Books could be written — just with the jokes we crack — about the state of Northwest Indiana roads.
But before you tell everyone about the New Chicago-sized pothole you hit on the way to work last week, consider a largely unknown piece of history many of us traverse every day. It's a 1.3-mile section of U.S. 30 in Dyer that set the gold standard for our modern highways and interstates some nine decades ago.
Now a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the history of the old Lincoln Highway, upon which the stretch ran, is seeking state permission to help preserve the story of this "Ideal Section" of highway.
State highway officials — and all of us — should support this effort as a clear means of preserving Northwest Indiana history and promoting something sometimes in short supply: Region pride.
In 1924, the Lincoln Highway Association erected a brick and mortar memorial to this section of Lincoln Highway. It still stands in the easement on the south side of U.S. 30 in front of Meyers Castle in Dyer.
Many of us drive past the marker every day without noticing the it or knowing why it's there.
The 1.3-mile stretch of the Lincoln Highway, which was part of the groundbreaking 3,400-mile roadway stretching from New York to San Francisco, received a little extra care when the route was designed.
All of the most innovative engineering bells and whistles, circa 1920, were incorporated into what would be called the Ideal Section.
At the time, most roadways were constructed using 8 inches of concrete with no lighting, limited rights of way, no landscaping and zero thought paid to pedestrian traffic.
The Ideal Section was built with four lanes, each 10-feet wide with foot paths on either side. Street lights, almost unheard of, were installed along the stretch, designed specifically for the project by General Electric.
Workers poured the concrete 10 inches thick with reinforced steel rebar, something beyond the standard of the day.
"The idea with the lights at the time was to create a roadway that was bright enough so motorists wouldn't have to use their headlights at night," said Bruce Butgereit, an Indiana Lincoln Highway Association board member and champion of preserving the Ideal Section memorial.
Trees and plants were added to the plan to beautify the roadway.
In the end, the Ideal Section running through the heart of our Region was held out as the gold standard for other state, and eventually interstate, highways.
At one point, plans along the ideal stretch even included a massive family campground, which would have been located where Meyer's Castle, a popular banquet facility, now stands.
Money ran out for that phase, but not the spare-no-expense roadway engineering that helped create a new philosophy in roadway design, putting a premium on quality and durability.
Today, the 1924 memorial needs some TLC, Butgereit said.
The Lincoln Highway Association, with the blessing and support of Dyer and its historical society, began this work several years ago.
Mortar between the bricks has been repaired or replaced, and worn and corroded metal tablets have been refurbished.
Research behind the project has included a trip by Butgereit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where he found blueprints and specs for the original memorial.
But Butgereit said preservationists have stalled the work to reattach refurbished tablets and provide landscaping and plants — pro bono from the Dyer Garden Club — around the memorial because of a question of land ownership.
It turns out the easement in which the memorial rests belongs to the state. Butgereit said he's in the process of reaching out to the Indiana Department of Transportation to get permission to finish the work of a memorial that's been standing for some 90 years.
And he's not asking anyone for any funding. The group has raised $7,000 for the restoration and for some new interpretive signs it wants to place near the memorial.
A new sidewalk the town of Dyer is constructing with grant money happens to run past the memorial, complementing the project.
The current champion of the project, Butgereit, 56, doesn't even hail from the Region. He travels periodically from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to oversee the project, his passion for history driving him.
That passion should fuel local residents and state transportation planners to help preserve the memory of a time when our often decried roadways were part of the gold standard.
As we approach the Indiana bicentennial, perhaps this little stretch of highway also can become a rallying point once again for future transportation greatness in the Hoosier state.
Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or email@example.com. The opinions are the writer's.
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