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The National Road

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Ted Landphair's America

The National Road

Ted Landphair
Voice of America
October 14, 2011

Listen to The National Road - MP3 - 4.3MB - 18:52

The National RoadTravel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in Les Misérables, “a curse.” (National Road/Zane Grey Museum) George Washington Cabin in CumberlandGeorge Washington commanded troops, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road. (Allegany County, Md., Tourism) Doug SmithHere’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road. (Ted Landphair) Route 66 Neon SignThe National Road doesn’t yet have as many trinkets, slogans, or fan clubs as U.S. 66 out West. But folks in Ohio are working on it. (Carol M. Highsmith) National Highway SignsSigns old and new adjoin each other along the old road in eastern Ohio. (Ted Landphair) Old Highway PaintingWinding though it was, the National Road was an improvement over its rutted competitors. (Collection of Doug Smith) Wheeling Suspension BridgeThe Wheeling Suspension Bridge, over which The National Road still runs, looks its age, for sure. (Chris Light, Wikipedia Commons) National Road Travel GuideDoug and Glenn’s travel guide spans many generations of travel on The National Road. Madonna of the Trail in OhioIn 1912, Congress ordered several “Madonna of the Trail” statues, including this one on the National Road in Ohio, erected along historic roads to salute westward-bound pioneers. (Courtesy, Cyndie Gerken) Conestoga Wagon BrakeThat’s a ordinary shoe, all right, between the pieces of wood in the braking device of an old Conestoga wagon. (Ted Landphair) Toll BoothThis was one of the first toll booths travelers would have encountered on The National Road, near La Vale, west of Cumberland. (Allegany County, Md., Tourism) Brick RoadHere’s a short stretch of the Old National Road that had been paved in brick. Note how narrow it was! (Ted Landphair) Old National Road MarkerOne of the original National Road markers. (Ted Landphair) Mail Pouch Tobacco BarnA classic, rustic barn along The National Road. (Carol M. Highsmith) Zanesville Y-BridgeZanesville’s world-famous Y-bridge. (Andrew|W, Flickr Creative Commons) Old National RoadI was standing a part of the old National Road when I took this shot of U.S. 40 in the distance. My eye could also see the I-70 superhighway farther away, but it doesn’t show up very well here. (Ted Landphair)

Recently I told you about one of our meandering old national highways — U.S. Route 11, which winds from just below Montreal in Canada all the way down to New Orleans, near the Gulf of Mexico.

And it got me thinking about THE National Road. The original one.

It was our first interstate highway of sorts, begun in 1811, about 140 years before land was cleared for today’s high-speed Interstate Highway System.

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a surveyor by trade, had fought French and Indian forces in western Pennsylvania, where the woods are as thick as bulrushes. Firsthand, he saw the difficulty of moving armies into the frontier, and he pressed for better roads than the old animal and Indian trails that posed a real challenge to travelers.

The first efforts in that direction were short, earthen toll roads, or turnpikes, which were often mired in mud each winter and spring and choked with dust much of the rest of the year. Several turnpikes were cut between the port city of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay and Cumberland, Maryland, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

But far beyond those dense mountains beckoned the new “Northwest Territory” that began in Ohio. So in 1806, Congress authorized construction of what it foresaw as a sort of portage road between the Potomac River near Cumberland in the east and the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), far to the west.

Westward, Ho!

Beginning in a triangular park in downtown Cumberland, at a little log cabin that had once been Washington’s headquarters, workers blazed westward along the old Nemacolin or Braddock Trail. Nemacolin was a Delaware Indian chief; Edward Braddock, a British general who had tramped that way, hoping to capture French forts.

But the “National Road,” as everyone soon called this remarkable pathway west, kept right on going past Wheeling onto Zane’s Trace, a barely improved wilderness footpath to Zanesville in eastern Ohio. The target terminus was the distant Mississippi River.

The National Road almost made it, stretching about 1,000 kilometers to Vandalia in central Illinois in the 1840s before funding ran out and enthusiasm waned. By that time, speedy new railroads had stolen the road’s thunder as well as most of its passengers and freight.

Carol and I learned a lot of this from Doug Smith, our enthusiastic guide and traveling companion on an exploration of remnants of the National Road in Ohio. Doug, who’s a real-estate broker, Licking County commissioner, and auctioneer — you should hear him speed-talk! — just loves old roads.

Until he and Glenn Harper, a founding member of the Ohio National Road Association, came along, most of the romantic stories of America’s historic byways had been lavished upon U.S. Route 66, which was created in the “roaring” 1920s from a string of state roads out west.

People call 66 the “Mother Road.” So you could say the National Road, begun 110 years earlier, was wiry old Great Grandma.

Doug Smith and Glenn Harper aren’t John Steinbeck, whose Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath made Route 66 famous. But they have produced a little treasure trove of stories, vintage photos, and maps that help visitors locate, then enjoy, the many, often hidden, delights to be found on the National Road in Ohio. Carol and I wore out our copies, even as Doug told us stories and pointed out spots that we never would have found on our own.

All Aboard for Time Travel

I hope you like history as much as I do — and the wind in your hair as you drive with the top down! We’re gassed up and ready for a trip along the National Road. A smidgen of it, at least.

As I mentioned, the National Road winds from the ancient mountains of western Maryland to the pancake-flat plains of Illinois. Doug Smith’s neck of the woods in eastern Ohio is just a microcosm of an old road that teems with stories dating to the opening of the American frontier.

Much of the way as you whiz past red, white, and blue signs for the National Road, you’re driving U.S. 40, a mostly two-lane federal highway that was given its number during the same era that routes 11 and 66 got theirs.

But these colorful signs reflect fiction as well as fact. U.S. 40 does follow the general path of the old National Road, but many of the most compelling remnants of the real, historic highway are little more than offshoots — driveway-size, even — running off that road into the woods or right up to somebody’s farm. If you didn’t have Doug Smith in the car with you, you wouldn’t know the real National Road was there.

The original, narrow road twisted and turned, climbed straight up gentle hills, and curled around steep ones. But the highway engineers of the 1920s were determined that U.S. 40 would proceed west from Cumberland as straight as possible, and they widened, cut, filled, and paved over the old road to do it — chewing up, covering over, and discarding much of the National Road as they went.

Allow me to present nuggets from Doug and Glenn’s travelers’ guide, Doug’s genial tour, and my own peeks at roadside markers and overlooks.


Doug likes to tell about the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, across which the National Road finally spanned the Ohio River in 1849.

Originally the world’s longest suspension bridge (at 308 meters), it twisted and torqued and finally collapsed into the river one day five years later, during a frightful storm. No one died, but the bridge and the reputation of its structural engineer were in ruins.

When it came time to rebuild, John Roebling, renowned for his Brooklyn Bridge across the East River in New York City, got the job.

But the new Wheeling bridge rose only after anxious city burghers upriver in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were reassured that the workhorse steamboats of the period would be able to pass under Roebling’s creation and could continue delivering goods to Pittsburgh. Clever inventors solved the problem by figuring a way to tilt steamboat stacks backward on hinges, even at full steam, low enough to glide safely under the bridge.

The National Road had first reached Ohio via smaller bridges, igniting a human flood so profound that, by the 1840 census, “frontier” Ohio had, seemingly overnight, become the nation’s third-most-populous state.

Going in Cycles

And the National Road became its most popular thoroughfare. In their guide, Glenn Harper and Doug Smith include this note about the “safety bicycle” — the low-riding kind with wheels of equal size that we know today — that replaced scary, bone-shaking, 1.5-meter-high models that had been in vogue.

The safety bike, the authors report, “brought new life to the old Road.”

To prove their physical prowess, young men would sometimes ride one hundred miles or more. Sherman Granger established a record in 1897 by riding his bicycle from Zanesville to Cumberland [337 kilometers] in four and one-half days. Such enthusiasts organized the League of American Wheelmen and in their quest for appropriate places to ride helped champion the “Good Roads Movement.”

Advocates for that movement increased dramatically with the invention and use of the automobile. In just ten years from 1900 to 1910, the number of automobiles increased from 8,000 to 468,000! That’s more than 58 times as many “horseless carriages” in a decade. And an awful lot of their drivers made it a point to roll along the National Road.

We ended up in one of the most curious, intellectually nutritious museums in America. Curious because of the odd combination of themes presented there. Called The National Road/Zane Grey Museum, it’s tucked up on a hill in little Norwich, Ohio. That’s enunciated as “Nor-wick,” not “witch,” in these parts, for reasons known only to denizens of the town. The museum, supported by the state historical society, displays three almost completely unrelated sorts of artifacts:

One set, pertinent to our story, explains the National Road. It includes a superb 41-meter-long diorama, displaying hundreds of tiny, hand-carved natural features, human figures, animals, wagons, tools, and road-building equipment — each individually crafted — plus other treasures and photographs related to the first federal road. The Zane Grey portion is devoted to America’s best-known Old West adventure novelist; he grew up nearby and was a great-grandson of Ebenezer Zane, whose “trace” we mentioned earlier. And there’s a third wing devoted strictly to art pottery, which was once a thriving business in eastern Ohio.

Site manager Mary Ellen Weingartner pointed out two artifacts, in particular, that caught my fancy:

One was a “Gunter’s chain,” named after a 17th-Century British mathematician. Its 100 links — precisely — stretch exactly 66 feet (just over 20 meters). The men who blazed The National Road used Gunter’s chains to hew a uniform right-of-way as they went. The traveling portion was usually far narrower, as shallow drainage ditches and space for markers ate up part of the width.

The second notable artifact was an actual Conestoga wagon, which Mary Ellen described as the “semi truck of its day.” This was the pioneer freight wagon that you see in film “westerns” — the sort with billowing white canvas affixed to its high, arching ribs. Conestoga wagons, named after the Pennsylvania valley in which they first appeared, carried no drivers or passengers. They were pulled by 6 to 12 horses or oxen, but the drovers rode their own horses or walked alongside.

When these heavily laden “prairie schooners” headed downhill, a lever engaged a brake shoe to prevent the wagon from rolling over the dray animals that were pulling it.

When I say “brake shoe,” I mean they were real shoes! No doubt hand-me-downs that already had holes in their soles.

Look Out Below

Downhill travel on The National Road was indeed an adventure. Approaching a steep decline, a drover would sometimes stop, cut down a large tree, and tie it to the back of his wagon to slow the heavy, rolling loads.

There’s even a slightly macabre marker along the Ohio portion of the road that pinpoints the spot where Christopher Baldwin became Ohio’s first known traffic fatality. On August 20, 1835, Baldwin, a Massachusetts fellow en route to central Ohio to study prehistoric Indian mounds, was riding “up top” with his stagecoach driver when they passed a pack of grunting hogs. The horses reared, the coach tipped over, and poor Baldwin broke his neck.

An early upgrade to the surface of the National Road employed a mélange called “macadam,” developed in Scotland by John McAdam about 1820. A frame was laid, into which layers of carefully sorted stones, large ones underneath up to pebbles at road level, were spread, then compacted by a heavy, horse-drawn roller. The road was no longer a muddy path. It was all rocks — no filler — smooshed by that roller, then further compressed by passing wagon wheels and the feet of travelers and livestock.

That’ll Be 27 Cents

The National Road became a toll “turnpike” once the federal government turned over jurisdiction to the states in 1835. The word derives from the days when real pikes, or sharpened rods, across the road kept non-paying travelers from passing.

Travelers “coming down the pike” with those Conestoga wagons paid no toll at all, because the wagons’ wide wheels helped tamp down the road. Sheepherders were assessed 3 cents a score (20 head) for their herd; cattle — though nice and heavy — had sharp hooves that tore up the road, so their toll was 7 cents a score. Drovers took respite, corralled their animals, and enjoyed a drink or two or ten, in roadside inns or in “pike towns” that sprang up along the road.

In the 19-teens, engineers introduced still more new paving materials to The National Road.

In places where brickyards abounded, row after row (after row after row after row!) of brick were laid. In fact, prison convicts completed an 80-kilometer stretch of brick from Zanesville eastward to Wheeling.

Rest Only if You Must

Doug Smith noted that there were rest areas along the National Road, just as you’ll find on today’s Interstate Highway System. There were certainly no information kiosks or giveaway maps, vending machines or men’s and ladies’ rooms, however.

These turnouts offered only shade, a water well and pump, maybe a hard bench or two, and pit toilets.

Congress stipulated that markers be placed once in every mile along the road. Crews used their Gunter’s chain for that task as well; stretch one out exactly 80 times, and you had a mile.

The sandstone mile markers, carved so their bases were buried deep in the ground, carry a surprising amount of information, starting with the distance to Cumberland and including the names of, and distances to, the nearest towns.

Other less formal sentinels of the old road are harder to find. Most period gas stations have been razed, turned into junk shops, or modernized. Most, but not all, of the dreary little tourist courts, such as the “Nighty-Night Motel,” with their rows of identical rooms facing right onto the highway, are gone or empty relics.

The clever Burma Shave shaving-cream ads that unfolded in four-line couplets plus the sponsor’s tag line on crude wooden signs . . .

Don’t stick your arm

Out too far

It might go home

In another car

Burma Shave

. . . are nowhere to be seen.

But Carol was thrilled when Doug led us to a couple of classic, extant “Mail Pouch” barns, on which the chewing tobacco company’s distinctive logo had been carefully hand-painted. For half a century, a fellow named Harley Warrick from nearby Belmont, Ohio, painted hundreds of those signs on barns throughout the Midwest.

Pretty as a Picture

My favorite stop was a lovely park, high above Zanesville. Below sat the town, in postcard splendor, and a particular bridge that crosses the intersecting Licking and Muskingum rivers.

That’s right: it spans two rivers. It’s Y-shaped, the only one in the world, by Doug’s reckoning. For sure, it’s the only place we know of where you can go to the middle of a bridge and turn right!

The National Road runs through two state capitals: Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana, though you have to work to find it in both of those cities.

In 2002, the National Road added a name when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta designated it as “The National Historic Road.” You might say that was a waste of effort, since the “historic” part goes without saying.

Glenn Harper and Doug Smith’s The Historic National Road in Ohio: The Road That Helped Build America was published in 2005 by the Ohio Historical Society.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Denizen. Strictly, this means any inhabitant of a place. But the word also gives special status to animals and those of mystical powers, as in “denizens of the deep” or “denizens of the fields.”

Smidgen. A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”

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