United States.

The “Races of Man” sculpture in Holliday Park was a mystery to me the first time I visited. I went to the park for their 3.5 miles of hiking trails and views of the White River and saw this looming overhead. The sculpture was not signed at that time, but I have since found it is part of the ruins of the St. Paul Building of New York City. It was moved here after demolition as part of a contest. These sculptures by Karl Bitter have sort of traveled back home, as they were carved of Indiana limestone.

 
Drapery Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Drapery Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (postcard circa 1960, from author’s collection)

At Sellersburg, Indiana (just north of Louisville, Kentucky), US-31 splits into two routes, US-31E and US-31W. These rejoin at Nashville, Tennessee. US-31W passes near both Fort Knox and Mammoth Cave National Park, while US-31E passes by the Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site. It’s easy to see why highway planners could not decide which route to sign as US-31! Fort Knox is a United States Army installation in Kentucky, 30 miles south of Louisville. Though the name conjures the storehouse of gold used as movie plot devices, the United States Bullion Depository is actually a separate but adjacent facility. The army fort was first constructed in 1918 and has grown and changed missions several times over the years. Fort Knox is named after Henry Knox, the country's first Secretary of War. It mostly housed the US Army Armor Center and Armor School, used by both the Army and the Marine Corps to train crews on tanks. The last tank trained on was the M1 Abrams main battle tank in 2011. The United States Bullion Depository is a fortified vault building operated by the United States Department of the Treasury. It stores over half the country's gold reserves, with the remaining gold held in the Philadelphia Mint, the Denver Mint, the West Point Bullion Depository, and the San Francisco Assay Office. The Depository was completed in December 1936. Unfortunately for us, no visitors are permitted and they never have been.

Farther down US-31W, at Park City, Kentucky, is Mammoth Cave National Park, which has the world’s longest known cave system. Different cave tours use different cave entrances, some natural and other manmade. The Broadway Tour uses the cave's most famous entrance and a path used for nearly two centuries. The Cleaveland Avenue Tour requires a bus ride to another entrance. It’s sights include sparkling walls of gypsum and unique tube-shaped passages. For folks that have already heard enough cave tour guides’ bad jokes, the Discovery Tour is self-guiding! The Domes & Dripstones Tour begins in a sinkhole, passes through huge dome rooms, and ends in the dripstone section known as Frozen Niagara. It ascends and descends hundreds of stairs and several steep inclines. Besides the caves, there are over 80 miles of trails in the park for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The trails offer wildlife spotting, river views, sinkholes, cave-fed springs, cemeteries, and views of the historic entrances to Mammoth Cave and Dixon Cave. The cemeteries, and old church buildings, remain from the 30 small communities that were on the land before it became a national park in 1941. Some of the church buildings are open for viewing.

 
Drapery Room, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Aerial view of The Parthenon and Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee (postcard circa 1965, from author’s collection)

This is the farthest south on US-31 I have been and one of the first places I visited when I began working and had vacation time to spend. It’s a bit odd to see a replica of an ancient Greek temple in Tennessee, but Nashville has one! The Parthenon is a full-scale replica, complete with a full-scale replica of the Athena statue of the original. It’s here because Nashville was once known as the “Athens of the South”, so of course when Tennessee held a Centennial Exposition here in 1897, Nashville wanted to look like ancient Athens. As with all the buildings of the exposition, it was built to be temporary. But while the others were removed at the end of the celebration, Nashville’s citizens had grown so fond of The Parthenon that they kept it. As the exterior coating, sculpture, and decorative work were all made of plaster, they soon deteriorated and in 1920, the city began construction of a permanent replacement. Casts were made of the original marble sculptures dating back to 438 B.C., housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Great Britain, and the building was rebuilt from concrete and brick to last. The building was completed in 1931 but the great statue of Athena in the naos was not finished until 1990, with final gilding and painting finished in 2002. The Parthenon serves as the City of Nashville's art museum. The main focus of the Parthenon's permanent collection is 63 paintings by 19th and 20th century American artists donated by James M. Cowan. It also holds a variety of temporary shows and exhibits throughout the year.  

Alabama State Capitol at night, Montgomery postcard
Alabama State Capitol at night, Montgomery (postcard circa 1960, from an online auction)

Montgomery is the capital Alabama, the last of three capitals we visit on this trip (Indianapolis and Nashville being the others). The Alabama State Capitol is open to walk-in visitors. The current building is the second Capitol; the first burned in 1849. The Capitol is a working museum and underwent a major restoration in 1992. Restored areas open to the public include the House of Representatives, Senate Chamber, Old Supreme Court Chamber & Library, and Rotunda. The Senate chamber, restored to its 1861 appearance, has a trompe l'oeil ceiling - a style of painting in which objects are painted to fool the eye into seeing depth. The twin cantilevered spiral staircases are one of the most famous features. Monuments, statues, and gardens are contained on the five-acre surrounding grounds.

One block south of the Capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy, a 1835 Italianate-style house in which President Jefferson Davis and family lived in 1861, while the Confederate capital was in Montgomery. It is furnished with original period pieces from the 1850s and 1860s, and is also open to the public. It was owned by many different people after 1861 until the White House Association of Alabama bought it with the intention of preserving the building. It was moved to its present location and restored in 1921.

 
West entrance of Bankhead Tunnel Mobile, Alabama postcard
West entrance of Bankhead Tunnel Mobile, Alabama (postcard circa 1960, from online auction)

The end of US-31 is in Mobile, Alabama, and the highway passes under Mobile Bay in the Bankhead Tunnel to reach the city. Here’s a bonus postcartd for you! The tunnel was opened in 1940, and allowed a shortcut of nearly 8 miles off the old route using a bridge north of town. The tunnel was built in sections, floated to position, sunk next to the previous section, joined underwater, pumped dry, and finished in place. In 1973, a new freeway tunnel opened adjacent to the old tunnel, but you can still come in the old route on what is now US-90 and US-98. The Bankhead Tunnel required paying a toll back in 1962, but that was abolished when the freeway route opened.

 

I’ve never been to Bellingrath Gardens, about 23 miles south of Mobile, as I’ve never been to this southern coastline of the country. But I need to start traveling in person again and this is on my list! The gardens opened to the public in 1932 and is the state's oldest public garden. It is at the historic former home of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath. Walter made his fortune as one of the first Coca-Cola bottlers in the Southeast, which allowed the couple to build the house and gardens. The home is also open for tours. If I get there, I’ll of course write it up here on Roadtrip-'62 ™.

 

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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