In Search of...U.S. Route 50 in Ohio

IN SEARCH OF...
U.S. ROUTE 50 IN OHIO

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October 2009

 Part One—Chronology 
November 18, 1825

            A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Bureau of Public Roads was approved on this date by the Secretary of Agriculture.  Many maps which are dated 1926 show the tentative routes of the proposed federal highway system, including the Ohio Department of Highways (ODH) map of that year.

            In this tentative plan, U.S. Route 50 was a route from Annapolis, Maryland to Wadsworth, Nevada (near Reno).  For nearly all its journey across Ohio, the federal route followed Main Market Route Number Five across the southern counties, entering the state at Belpre (opposite Parkersburg, West Virginia) and then bearing west toward Cincinnati.  When named auto trails began to appear on the maps in the late 1910s, this main market route also became the route of the Cincinnati-Parkersburg Trail.

            After 1923, identities such as main market routes and named auto trails would fade into history as a result of Ohio's new state highway numbering system.  Were it not for revisions forced by the duplication of numbers from both the federal and interstate highway systems, the original Ohio system would strongly resemble the map of today.

November 11, 1926

            The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) accepts a modified plan for the first federal highway system.  In its original form, U.S. 50 was a route of 2856 miles from Annapolis, Maryland to Sacramento, California.  It superceded a combination of several state routes in Ohio:  State Route 7 from Belpre to Coolville; State Route 144 from Coolville to Athens; State Route 26 from Athens to Milford; State Route 27 from Milford to Cincinnati; and State Route 7 (again) from Cincinnati to the Indiana border.

            It is interesting to note that the four major east-west federal highways which crossed Ohio all followed existing main market routes.  As described above, the route of U.S. 50 was basically a new designation for Ohio's Main Market Route Number Five.  The route of U.S. 40 followed Main Market Route Number Four, which in turn was traced by the National Old Trails Road.  The route of U.S. 30 followed Main Market Route Number Three, and was generally the equivalent of the Lincoln Highway.  Finally, the route of U.S. 20 followed Main Market Route Number One, which also compared well to both the Chicago-Buffalo Road and parts of the Yellowstone Trail.

1929 to 1934

            From 1929 to 1934, the official Ohio highway maps show a split in the route of U.S. 50 in the area of the Ohio River.  Between Ellenboro, West Virginia and Athens, Ohio, the federal route was divided into U.S. 50-North (via Newport, Marietta, and Amesville) and U.S. 50-South (via Belpre and Coolville).  The new northern route was longer by only four miles (73 miles versus 69 miles) and established a significant junction in Marietta with the important north-south route of U.S. 21, which had a terminus in Cleveland.

1935 to 1975

            In 1935, the route which had been U.S. 50-North was renumbered as U.S. 50-A.  This alternate designation appeared on the Ohio maps through 1975.  On the 1976 map, U.S. 50-A was replaced by State Route 550.  It seems that during the 1970s, the state highway department made a conscious effort to eliminate suffixed numberings.  That was also the same decade when U.S. 30-South was renumbered as State Route 309.  However, U.S. 20-A does still survive in northwest Ohio.

            Also in 1935, the route which had been U.S. 50-South reassumed its original designation as U.S. 50.  However, unlike today's State Route 550—which exhaustingly meanders through the Appalachian Foothills of Washington County and Athens County—much of U.S. 50 has found its way to new and modernized alignments that feature multiple lanes and more generous geometry.

1935 to 1973

            In virtually the same time period that U.S. 50 had an alternate route through Marietta, it also had an official bypass route around Cincinnati.  This bypass route overlapped sections of State Route 126 and State Route 128 between Milford and Cleves, tracing a semi-circle of a dozen suburban locations around Cincinnati.  Resources give the bypass a length of 29 miles, which is not that much longer than the route through downtown Cincinnati.  However, on paper it sure looks to be a tediously long way to go around town.  By 1974, enough of the interstate highway system had been built in the Cincinnati metroplex to render obsolete the bypass version of U.S. 50.

1969 to 1985

            On the 1969 map of Ohio, an ominous double-dashed line is shown across the southern counties east of Cincinnati.  This would become the route of Ohio's Appalachian Highway—a thoroughfare that was conceived with the idea of bringing development to economically challenged areas in southern Ohio and northern West Virginia.  The endpoint cities of the Appalachian Highway are Cincinnati and Clarksburg, West Virginia.

In Ohio, the route of the Appalachian Highway is now entirely marked as State Route 32, and overlaps U.S. 50 between Belpre and Albany (in western Athens County).  Although the economic successes that were projected in this new highway corridor remain a point of contention, it is not arguable that the four-lane path of the Appalachian Highway has taken significant long-distance traffic away from the route of U.S. 50.  By 1985, most of the Appalachian Highway in Ohio had been completed, with only a new crossing at the Ohio River still on the drawing board.

June 13, 2008 and Present

            On June 13, 2008, the Cincinnati to Clarksburg corridor of the Appalachian Highway is finally completed with the opening of the impressive Blennerhasset Island Bridge.  The bridge takes its name from a historic island in the Ohio River that introduced not a small bit of controversy to the project.  Three piers were placed on the island, but their placement resulted in a far less expensive option than that of suspending a bridge over the island.  Still, the 4009-foot bridge over the Ohio River was the costliest highway span ever built in West Virginia.  It includes an attractive “network tied-arch span” of 878.5 feet that is the longest of its kind in the United States.  The finished bridge also set new design standards for its use of high-performance structural steel. 

According to a U.S. 50 web site created earlier in this decade, the federal route covered 3073 miles between Ocean City, Maryland and Sacramento, California.  This included 209 miles in Ohio, a number that would now be decreased by a few miles with the opening of the new bridge.  At its maximum length, the route was reportedly over 3200 miles long, with a western terminus at San Francisco.  In much of Nevada and California, the route of the Lincoln Highway became the route of U.S. 50—including that notorious stretch in Nevada known as "The World's Loneliest Highway."

            In Ohio, U.S. 50 is shown on the current map as a multi-lane divided highway between Belpre and Albany, where it is overlapped by the Appalachian Highway.  Between Albany and Cincinnati, the only other location where U.S. 50 is similarly modernized is where it joins U.S. 35 at Chillicothe.  From Cincinnati to the Indiana state line, the current Ohio map again shows the route as a multi-lane divided highway.  The remainder of the route is generally a two-lane rural route with the usual improvements to grades and curves that would be typical in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

Part Two--
Geography, Geology, and Geometry

Parkersburg, West Virginia to Belpre, Ohio

            Before the opening of the Blennerhasset Island Bridge in June 2008, the route of U.S. 50 crossed the Ohio River and entered the Buckeye State on a bridge that was opened in the late 1970s.  It replaced a cable suspension bridge that was built in the 1910s and demolished in 1980.  Next to this location is a remarkable railroad bridge that dates back to 1871.

            Upstream from the parallel bridges is the Memorial Bridge, which was opened in 1954.  In the early plans for the Appalachian Highway, the Memorial Bridge was to be paired with another later bridge that together would line up well with the present four lanes of State Route 7.  However, an entirely different plan was seen to its completion when the Blennerhasset Island Bridge was built five miles downstream.

Belpre to Athens

            Belpre is one of the oldest settlements in Ohio, dating back to 1789.  The name is an anglicized rendering of belle pré, which in French means "beautiful meadow."  Tracing the original route of U.S. 50 through Belpre has not been easy, because different routes have existed at different times.  Prior to the opening of the four-lane route that U.S. 50 once shared with State Route 7 from the 1960s through June 2008, a two-lane alignment was likely in use at what is now marked either as State Route 618 or Washington Boulevard.  Because this alignment is not indicated on a 1935 county map that was prepared by the state highway department, it does not appear to be an original part of U.S. 50.  What does show up on the 1935 map is a route which follows roadways now named as Maple Street, Campus Drive, and Putnam Howe Drive, but even that version may not be the original route of 1926.  Based on the odometer charts of the 1920 Automobile Blue Book, that first version of U.S. 50 route may have been at Blennerhasset Avenue, plus one block of Main Street.

Click to view.  In 1940, the State Highway Department prepared a "General Highway Map" for each of Ohio's eighty-eight counties. This excerpt from the map of Washington County shows the route of U.S. 50 (highlighted in pink) west of Belpre, including some very irregular alignment north of the town of Little Hocking. Parts of this old alignment survive today as local road. 

West of Belpre, State Route 618 passes under the new bridge and merges into the four-lane highway which carries U.S. 50 and other numbered state routes.  A broken road marked on the county map as Township Road 212 appears to fit the alignment of the original federal route through this area, as does State Route 124 through the community of Little Hocking.  Other parts of that woefully winding early road have been obliterated by the construction of the smooth curves and tangents of the present federal route.  One mile south of Little Hocking, the early route of U.S. 50 would have turned southwesterly toward Athens County on a road now marked either as County Road 84 or Hocking Road.

            In Athens County, the original route meanders with a road now marked as Belpre Pike, passing through the communities of Torch and Coolville.  At Coolville, the route followed Main Street (a.k.a. County Road 56) through the town, which now dead-ends before reaching the freeway.  The present route of U.S. 50 can be rejoined just west of Coolville.  According to my collection of official Ohio highway maps, the four-lane route between Belpre to Coolville was completed in the 1960s.

Click to view.  This is an excerpt from the "1969 Official Ohio Highway Map." The route of U.S. 50 is highlighted as a pink line across the middle of the sheet. The proposed route of the Appalachian Highway is highlighted as a green line across the bottom left of the sheet. Another highway of interest (but not highlighted) is an "Alternate U.S. 50" route between Marietta and Athens. Although the economic successes that were projected in the corridor of the Appalachian Highway remain a point of contention, it is not arguable that its four-lane path has taken significant long-distance travel away from the route of U.S. 50. 

At an interchange just southwest of Coolville, State Route 7 diverges southwesterly toward Pomeroy, while U.S. 50 and State Route 32 together follow the Appalachian Highway westerly toward Athens.  Looking at the 1935 map of Athens County, it nearly drops my jaw to see how crooked the route used to be as it crossed the hills to go from one stream valley to the next.  I am guessing that a new two-lane highway designed to eliminate sharp curves and turns was first built during the 1940s or 1950s.  However, it appears that this part of the route did not become a divided highway until additional lanes were added in the late 1990s.

            There are several locations between Coolville and Athens where short bits and pieces of old roadways can still be recovered.  Two miles west of the interchange area, a remnant now marked as Township Highway 573 makes a loop on the south side of the present road.  Just past the west end of that loop, a small part of Township Highway 117 survives from the original alignment—also on the south side of the road.  Another mile beyond that, a parallel pavement marked either as Roadside Park Road or Township Road 640—again on the south side of the road—is another remnant of the first version of U.S. 50.  From here, the path of the original road crosses to the opposite side, with Chapman Road (TH 570B), Jarvis Road (TH 570), and Potter Road (CR 66) all being parts of the original route.

I have long been fascinated, if not amused, by the attention that the highway department has given to roadside parks in Ohio.  Such pride was shown in the construction of the first rest areas that examples are pictured on the covers of both the 1947 and 1949 state highway map.  Over 200 red triangle symbols (still the standard symbol on the map of today) appeared on the 1947 edition, including a symbol for the site at Roadside Park Road.  At the peak period during the 1950s and 1960s, eight such parks were located along U.S. 50, and some of the upgraded locations (potable water; flush toilets) remain today.  Those with a keen eye for this genre of roadside architecture may still be able to discover the occasional brick boundary markers and sign bases, or perhaps the canopy for an old well pump at sites that have been abandoned.

At Guysville, a newer bridge and sweeping curve now take the route away from the small community that is nestled on the banks of the Hocking River.  The 1935 county map seems to indicate that the original route came northerly into the middle of the town before making a right angle turn to the west.  This is one of several areas over the course of this tour where having a map with a larger scale would be quite beneficial.  It would be an interesting adventure to find where the road first crossed the river.

Another area where a bigger map would be helpful is in the vicinity of Canaanville. To my surprise, the roadway of the 1920s and 1930s actually crossed and re-crossed the railroad at Canaanville, which means that an old snippet of macadam may be lying in the weeds on the opposite side of the tracks, quietly waiting for discovery.  More easily discovered is a mile-long path now marked as Canaanville Hills Road—which, unless it was built as a frontage road, may also have been a part of the old route.  Another remnant that is more certainly a part of the early highway is McAfee Road (TH 605), which is at the bend in the road just northwest of Canaanville.

Unfortunately, the typically detailed 1927 road guide book published by the Cleveland Automobile Club has an overly simplified chart for this part of U.S. 50, merely listing waypoints and mileages.  That simplification makes it more difficult to trace the original route.  However, the 1922 Green Book (which predates the federal designation by four years) has a comparatively detailed set of instructions for tracing the route from Coolville to Athens:

16.9      Coolville.

17.3      Keep to left.

21.9      Bear to right at three corners.

23.0      Straight through four corners.

28.0      Guysville.  Cross railroad and turn left at top of grade.

30.4      Church on right.

32.4      Canaanville.

32.6      Railroad.

32.9      Railroad.

34.5      Bridge….

39.4      Athens, at Court House

            Four miles east of Athens, the original path of U.S. 50 splits from a newer bypass route and follows an extension of State Street into town.  Several years later, I can no longer recall which road I traveled when I last passed through here, but I do recall an unaesthetic stretch of highway somewhere in this area that was especially blighted by a concrete barrier between the four-lane freeway and a frontage road which may have been part of the original route.  The bypass alignment east of Athens shows up for the first time on the Ohio map of 1977.

            The earliest versions of the federal route apparently curved into downtown Athens by following State Street to Court Street.  Looking at current map sources, State Street now seems a bit disjointed.  Thus, parts of other streets may also need to be negotiated today.  After passing through downtown on Court Street (which is now one way northbound), the route jogged one block on President Street before resuming south of Congress Street (which is now one way southbound).  An Ohio University alumnus on our surveying staff tells me that President Street is so named because it is the location of the home of the university president.

After examining the early geologic map for this area, I am very surprised at how small the city of Athens seems to be.  The 1920 Blue Book gives the population of the town as 5463.  The 2005 Rand McNally Road Atlas has the number at 21,545.  I am guessing that this figure includes students at a much larger Ohio University, but I am also guessing that the city has grown as the campus has grown.

Ohio University was founded in 1804, one year after Ohio was granted statehood.  The original name of the school was American Western University.  It is not only the oldest university in Ohio (it predates the founding of Ohio State University by sixty-six years), it is also the oldest university in the five states which make up the old Northwest Territory.  Its location at Athens was chosen because it was directly situated between Marietta and Chillicothe (the original capital of Ohio), two of the most important cities of that era.

Athens to McArthur

            South of downtown Athens, the original route of U.S. 50 follows Richland Avenue through a new part of the university campus, and then passes below the present bypass route shared here by State Route 32, U.S. 33, and U.S. 50.  Like the segment east of Athens, the bypass route appears to have been opened in the late 1970s.  At a complex interchange just south of the underpass, U.S. 33 diverges southeasterly toward Pomeroy while the other two routes—and the route of the Appalachian Highway—turn southwesterly toward Albany.  Richland Avenue meets Albany Road in the area of this same interchange.

Click maps to view.  In the early 1900s, the U.S. Geological Survey cooperated with the State of Ohio in preparing a series of geologic sheets which covered the entire state. These map excerpts are from the Wilkesville quadrangle sheet and covers the eastern townships of Vinton County. Although this 1908 map predates the original routing of U.S. 50 by almost twenty years, the early wagon roads that would form the backbone of the original route are indicated. The red line indicates the path of the present route, and is typical of a newer generation of highways that were built in the middle decades of the past century. 

Between the above diversion point and the town of Albany, there again are several miles of Athens County roadways that survive from the original route.  One part of this old route is marked on the map as either County Road 17A or Fisher Road, which appropriately passes through the community of Fisher.  Another part of the old route passes through the similarly small location of Hebbardsville, on roads now marked as Hebbardsville Road (County Road 19) and Enlow Road (County Road 19A).

Southwest of Athens, I am guessing that the original two lanes of the present route of U.S. 50 date back to the mid-1950s, because this is the first time that the red federal line on the Ohio map misses Hebbardsville.  I am also guessing that a "future location" of U.S. 50 that is shown on the state highway map of 1974 was never constructed.  Instead, it appears that two additional lanes were merely built alongside the mid-1950s project at some time around 1990.

            Through Albany, the original route of U.S. 50 is marked as Washington Road.  Albany was bypassed in about 1970 with one of the earliest improvements in the corridor of the Appalachian Highway.  Two miles southwest of Albany, the route of U.S. 50 diverges from the Appalachian Highway (and State Route 32) and bears west toward McArthur and Vinton County.  Washington Road now serves as a frontage road and can be followed from Albany for two miles to its terminus opposite the Ohio University Airport alongside U.S. 50.

For the roadfan who most enjoys highway archaeology, the next part of the U.S. 50 tour across southern Ohio may prove to be the highlight.  By comparing the geologic maps of the 1910s to the equivalent maps published in the 1950s, it is soon evident that the entire highway was virtually rebuilt in the eastern half of Vinton County.  As a result, there are many segments of the original alignment which survive as parallels on the maps of today.  It is likely that there are even some small isolated segments of abandoned blacktop lying in wait in the nearby weeds.  This is one of the most remote parts of Ohio, and the 1920 Automobile Blue Book failed to chart a single route that included any part of Vinton County, leaving an ominous white hole on their schematic map of routes.

            Two miles southwest of Albany, U.S. 50 bears west as it diverges from State Route 32 and the Appalachian Highway.  Another two miles from this point, the highway leaves Athens County and enters Vinton County.  Almost immediately, there is an old road remnant to discover.  On the northeast side of the present highway is a roadway now shown either as Brooks Road or Township Highway 22.  It is about one mile in length and terminates at the old Weaver Chapel, a location which was sometimes called for as an odometer landmark in the early auto guides.  A cemetery can be found at this location today.

About one mile west of Weaver Chapel is the location of Bolins Mill.  Another road remnant, although quite short, is located here on the west side of a waterway and the north side of the road.  This snippet of the old route is appropriately named Bolins Mill Road but is also shown on some maps as Township Highway 25.  When it is shown, it appears as a road with no outlet.

Three miles west of Bolins Mill is the location of the old Putnam Chapel.  Like the Weaver Chapel, this location was sometimes called for as an odometer landmark, and once again, a cemetery can still be found here.  At Putnam Chapel, an old road designated either as County Highway 30 or perhaps Old State Road meanders with the topography sharply away from U.S. 50.  It returns to meet the present highway about one mile west from its point of departure.

Two miles west of Putnam Chapel is the small town of Prattsville.  The old road is still apparent here as it passes through the community, and then continues westerly through another mile of slight meanders.  The roadway may be marked either as County Highway 7A or as Prattsville Road.  At the west end of Prattsville Road, the original road crosses from the south side to the north side of present-day U.S. 50.  This continuing part of the old roadway may be marked either as County Highway 7 or as Old McArthur Road.  One and one-half miles westerly from the crossing point, the western terminus of this remnant meets U.S. 50 near the location of an overpassing railroad.  This grade separation could very well be a rare instance in eastern Vinton County where the original alignment and the present alignment are at the same location.

Closer to the seat of justice at McArthur, there may be as many as three named roadways which previously carried the route of U.S. 50.  One such roadway is now known either as Pony Road or as Township Highway 12.  On the east edge of town, the earliest geologic map shows a sharper bend in the roadway alignment which could possibly be explained by tracing parts of South Street and Jane Drive.  Other than the common point at the railroad portal, perhaps the only part of the original alignment in the eastern half of Vinton County that has not been altered in some way—either horizontally (such as curve improvements) or vertically (such as grade changes)—is the several blocks of Main Street as it passes through McArthur.  Thus, this part of the U.S. 50 route is an excellent example of roadway improvements that were made on state highways in the middle decades of the past century.

McArthur to Chillicothe

West of McArthur, the Appalachian Foothills begin to flatten out, and the highway takes advantage of topography to minimize any gradient issues as it approaches Ross County.  Although this part of the route lacks the numerous old road remnants that prevailed in the larger hills east of McArthur, there still are roadway improvements in this section that are typical of such projects during the 1950s and 1960s.

Leaving McArthur on Main Street, the route of U.S. 50 runs with higher ground above the waters of Puncheon Fork.  Four miles beyond town, the highway veers southwest, dropping from the slight ridge line to meet the waters of Middle Fork.  After another four miles, the settlement of Allensville is reached.  Between McArthur and Allensville, the old geologic maps show three schoolhouses along the route of U.S. 50—Miller School, Papaw School, and Riley School.  Many buildings which once served as one-room schoolhouses remain in my part of Ohio, so it would be interesting to discover how many of these old landmarks still survive in this part of the state.

From Allensville to Ratcliffburg (about twelve miles west of McArthur), the highway meanders along the bends of Middle Fork.  Neither the geologic maps nor the internet maps show any hints of an old road remnant in this stretch of the road.  More than likely, most highway improvements that were made in a section like this were so close to the original alignment that all traces of the previous path have been obliterated by the construction of the newer road.

At Ratcliffburg, however, the highway department saw fit to build four miles of new parallel alignment before the route would leave Vinton County.  Thus, there is a nostalgic and scenic section of old road of equal length that is just north of the newer highway.  This old road remnant is marked either as County Highway 13A or as Old 50 Road, and appears to have been bypassed because it is more "built-up" (relatively speaking) than adjacent sections of the federal highway.

Although I have toured less than half the distance of U.S. 50 across Ohio (only from Marietta to Chillicothe), I do specifically recall this four-mile stretch of parallel roadways as a personal favorite.  The old geologic map shows Clark School on the north side of the road, at two miles southwest of Ratcliffburg.  The newer maps show three churches in this same stretch.  Based on the names of two of the churches, it appears that this area is locally known as Pleasant Valley.  I think the name fits quite well.

Just west of the junction point of the old road and the new road, U.S. 50 enters Ross County.  Two miles in, the route passes through the crossroads community of Londonderry, which lies in the morning shadows of an interesting landmark shown on the geologic maps as Point Lookout.  A similar prominence of landscape is four miles west of Londonderry and is known as Rattlesnake Knob.  Both features are on the north side of the highway.  At the first crossroads west of the knob (Lancaster Road and/or Jones Road), the old geologic map shows another local landmark known as Smith's Store.  This is the same location as a toll gate that appears on a township map in the 1875 Atlas of Ross County.

Nine miles into Ross County, the route of U.S. 50 meets the route of U.S. 35.  For whatever reason, U.S. 35 has been given much more consideration than U.S. 50 in the way of four-lane improvements.  Crossing the Ohio River just upstream from Gallipolis, the route of U.S. 35 bears northwesterly toward Chillicothe, Washington Court House, Xenia, and Dayton.  More than half of this mileage features four lanes of divided highway.  With the exception of the long section between Belpre and Albany, and a shorther section west of Cincinnati, most of the U.S. 50 route remains a two-lane road.  As stated in the opening paragraphs, the successive opening of long sections of the Appalachian Highway probably took away from the importance of the federal route.

Paired briefly, U.S. 50 and U.S. 35 cross the Scioto River and approach the southeast fringes of Chillicothe.  At the first interchange beyond the river bridge, the routes diverge.  Whereas U.S. 35 now bypasses the city, U.S. 50 traces much of its original path through the downtown area.  Today, the route through town is simply traced by following the federal shield signs that are posted along four streets—Eastern Avenue, Bridge Street, Main Street, and Western Avenue.  This strongly resembles the original route through downtown, which used Hickory Street and what is now Old Eastern Avenue prior to its relocation to Bridge Street.  The odd diagonal of Old Eastern Avenue occurs because it follows the historic path of the Ohio and Erie Canal.  An old county atlas shows this same street as Gallipolis Street.

For the tourist who truly has time to find joy in the journey, Chillicothe certainly makes for an excellent overnight stopping place.  In fact, there is so much to do here that multiple nights could be a possibility.  Chillicothe was the original location of Ohio's state capital, and not coincidentally, was also the home of Thomas Worthington, known as the "Father of Ohio Statehood."  The Ohio Historical Society has made a significant investment in restoring Worthington's "Adena" home, not to mention the construction of a new visitors’ center, and both are well worth the visit.  While there, travelers can walk to the overlook out from the Adena site to see the familiar view of the same adjacent hilltops and river valley which inspired the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

Also of historic interest are sites which pertain to our Native American heritage.  North of Chillicothe is the Hopewell Culture National Historic Site, which has an interesting visitors’ center that helps understand the many earthworks that have been preserved or restored here.  Other sites with archaeological significance are nearby, as is the outdoor theater that has long been popular for showing the drama of the Shawnee chief "Tecumseh."

I was also impressed with the inviting appearance of downtown Chillicothe.  Many storefronts seem to have been restored for the type of specialty shopping that my wife would enjoy.  Most are within walking distance of each other.  To my surprise, I also learned that the city been the fifteen-year home of a minor league baseball team—the Chillicothe Paints (the team’s paint horse logo is quite sharp).  At a nearby motel, my family pulled more than a dozen brochures from the tourism rack.  We had good accommodations at this particular national nameplate, and will likely make Chillicothe a future destination in our travels across the state. 

Chillicothe to Hillsboro

In the western half of Ross County, the route of U.S. 50 is closely paired with the waterway known as Paint Creek.  One reference states that the name of the waterway is taken from the "ocherous" or yellowish soil of this area.  The mouth of the creek is below Chillicothe, not far from the previously referenced four-lane bridge over the Scioto River.  The headwaters enter the county just downstream from Paint Creek State Park.  That park will be just one of several points of interest along this section of the federal route.

Leaving Chillicothe on Western Avenue, U.S. 50 bends with the topography and meets Paint Creek several miles west of the city.  The first small town that is encountered is Bourneville (twelve miles west), reportedly named for Alexander Bourne, a prominent surveyor and civil engineer in Ohio history.  On the wall of my office hangs a reproduction of a map drawn by Bourne in 1820.  He collaborated on this map with John Kilbourne, another leading mapmaker, and the result was one of the finest early maps of Ohio—accurately showing county boundaries and Indian Reservations, plus selected topographic features.  It is considered to be the first map to show the newly created counties of northwest Ohio.

Sixteen miles west of Chillicothe is the Seip Earthworks State Memorial.  Excavations of a mound at this site during the 1920s revealed over 100 graves and thousands of artifacts, including about 18,000 freshwater pearl beads.  The discovery of so many beads is fascinating because it indicates that significant trading was done between the early inhabitants of this area and visitors from distant areas.  The Seip Earthworks is one of several Ohio Hopewell complexes in the Paint Creek Valley.  The site is adjacent to the appropriately named Paint Valley High School.

The town of Bainbridge is nineteen miles west of Chillicothe.  What jumps off the current state highway map at Bainbridge is the big red dot (point of interest symbol) for the “First Dental School Museum.”  On a hunch, I pulled my Neil Zurcher books off the shelf thinking I could learn more about this seemingly unique landmark (Neil made his name as the popular travel reporter for a Cleveland television station).  Sure enough, Neil reports that a medical doctor who settled in this area began teaching medical students the practice of dentistry, and in 1928 started the world’s first dental school.  In his Ohio Road Trips book (c.2006, Gray & Co., Publishers), Zurcher writes that upon seeing “a variety of antique dental instruments…my teeth hurt just looking at the primitive tools.”

Click to view.  A significant event in the history of American archaeology occurred in 1848 with the publication of Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis's classic Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.  This landmark work is best known for its descriptions and surveys of over 300 mounds and earthworks, including this map of the Seip Earthworks in the Paint Creek Valley of western Ross County.  The "Road to Chillicothe" at the upper left of the map became the original route of U.S. 50.
 

For the next several miles beyond Bainbridge, a significant rebuild of the federal route has rendered at least two old road remnants.  The first remnant is at the site of an old roadside park (one of the original eight) on the north side of the road, about three miles west of Bainbridge.  At one time, the park was on the south side of the road.  The second remnant begins immediately after leaving Ross County and entering Highland County.  This particular remnant is known either as Old 50 Road or County Highway 89.  This meandering one-mile roadway is near a community known as The Point, which apparently takes its name from a landform that exists where Rocky Fork enters Paint Creek.

Paint Creek State Park and an associated wildlife area are both in the area of Old 50 Road.  An adjacent road known as Cave Road or Township Highway 259 was never part of U.S. 50, but leads southwesterly from The Point to another local place of interest formerly known as Seven Caves—only one mile from the main road.  The name was recently changed to Cave Canyon Nature Preserve, apparently to place more emphasis on hiking trails through a large wilderness area, and less emphasis on the caves (which may presently be off limits).  The preserve is reputed to have spectacular wildflower displays in April and early May, which would make this location an interesting diversion from the main road in all seasons of the year.

Four miles into Highland County, U.S. 50 passes through the small town of Rainsboro.  The town was platted in 1830 by a landowner named George Rains, who probably realized the potential for a good commercial location on the well-traveled pike.  At nine miles in, the route passes through an even smaller community, now shown on the map as Boston.  In the 1920 Automobile Blue Book, this same location is given as New Boston.  It would not be uncommon for several small communities in Ohio to have the same name, and in many cases duplication was avoided by adding or dropping a prefix such as "New" or "North."  This had to be a great help to the postal service in the days before the ZIP code was created.  Both of these communities are near the waters of Rocky Fork Lake and yet another state park.

At Hillsboro, about thirty-eight miles from Chillicothe, U.S. 50 enters the seat of justice for Highland County on Chillicothe Avenue.  That roadway soon angles onto Main Street, and follows that course all the way through a well situated downtown.  The courthouse in the center of the city is the oldest Ohio structure still in continuous use for that purpose, with original construction dating back to the 1830s.  The building combines Federal and Greek architectural elements, which is best explained by the theory that self-educated local contractors often blended their favorite methods into the construction of such landmark buildings.

As I trace the route of U.S. 50 down the route of Main Street in Hillsboro, I have begun to realize a trend.  In many of the municipalities that have street names, the route of U.S. 50 is on an east-to-west street named Main Street, and not on any north-to-south street.  Perhaps the most likely reason is that in this part of Ohio, Chillicothe would have been a prime destination at the time when the first roads were blazed through the old forests.  Thus, the most important street that was platted in towns like McArthur and Bainbridge and Hillsboro was the street that accommodated the road which directed pioneers to the original state capital.  In each of those cases, the road pointing to Chillicothe was platted as Main Street.

Hillsboro to Cincinnati

Entering the home stretch of this U.S. 50 tour across Ohio, two things stand out while reviewing the old maps west of Hillsboro.  The first notable feature is the straightness of the route, with two long tangents taking the route out of Highland County.  The second feature is the proximity of the route to an old interurban line which connected the same endpoint cities for this section.  Some of the time, the interurban shared the highway right-of-way, but in other places, it swung away from it to better follow the topography or to avoid built-up areas.  The property was known as the Cincinnati and Columbus Traction Company, hinting at the fact that their corporate ambitions to build as far east as Chillicothe or Columbus were never realized.  In the old auto guide books, the interurban line is called a “trolley” line—a nomenclature which is technically incorrect beyond the larger city systems which originated the more common name.

In the western half of Highland County, a variety of place names have appeared within the several maps and guides that I have gathered for the study of this route.  The current ODOT map shows the unincorporated locations of Hoagland, Fairview, Allensburg, and Dodsonville as waypoints.  The 1920 Automobile Blue Book adds Stringtown to a different list which does include Dodsonville but not the other three.  The first geologic map of this area is comprehensive in showing all these locations.  The inventory of the waypoints called for in the 1920 Blue Book, with their mileages from Chillicothe, would look like this:

Chillicothe         0.0

Bourneville         12.1

Bainbridge         19.2

Rainsboro          27.6

New Boston       32.4

Hillsboro            37.9

Salem               46.8

Dodsonville        49.4

Stringtown         51.4

Three miles beyond the small settlement of Dodsonville, U.S. 50 leaves Highland County and enters Brown County.  At 3.5 miles inside those borders, the route passes through Fayetteville, which is the first location beyond Hillsboro with any semblance of a street grid.  The federal route here is also designated as Pike Street—a rare reminder of the road’s early history as the Milford and Chillicothe Pike.  The 1920 Blue Book has a significant amount of text about Fayetteville, mentioning an academy for boys (St. Aloysius) that was in the town, plus a nearby convent school for girls that was two miles out of town (St. Martin).  Judging by the names, there seems to have been a large population of Catholics that settled in this part of Brown County.

Just west of Fayetteville, the route of U.S. 50 deflects southwesterly and maintains a rather straight set of courses to complete its brief passage through Brown County.  The only other named location in this segment is Vera Cruz, located at the junction with State Route 131.  Only eight miles after entering Brown County, the highway enters Clermont County.  Because the route traverses the northern reaches of both counties, U.S. 50 does not pass through the seat of justice of either (Georgetown in Brown County; Batavia in Clermont County).  All told, the route of U.S. 50 in Ohio passes through five county seats—Athens, McArthur, Chillicothe, Hillsboro, and Cincinnati.

Immediately after entering Clermont County, the route of U.S. 50 passes through the community of Marathon.  At four miles in, it bisects the settlement of Monterey.  Both locations were long ago served by the interurban between Hillsboro and Cincinnati, although in both cases, the tracks were diverted from the course of the auto road.  Marathon has a few blocks of a grid, but Monterey is merely a string of buildings fronting both sides of the road.  Both communities are still shown on the current Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) map, but the interurban tracks through these locations have been gone for eighty years.

The first town encountered in Clermont County that has more than a few blocks of a grid is Owensville.  The main crossroads of this small but incorporated village is three miles beyond Monterey (or seven miles beyond Marathon and the county line).  Like nearly every town that was platted on the early wagon road, the route of U.S. 50 is designated as Main Street within the corporate limits of Owensville.

Two miles west of Owensville, the bearings of the route are once again dictated by topography, rather than by a series of straight lines.  Here, the route of U.S. 50 begins eight miles of wild meanders before twisting into downtown Milford, the next incorporated town.  Although the Blue Book fails to list any waypoints between Owensville and Milford, the old geologic map identifies the locations of Stonelick and Perintown in the floodplain of the East Fork of the Little Miami River.  Only Perintown—originally known as Perin’s Mills—is still shown on the current ODOT map.

The route of U.S. 50 enters Milford on Lila Avenue, then angles onto Main Street at its junction with State Route 28.  The town received its name from the “mill” at the “ford” of the Little Miami River, which marked the first safe crossing place of the waterway north of the Ohio River.  Apparently, Milford had a more appealing sound than the original place name of Hageman’s Mills.  The same interurban line that was first encountered at Hillsboro once shared the right-of-way of Main Street through downtown Milford, and then accompanied the highway across a bridge over the Little Miami River.  The Little Miami is one of fifteen scenic rivers that has been designated in Ohio, and is the longest of those fifteen.  At this location, the waterway forms the boundary between Clermont County and Hamilton County.

One of my associates has ties to the Milford area, and tells me that this is truly a nice place to call home.  I have been informed that Milford has one of those small downtowns where specialty shops have become popular, and there are several parks and recreational locations nearby.  I am fascinated by the impressive system of bicycle paths in the southwestern counties of Ohio, and Milford is a prime location on at least one of those paths.  In summary, the Milford community appears to be one of many pearls on the necklace of suburbia that has surrounded Cincinnati since the completion of Interstate 275 in this area in the early 1970s.

On the opposite side of the Little Miami River from Milford is the village of Terrace Park.  This location appears to be an earlier type of suburban community that probably owes its original growth to the interurban, and not to the automobile.  The route of U.S. 50 through Terrace Park is designated Wooster Pike, and follows the scenic river downstream through the locations of Plainville, Mariemont, and Fairfax before entering the corporate limits of Cincinnati.

In Cincinnati, Wooster Pike becomes Columbia Parkway and continues its southwesterly course toward the Ohio River.  When the federal shield of U.S. 50 first showed up on the official Ohio Department of Highways map of 1926, it was shown at Eastern Avenue, which is basically one block closer to the Little Miami River.  I have yet to determine when the parkway was constructed to handle the increasing traffic.  In the Columbia neighborhood that is adjacent to the old airport, both roadways bend northwesterly to parallel the Ohio River, eventually straddling an active railroad property.

In this area of multiple lines along the Ohio River, U.S. 50 continues to follow Columbia Parkway, and Eastern Avenue is the route of U.S. 52.  The two federal routes meet today in a jumble of interchange ramps that connect them with Interstate 71 and Interstate 471.  Before the days of limited access highways, the routes of U.S. 50 and U.S. 52 would have entered the heart of downtown Cincinnati on Third Street, then turned north on Central Avenue.

Oddly, the Ohio River approach to Cincinnati is not the route charted in any of the early auto guide books that I have collected.  Both the 1920 Blue Book and the 1922 Green Book trace similar routes that seem to purposely travel through the urban areas of Cincinnati.  Both the guide books chart a course through what is now the village of Indian Hill (Indian Hill Road), and the absorbed communities of Madisonville (Madison Road), Oakley, and Evanston.  This early route would have eventually entered downtown Cincinnati by way of Gilbert Street and Seventh Street.  The Blue Book also charts a preferred route option that follows Wooster Pike through the Red Bank neighborhood before turning northwesterly with Linwood Avenue and Observatory Avenue to meet Madison Road.  Other references show a partially similar route that eventually winds it way through Eden Park.

Cincinnati to the Indiana State Line

The last segment of U.S. 50 in this tour of Ohio offers the greatest challenge for this author to trace the route on the oldest maps.  Most of the difficulty occurs where the route runs along the railroads—both steam and electric—with all paths being parallel with the Ohio River.  With so much black ink plotted in the same small corridor, it is not easy to decipher the multiple tightly woven lines.  Before we get to that dilemma, let us first trace the route as it leaves downtown.

Traveling westerly from the heart of Cincinnati, the 1926 Ohio Department of Highways map highlights Third Street, Central Avenue, and Eighth Street as the original route of U.S. 50.  Similar to the developments on the opposite side of downtown at Interstate 71, this alignment can no longer be followed because several blocks of Eighth Street were long ago lost to construct the maze of highway and interchange ramps for Interstate 75.  Today, the closest alternative to trace the original route would be to follow Ninth Street from downtown to the opposite side of the viaduct at Interstate 75, where the thoroughfare magically becomes Eighth Street despite only a small change of direction.

Click to view.  In 1940, the State Highway Department prepared a "General Highway Map" for each of Ohio's eighty-eight counties. This excerpt from the map of Hamilton County shows the route of U.S. 50 (highlighted in pink) from Cincinnati to the Indiana State Line, including a short-lived alignment through Eden Park (the serpentine line northeast of downtown). An early bypass alignment which predates the modern style of four-lane limited access highways is highlighted in yellow.

Eighth Street terminates at State Avenue, and here the original route of U.S. 50 turns south toward the river.  The original route meets the present route at River Road, which not only runs parallel with the Ohio River, but also parallel with the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  At one time, there was also an interurban line running in this same corridor.  Much of the present course of U.S. 50 was apparently built on the abandoned right-of-way of the interurban, but with no adequate maps to resolve the matter, it has been difficult to determine exactly when and where this holds true.  For instance, in the neighborhoods of Sedamsville, Riverside, and Anderson Ferry, the original main road charted in the early automobile guides was Hillside Avenue.  I have yet to determine when the newer alignment of highway was opened on the River Road.

Based on odometer calls in the 1922 Green Book, it is possible that westbound travelers diverged from Hillside Avenue at the location of Anderson Ferry.  If the River Road existed west of Anderson Ferry in 1926, it likely would have carried the route of U.S. 50.  However, it would have also been possible for the route to continue with Hillside Avenue for another three miles to the community of Sayler Park.  In Sayler Park, the earliest main route appears to have been at what is now marked as Gracely Street.  Again through this area, it seems likely that River Road represents newer construction that was built on, or perhaps adjacent to, the route of the abandoned interurban line.  The same may hold true in Addyston, where Main Street likely predates the present highway.

In Addyston, the River Road nomenclature gives way to Three Rivers Parkway.  Based on my most detailed map of this area, Addyston seems to begin where Cincinnati ends.  It is interesting to note that several place names that were on the maps of the 1920s—such as Trautman, Sayler Park, and Fernbank—have long since disappeared, with each of the adjoining communities apparently annexed to the city of Cincinnati.  This renders a long string of Cincinnati borders which seems to dangle oddly from the outline of its other corporate limits.

After leaving Addyston, the Three Rivers Parkway immediately enters North Bend.  This village is named for a major bend in the Ohio River that marks the northernmost point of Kentucky.  North Bend is also noteworthy because it has ties to two presidents of the United States—William Henry Harrison (9th president) made his home here and is buried here, and his grandson Benjamin Harrison (23rd president) was born here.  In these parts, William Henry Harrison is a greater historical figure as a territorial governor and military general than as president (recall that he served only one month before his death).  However, it is significant to note that buckeye wood cabins and buckeye walking sticks became emblems of the elder Harrison’s political campaign (not to mention the familiar “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”), and would forever begin the link of the Buckeye nickname both to the citizens and to the state of Ohio.

Before the interurban line was abandoned through this particular area, the original route of U.S. 50 would have followed Miami Avenue through North Bend.  Upon entering the adjacent town of Cleves, it would have turned west across the railroad to eventually join up with what is now Miamiview Road.  That road can be reached by following brief segments of Mt. Nebo Road and Lower River Road.  Two miles beyond Cleves, the route would have crossed the Miami River at the location of the Lost Bridge, a place name on the 1919 geologic map which simply reaches out to grab the map reader.

The history of the Lost Bridge site was far more interesting than I could have expected.  A brief diversion to do some casual internet research was soon rewarded with a surprising wealth of good information.  The original Lost Bridge was an old covered wooden bridge that consisted of three spans.  Each span was 195 feet long, and was supported on stone piers and abutments.  After the superstructure was destroyed by a fire in 1903, it soon became apparent that a replacement structure was necessary.  A new bridge was built by 1909, and for a time was the longest single span bridge in existence, measuring 586 feet.  Sadly, that impressive bridge—like many others upstream—was no match for the Great Flood of March 1913, and the structure met its end as a mass of twisted iron and broken concrete in the bottom of the Miami River.

Obviously, another bridge was built.  When the route of U.S. 50 was first designated, it would cross the Miami River at this same location.  It followed what is now Lawrenceburg Road into Elizabethtown, where it would turn southwest toward Indiana (be sure to stop for a photo opportunity at the sandstone pillar on the north side of the road that serves as a state line marker).  The present route of U.S. 50 between Cleves and Elizabethtown does not show up on the official highway maps of Ohio until 1942, and again—as with so many other locations west of Cincinnati—it appears that the new roadway was built on the old interurban right-of-way.  Most interurban properties in this part of Ohio never recovered from the damages inflicted by the Great Flood, but their rights-of-way have proven valuable for a variety of later uses.  The widening of the highway to four lanes would occur in various phases, much of which was during the early 1950s.

Another route of significance between Cincinnati and the Indiana State Line is the highway now marked as State Route 264.  In the years before the federal route of U.S. 50 was designated, this may have been the best highway west of Cincinnati.  No numbered route existed on state highway maps in the corridor of U.S. 50 until the creation of the federal network in 1926.  For a brief time (from 1923 to 1926), what is now State Route 264 was designated as State Route 7—the familiar numbering for the same Ohio River Road that we briefly followed at the beginning of this tour near Belpre.  The State Route 264 designation came about in 1926, when State Route 7 was moved to the location of U.S. Route 50.  Eventually, the dual numbering at the federal route would be dropped, and today, State Route 7 terminates in Lawrence County, over 100 miles east of its earlier western terminus.  At one time, State Route 7 would have been the longest numbered route in Ohio.  That route still makes up much of the Ohio River Scenic Byway, one of five National Scenic Byways in Ohio.

Disclaimer

This tour of U.S. 50 is based on my review of various map sources and automobile guides, almost all of which have been referenced in the text.  Although I have driven that part of the route from Belpre to Chillicothe, and have visited Hillsboro and Cincinnati (coming from the north), in each case I was doing so as a traveler and not an explorer.  Thus, I was not specifically looking for all the landmarks and road remnants as I have now attempted to do from my office.  Because much contemporary information is based on internet research (such as current road names), please contact the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have suggestions for corrections or improved explanations.