Historic National Road Byway Trip

NOTR & US-40
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In the Beginning

On March 29, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed "An Act to regulate the laying out and making a road from Cumberland in the State of Maryland to the State of Ohio". The $30,000 that the act provided was seed money for a twenty foot wide "stone, earth, or gravel and sand" path from Cumberland, MD, to Wheeling, VA, with additional money coming from land sales in Ohio. Many called the road a portage and, even though 131 miles seems a rather long portage to this old canoeist, that's exactly what it was. By following the twists and turns of the Potomac's north branch, goods could be floated inland from Chesapeake Bay but the big loop at Cumberland was as close as they could get to the river that had marked the nation's western border just a few years before. The road that the federal government authorized in 1806 was clearly built to move cargo and people between the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. It was officially named the Cumberland Road but it was also called the National Road from the beginning and that's the name that eventually won out in common usage.

Leaving Cumberland, the road roughly followed (but was not built on top of) Braddock's Road from 1755. Near Fort Necessity, in Pennsylvania, it veered away from the old military trail and toward the Monongahela at Brownsville. Construction had not actually started until five years after Jefferson's signing and it was soon hampered by the War of 1812. The pace picked back up after the war and the road reached Wheeling in 1818. But the country continued to grow and, in 1820, congress voted to survey an extension of the road through the capitals of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to the nation's new western border on the Mississippi. In 1824 they voted to build it.

As it started across Ohio, the road followed the existing Zane's Trace for the first seventy-five miles or so. Ebenezer Zane had cleared the trace in 1796 to connect Wheeling, a town he founded, and the present site of Maysville, KY. At the Muskingum River, where Ebenezer's son-in-law had founded the town of Zanesville, Zane's Trace turned toward the southwest while the National Road continued due west.

In May of 1820, when congress voted to extend the National Road into the new states, the Illinois capital had just been moved to Vandalia. But, by the time the road actually reached there, in 1840, it had relocated to Springfield. The state government wasn't the only thing missing, however. Funds for the road were in short supply and so was agreement on what route to follow to the Mississippi. The building of the National Road went no farther and much of what did cross Indiana and Illinois was little more than a cleared path. Stone and gravel and even a few macadam sections existed but they were separated by long stretches of nothing but packed earth. Full federal funding of the road did not even last through all of Ohio. The "laying out" that the 1806 congressional act called for continued to Vandalia, Illinois; "Making a road" ended at Springfield, Ohio.

The state of Maryland also did some road promotion about this time. But, rather than directly footing the bill, as the USA did with the National Road, the state encouraged construction of toll roads and twice extended bank charters to entice the banks to finance private turnpike companies. In 1805, the Frederick Turnpike Company improved an existing road from Baltimore to the town of Frederick and was authorized to build and operate a road all the way to Boonsboro, about 15 miles west of Frederick. When the federal government announced their intention to connect Cumberland and Wheeling, Maryland took steps to finish the Baltimore and Ohio connection. The first extension of bank charters gained financing of the Cumberland Turnpike which completed a road between Hagerstown and Cumberland in 1820. Plenty of rough spots still existed between Baltimore and Cumberland and the state government got banks to invest in another turnpike company, by again extending their charters, to tackle one of the worst. This was the section between Hagerstown and Boonsboro. When the ten mile section was completed in 1823, it not only improved the ride from Baltimore to the "backcountry" but set a new standard for road building in this country. A vastly improved method of road construction had been developed by Scotsman John McAdam a few years earlier and it was applied here for the first time in the United States. The process took John's name (plus an extra 'a') and macadam became the nineteenth century's premier road surface. This series of turnpikes that connected Baltimore and Cumberland became known, because of their method of financing, as the Bank Road.

Strictly speaking, the result of the event whose bicentennial occurs this year was only that 131 mile road between Cumberland and Wheeling. Of course, there is no question that the National Road included the extension that reached Vandalia and even the authorized but unrealized bit between Vandalia and the Mississippi. But, when the Historic National Road Scenic Byway was created in 2002, it included all of these and the Baltimore to Cumberland road as well. That's not quite right, I know, but I'm not going to get too concerned about it. I'll drive the All-American Road designated byway and be happy that the original National Road is in there somewhere.

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