Reaching the western settlements of the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not easy, and the federal government soon recognized the need to build a road to connect the various parts of the existing country. This prompted the construction of the National Road, also known as Route 40. Although the U.S. Congress officially approved the building of the road in 1806, the actual construction of the route would take place from 1811 to 1834. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill authorizing the construction of the road, though George Washington had recognized the need for the road during his presidency.
The National Road was built to facilitate travel between Cumberland, Maryland and the Ohio River. The year 1811 marked the first phase of construction. Ten miles were built that year. Seven years later, the road had been extended to Wheeling. By then, the U.S. Postal Service was using the road to transport mail, and many others were also traveling on the route as well.
Although the National Road began as a federal project, the states were soon involved in funding and maintaining the road. The federal government would retain responsibility for repairing the National Road, however, it also assigned the states served by the National Road an important role in overseeing the thoroughfare. The states each built their own toll systems to help fund the project.
Naturally, settlements cropped up along the national road as it was constructed. Many of these towns, cities, and other settlements are still there, and they remain a valuable part of the United States’ national heritage. Some even seem as if they have hardly changed at all since the nineteenth century. In most of these settlements, the National Road served as the main thoroughfare, and so it was called Main Street. In fact, the entire road became known as “The Main Street of America,” although it also carried the designation of the National Pike, the Cumberland Road, and more.
The National Road was extremely popular in the 1820s and the 1840s. At the height of its popularity in 1825, musicians, poets, and artists paid tribute to the road in their stories, art, songs, and poems. The national drive to settle the western frontier caused the road’s popularity to surge once more in the 1840s. Covered wagons and stagecoaches took settlers west, and the road became vital to the national economy. Frontier produce traveled east after being harvested on frontier farms, and staples such as sugar and coffee moved west. Inns and taverns popped up all along the route to serve weary travelers.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the road’s popularity diminished somewhat due to the growth of the railroad industry. Yet the road became well-traveled once more in the 1920s as more and more people were able to purchase an automobile. The road, which had become a part of the National Old Trails Road in 1912, received federal assistance in order to make it suitable for automobile travel.
The National Road joined U.S. Route 40 in 1926 and thus became a link on a coast-to-coast national highway. The road would remain well-traveled, but its popularity lessened because of the many choices that drivers now had on the massive interstate system in the United States. Today, however, those who want a relaxing, scenic drive still make much use of the National Road. Tourists and travelers bring their cameras to take pictures of historic mile markers, bridges, and buildings. Many enjoy visiting or just observing the brick schoolhouses that have stood alongside the road since its earliest days. Some of these schoolhouses remain in use, while others have long been abandoned. Still others are now private homes.
Evidence of the road’s history and the skill of its first engineers is clear in the many historic stone bridges that are a part of the National Road. The s-shaped bridge known appropriately as the S Bridge is a single-arch stone bridge that is four miles east of Old Washington, Ohio. This bridge was built in 1828, and its deterioration means that today it can only be used for foot traffic. Yet the efforts of the owners of the bridge to obtain the necessary funds to restore it may still pay off. East of Grantsville, Maryland, the Casselman River Bridge is an eighty-foot stone bridge that was built between 1813 and 1814 with the help of assistance from the federal government. This bridge is the largest of its kind in the United States, and it connects Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River, although modern travelers now make use of a steel bridge built in 1933. The Casselman River Bridge is now the centerpiece of Casselman River Bridge State Park, having been refurbished and restored by Maryland in the middle of the twentieth century.
Stone mile markers were used in the original construction of the National Road to help travelers mark the distance to their destinations and the progress of their journey. The construction of these mile markers was not a new development, as they have been used in Europe for over two thousand years. So, naturally, the European settlers of the United States would adopt them in their road construction. Many people today have fond memories of these mile markers. Having asked their parents what these markers were when they were children, the adults who traveled the road as young people today revisit these markers to take pictures and enjoy their history. It is generally easy to find these markers when traveling on the National Road. One of the most famous of these mile markers is the one that is near the historic Red Brick Tavern, which is located in the town of Lafayette, Ohio.
To facilitate quicker travel, Interstate 70 was constructed in the 1960s as a bypass for the National Road. This took a lot of travel off of U.S. Route 40, and I-70 remains a popular road for those who want to get to their destination quickly. However, travelers who want to take their time and enjoy the scenic countryside, U.S. history, and the charm of small-town America still prefer the National Road. Traveling on the road remains a great way to recapture and relive that period of history when life moved at a slower pace.
For more information on the National Road, please visit the following sites:
• Casselman River Bridge State Park — This is website for one of the most famous parks along the Nationa Road.
• Fort Necessity: The National Road — Here is an excellent page on the National Road from Fort Necessity National Park.
• Historic National Road — This site has some good information on Maryland’ portion of the National Road.
• Indiana’s National Road — The National Road also travels through Indiana, and here is a good article on Indiana’s portion of the thoroughfare.
• The Making of the National Road — Conner Prairie Interactive History Park hosts this great article on the National Road.
• National Old Trails Road — Readers can find a good article on the National Old Trails Road, which includes the National Road, on this site.
• National Road Milepost — This page contains an image of a National Road milepost and a brief history of the road.
• Ohio History Central: The National Road — A brief article on the National Road, with particular relevance to Ohio, is found here.
• A Perrin History — The importance of the National Road in one family’s history is detailed on this page.
• U.S. Roads Historical Timeline — Read about the history of U.S. roads, including the National Road, on this page.
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