The National Road
BEFORE THE ADVENT of the railroads, any lengthy journey presented problems. Water transport accounted for much of the traffic and was so important that all major settlements in the eastern part of North America were on the coast or a navigable river. There were roads but the majority were tracks built to carry farm produce to market. They were usually poorly maintained and could be impassable in wet weather and the winter. Road transport was generally limited to packtrains and horses over traditional Native American trails.

The first part of the National Road connected the headwaters of the Potomac River
at Cumberland, Maryland, through the Cumberland Gap in the Alleghenies, to Wheeling in
what is now West Virginia. By 1841 it ran from Baltimore to Vandalia, Illinois before the
rapid expansion of the railroads led to the project being abandoned.

The Barrier to Progress
Although water transport was almost always preferred, overland travel could not be avoided where there were no rivers heading in the right direction. By the early 1800s the area that is now Ohio had become settled but overland travel from the east was very difficult. The Allegheny Mountains separated the headwaters of the Potomac from the Ohio River. Both Washington and Jefferson had recognized the need for a road connecting these two river systems.

Sheep being driven along the National Road with a Toll House in the background. This engraving does not do justice to the road which ran through a cleared path 66 feet wide with a proper roadbed of 20 feet.
The Solution
In 1803 an Act of Congress allocated a part of the revenues from the sale of land in Ohio to the building of a proper road from Cumberland in Maryland (on the Potomac) to Wheeling in what is now West Virginia (on the Ohio). The work began in 1811 and reached Wheeling in 1818. It was known by several names: the National Road, the Cumberland Road and the National Pike. It was the first federally sponsored highway and was quite a feat for its day. In Europe there had been a lot of experimentation on road design and these new techniques were adopted. First a right-of-way 66ft. wide was cleared and the roadway was 20ft. wide covered with 18in. of crushed stone at the center, tapering to 12in. at the edges. The early roads built to this standard in Europe had demonstrated that the good drainage provided by the crushed stone kept the roadway in good condition. Rivers and creeks were spanned by stone bridges and distances were marked by iron mile-posts.
         The moving force behind the road was Senator Henry Clay, whose contribution was commemorated by a monument near Wheeling.
         Eventually the National Road extended to Springfield in Ohio (in 1838) and then on to Vandalia, Illinois in 1841. Originally the plans called for it to stretch from Baltimore to St. Louis but the rapid growth of railroads led to the project being abandoned. Even though it never quite reached the final goal, it did eventually stretch 800 miles. Today it is closely followed by Route 40.

There were numerous inns on the National Road where travelers could rest awhile and get a good meal for 25 cents.

         The coming of the railroads brought about a rapid decline in the need for the traffic using the National Pike but for those who had used it for decades there "never had been such landlords, such taverns, such dinners, such whiskey, such bustle, or such endless cavalcades of coaches and wagons as could be seen or had between Wheeling and Frederick in the palmy days of the old national pike," recalled one of those who had used the road.
         In 1879 Harper's Monthly interviewed several old men, most of them by then in their 80s, who recalled the glory days of the National Pike. One recalled:

"The wagons were so numerous that the leaders of one team had their noses in the trough at the end of the next wagon ahead and the coaches, drawn by four or six horses, dashed along at a speed of which a modern limited express might not feel ashamed. Besides the coaches and wagons, there were gentlemen travelling singly in the saddle, with all their luggage stuffed into their saddlebags. There were enormous droves of sheep and herds of cattle, which raised the dust like a cloud along their path. Once in a while, Mr. Clay or General Jackson made an appearance, and answered with stately cordiality the familiar greetings of the other passers-by. Homespun Davy Crockett sometimes stood in relief against the busy scene, and all the statesmen of the West and South Harrison, Houston, Taylor, Polk, and Allen among others came along the road to Washington.
         “The traffic was so heavy that generally it was safe from highway robbery, but the traveler by coach had his expedition spiced by the occasional assaults of highwaymen, who sprang out of the pines that in some places made perpetual night of the most brightest day. Nearly every mile had its tavern, and every tavern its pretty maid or jovial host. ‘The eating was the cream of the earth, Sir,’ said an old traveller to me. ‘I dined at Delmonico's (in New York) last week, and my dinner was nothing to the venison cutlets and the ham and eggs and johnny-cakes of the pike;’ which the reader may answer by saying that tastes are variable and unaccountable.
         “Nevertheless, the cookery was excellent and after the exhilaration of a gallop down a mountain without brakes, and the tonic air of the pines, what appetite would not be set on edge, what refinement of palate displeased, by venison cutlets, or even ham and eggs? There were rival lines of coaches, and the competition led to overdriving and many accidents. The passengers became partisans of the line by which they traveled and execrated the opposition and its patrons. Sometimes two coaches of different lines would travel together and, as one passed the other, the passengers in the vehicle left behind would threaten and gesticulate against the victors. The verbal menace was often emphasized by an exhibition of bowie-knives and pistols which more than once led to the verge of a battle; but among themselves the passengers in each coach were fraternally intimate and the driver was usually an old hand, who could tell stories by the hour to beguile his companions on the box seat. The rival lines brought rival taverns into existence, and as the two opposition coaches drove into a town for supper, they pulled up before separate houses.”

See the first issue of History Magazine for the rest of this article.
return to contents