Saturday, April 29, 2017

Back when Highway 14 was Air-Tight ...

Here's the original route of the Air Tight Road, now Highway 14, as it meandered across the Chariton River bottoms rather than heading straight for Corydon, as it does now. This map dates from 1908.

There was a time, some distance in the past, when many Lucas County roads had names rather than numerical designations. The Newbern Road, for example. Or the Blue Grass, the New York, or how about, "take the Albia Road, then turn left at the Sand Bank Corner before you get to Lagrange?"

Let's say you'd been invited to attend the preaching at Otterbein Church --- lunch on the grounds to follow --- back about 1908 but lived out in the wilds of Pleasant Township. You'd have horse-and-buggied it into Chariton, then perhaps found it necessary to ask for further directions.

"Four miles south of town on the Air Tight Road," you might have been told. 

Chances are, you'd have known just where to go back then --- and high-tailed it out of town across the Chariton River bottoms on what we now call Highway 14. But "Air Tight Road?" Where in the world did that one come from?


The truth of the matter is that no one seems to have known exactly why the Lucas County end of the main road connecting Chariton and Corydon was called "Air Tight" back in those days, but it seems to have been thusly designated from earliest times.

The search for a source of the name reached a peak during 1919, just as the new and direct route we now follow out of Chariton to Pin Oak Marsh was about to open. Prior to that, the Air Tight had turned right at the base of cemetery hill, meandered southwesterly across the bottoms, climbed the hill and then traveled south down the ridge for a mile and a half before turning east for half a mile to rejoin the current Highway 14 route.

Here's how the search for a source for the name played out that spring in the pages of Henry Gittinger's Chariton Leader, commencing with the original qustion:

April 17, 1919: Speaking of county highways --- the one running south from Chariton is platted as the Air Tight Road. Why it was so called, the oldest inhabitant knoweth not, as that was its designation from the earliest times and before his day. It must be a corruption of some title, or romance, as it is hard to conceive of an air tight road, although we have a number of politicians who have recently discovered the secret of building water proof highways. but no politician would desire to run a foot race on an air tight road. They would desire plenty of wind.

By early May, Henry thought he had received the answer to his initial question:

May 8, 1919: The mystery surrounding the name of the Air Tight Road has been cleared up. A committee of old residenters called at this office Saturday, to give the desired information. About fifty years ago, a man by the name of Ezra Ogburn owned and resided on the Frank Ambelang farm, and conducted a blacksmith shop there. He wanted the north and south road established and carried the petition for signatures, and was very enthusiastic, saying that when the road was established it would be an "air line" from Corydon to Chariton and would run through his shop. Mr. George Hopkins used to have sport with Ogburn over his enthusiasm and got the old man excited over his road project and pronounced it "Air Tight" instead of the "air line," and thus it was platted. And it has been the "Air Tight" road ever since.

A week later, Dr. C.E. Stewart begged to differ:

May 15, 1919: It would seem that a commission would have to be appointed to determine how the Air Tight highway in Lucas county came by its name. Dr. C.E. Stewart appeals from the statement in last week's Leader. He tells it this way, "I was interested in the origin of the name and the late H.H. Day told me. It was in the days when the county board of supervisors consisted of a member from each township, a body of twelve, and Mr. Day was serving for Chariton. The road was being petitioned for from Chariton south but conditions were such that it was thought too costly to go through the wide bottom directly south as the new cut-off now places it, but by the round-about (old) way to the west. At that time a very enthusiastic but somewhat illiterate member was serving from Pleasant township, and was strongly in favor of the present due south route, and he made a most vigorous, even if not elegant speech, to this end, and closed it with the perioration, 'I say, feller members, it is our duty to locate this road the way the crow flies and make it on an air-tight line!' And it has been known as the "Air Tight" road ever since and is so platted."

Another week passed, and J.H. Robbins added his two cents worth:

May 22, 1919: The discussion concerning the origin of the name of the Air Tight Road continues. J.H. Robbins Sr., of this city, says he does not believe that Dr. C.E. Stewart's version is correct. He lived over in the south country when the highway was petitioned for and ordered by the Board of County Commissioners, and it was to run directly south from Chariton (as per the present new road) but a man by the name of Love, in Ottumwa, owned what is now the Copeland farm, and resisted the proposition to run it through his land, in court, and won out. This is why it was platted farther west. The statesman from Pleasant township may have alluded to it as the "air tight" way, but there was no opposition in the Board to the direct south line.

Maggie Reynolds, who lived in an area of Benton Township served by the Air Tight, had been following the conversation, but her concern --- as expressed in the next edition of The Leader --- was not the source of the name but rather the condition of the road:

May 27, 1919: Editor Leader --- We read quite a good deal about the good road question and we think there could be a good deal of improvement on some, especially the one leading south from your town known as the Air Tight road. We have driven over a number of roads in both Wayne and Lucas counties, and I do not hesitate to say that is one of the worst in muddy weather that I ever passed over, and in dry weather it's like riding over cannon balls. It's true that in some instances we must expect some bad places, yet we do not think they should extend to such great lengths as in this case. We notice in one instance where Uncle Sam discontinued the mail route thirty days where the roads were not kept in proper condition and we think if one of his efficient inspectors made a few trips over those cannon balls in dry weather he certainly would would do so in this case and we wouldn't criticise him if he did. Maggie Reynolds.

During mid-June, J.H. Robbins was back with another idea about the source of the title, "Air Tight":

June 19, 1919: Almost every community and neighborhood have their celebrities. Saul was the first king of Israel, George Washington was the father of his country and initial chief magistrate. Likewise was our townsman, J.H. Robbins, the first supervisor of the Air Tight Road between Chariton and Corydon, so he informs this paper, and gives the logical origin of its name, which, he says, was through natural causes and not by accident. When it was laid out there were few, if any, cross roads leading into it and when people traveled it they either had to keep going or coming --- it was like a tunnel with the top lifted off. And this gave rise to the name "Air Tight." If this is settled, bring on some more weighty questions.

And that was the end of the conversation about the source of the name Air Tight. The new route opened to traffic not long after the following was published:

Aug. 28, 1919: The bridge on the Air Tight Road across the Chariton river is now completed and as soon as the embankment is built to connect the approaches it will be opened to traffic. By this new "cut off" the road to Corydon from Chariton is shortened about a mile and by like reasoning the road from Corydon to Chariton is shortened in proportion. It has been a long time since this improvement was started which illustrates that all things come after a good wait.

It doesn't appear as if the source of "Air Tight" ever was determined definitively despite all the words expended in exploration. And by now, I'd be willing to bet, few if any recall --- or care --- that Highway 14 once was Air-Tight.

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