National Road

National Road
Map showing the route of the National Road at its greatest completion in 1839, with historical state boundaries.

The National Road or Cumberland Road was the first major improved highway in the United States to be built by the federal government. Construction began heading west in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River. It crossed the Allegheny Mountains and southwestern Pennsylvania, reaching Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), on the Ohio River in 1818. Plans were made to continue through St. Louis, at confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and to Jefferson City upstream on the Missouri. Following the panic of 1837 however, funding ran dry and construction was stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, after crossing the states of Ohio and Indiana.

Beyond the National Road's eastern terminus at Cumberland and toward the Atlantic coast, a series of private turnpikes were completed in 1824, connecting the National Road with Baltimore, Maryland and its port on Chesapeake Bay; these feeder routes formed what is referred to as an eastern extension of the National Road. In 1835, the road east of Wheeling was turned over to the states for operation as a turnpike. It came to be known as the National Pike, a name also applied to the Baltimore extension. The road's route between Baltimore and Cumberland continues to use the name National Pike or Baltimore National Pike today, with various portions now signed as U.S. Route 40, Alternate U.S. 40, or Maryland 144. A spur between Frederick, Maryland, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C., now Maryland Route 355, bears various local names but is sometimes referred to as the Washington National Pike;[citation needed] it is now paralleled by Interstate 270 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Frederick.

The approximately 620-mile (1,000 km) long National Road provided a connection between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and a gateway to the West for thousands of settlers. It was the first road in the U.S. to use the new macadam road surfacing.[1]

Today, much of the alignment is followed by U.S. 40, with various portions bearing the Alternate U.S. 40 designation, or various state-road numbers. The full road, including extensions east to Baltimore and west to St. Louis, was designated "The Historic National Road, an All-American Road" in 2002.[2]



The Cumberland Narrows west of Cumberland, Maryland, the water gap along Wills Creek through which the National Road crosses between Haystack Mountain (left) and Wills Mountain (right). This easy passage through the rugged Wills Mountain Anticline is now used by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (left), Alternate U.S. 40 (center, left of the creek), and the CSX Railroad (right).

Braddock Road

The Braddock Road had been opened by the Ohio Company in 1751 between Cumberland, Maryland, the limit of navigation on the Potomac River, and the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River, a site that would later become Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It received its name during the French and Indian War when it was used by General Edward Braddock and George Washington in the Braddock expedition, an attempt to assault Fort Duquesne.

Cumberland Road

Construction of the Cumberland Road (which later became part of the National Road) was authorized on March 29, 1806, by President Thomas Jefferson. The Cumberland Road would replace the Braddock Road for travel between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, following roughly the same alignment until just east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. From there, where the Braddock Road turned north to Pittsburgh, the Cumberland Road would continue west to Wheeling, West Virginia (then part of Virginia), also on the Ohio River.

The contract for the construction of the first section was awarded to Henry McKinley on May 8, 1811, [3] and construction began later that year, with the road reaching Wheeling on August 1, 1818.

Westward extension

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River, completed in 1849 and still in use by local traffic.

On May 15, 1820, Congress authorized an extension to St. Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and on March 3, 1825, across the Mississippi to Jefferson City, Missouri. Work on the extension between Wheeling and Zanesville, Ohio, utilized the pre-existing Zane's Trace, and was completed in 1833 to Columbus, Ohio, and in 1838 to Springfield, Ohio.

At Wheeling, the National Road crossed the Ohio River on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, designed by Charles Ellet Jr. and completed in 1849, then the world's longest bridge span at 1,010 feet (310 m) from tower to tower.

Transfer to states

On April 1, 1835, the section east of Wheeling was transferred to the three states, which made it a turnpike. The last Congressional appropriation was made May 25, 1838, and in 1840 Congress voted against completing the unfinished portion of the road, with the deciding vote cast by Henry Clay. By that time, railroads were proving a better method of transportation, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was being built west from Baltimore to Cumberland, mostly along the Potomac River, then by a more direct route than the National Road across the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia (then Virginia) to Wheeling. Construction of the National Road stopped in 1839, and much of the road through Indiana and Illinois remained unfinished, and was later transferred to the states.

Subsequent events

Madonna-of-the-Trail monument along the Old National Road in Vandalia, Illinois

In 1912, the National Road was chosen to become part of the National Old Trails Road, which would extend further east to New York City and west to San Francisco, California. Five Madonna of the Trail monuments were erected along the old National Road.

In 1927, the National Road was designated as the eastern part of U.S. Highway 40, which still generally follows the National Road's alighment with occasional bypasses, realignments, and newer bridges. The mostly parallel Interstate 70 now provides a faster route for through travel without the many sharp curves, steep grades, and narrow bridges of U.S. 40 and other segments of the National Road. However, between Hancock in western Maryland and Washington, Pennsylvania, I-70 takes a more northerly path to follow the Pennsylvania Turnpike (also designated as I-76) across the mountains between Breezewood and New Stanton, where I-70 turns west to rejoin the National Road's route (and U.S 40) near Washington, Pennsylvania.

The more recently constructed Interstate 68 parallels the old road from Hancock through Cumberland west to Keyser's Ridge, Maryland, where the National Road and U.S. 40 turn northwest into Pennsylvania, but I-68 continues directly west to meet Interstate 79 near Morgantown, West Virginia. The portion of I-68 in Maryland is designated as the National Freeway.

Historical structures

The Casselman River Bridge in western Maryland in 1933
Mile marker along the National Road in Columbus, Ohio.

Many of the National Road's original stone arch bridges also remain on former alignments. Notable among these is the Casselman River Bridge near Grantsville, Maryland; built in 1813-1814, it was the longest single-span stone arch bridge in the world at the time.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River, opened in 1849, is the oldest vehicular suspension bridge in the United States still in use. A parallel bridge constructed for U.S. 40 now handles most local traffic, and a larger, newer bridge carries I-70 and the realigned U.S. 40 across the river nearby. The original bridge is listed as both a National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

One of the road's original toll houses is preserved in La Vale, Maryland, and two others are located in Addison, Pennsylvania, and near Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Many mile markers can still be found along the National Road, some well-maintained, others deteriorating, and yet others represented by modern replacements.

Various sections of brick pavement, built in the early twentieth century, are still in use on little-traveled alignments, particularly in eastern Ohio.

Route description

The S Bridge on the National Road east of Old Washington, Ohio

The western terminus of the National Road at its greatest extent was at the Kaskaskia River in Vandalia, Illinois, near the intersection of modern U.S. 51 and U.S. 40. The road proceeded east along modern U.S. 40 through south central Illinois. The National Road continued into Indiana along modern U.S. 40, passing by the cities of Terre Haute and Indianapolis. Within Indianapolis, the National Road used the original alignment of U.S. 40 along West Washington and East Washington streets (modern U.S. 40 is now routed along I-465). East of Indianapolis, the road went through the city of Richmond before entering the state of Ohio. In Ohio, the road continued along modern U.S. 40 and passed through the northern suburbs of Dayton, Springfield, and the city of Columbus. West of Zanesville, Ohio, despite U.S. 40's predominantly following the original route, many segments of the original road can still be found. Between Old Washington and Morristown, the original roadbed has been overlaid by I-70. The road then continued east across the Ohio River into Wheeling in West Virginia, the original western end of the National Road when it was first paved. After running 15 miles (24 km) in West Virginia, the National Road then entered Pennsylvania. The road cut across southwestern Pennsylvania, heading southeast for about 90 miles (140 km) before entering Maryland. East of Keyser's Ridge, the road used modern Alternate U.S. 40 to the city of Cumberland (modern U.S. 40 is now routed along I-68). Cumberland was the original eastern terminus of the road. In the mid-19th century, a turnpike extension to Baltimore – along what is now Maryland Route 144 from Cumberland to Hancock, U.S. 40 from Hancock to Hagerstown, Alternate U.S. 40 from Hagerstown to Frederick, and Maryland Route 144 from Frederick to Baltimore – was approved. The approval process was a hotly debated subject because of the removal of the original macadam construction that made this road famous.

National Register designations

The Petersburg Tollhouse, on the National Road in Addison, Pennsylvania
The Red Brick Tavern along the National Road in Lafayette, Ohio

The following structures associated with the National Road are listed on the National Register of Historic Places:

See also


Further reading

  • Raitz, Karl B., et al., eds. The National Road (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) online edition

External links

Coordinates: 39°08′59″N 88°25′00″W / 39.14979°N 88.41658°W / 39.14979; -88.41658

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