National Road - First Highway in America
By the early 19th century, the wilderness
of the Ohio country had given
way to settlement. The road
had cut through the forest many years before, called the Braddock
Road, was replaced by the National Road.
Cutting an approximate 820-mile long path
through the states of
West Virginia, it was
built between 1811 and 1834 and was the first federally funded road in
U.S. history. Both Presidents
believed that a trans-Appalachian road was necessary for unifying the
young country. On March 29, 1806, Congress authorized construction of the
President Thomas Jefferson
signed the act establishing what was first called the Cumberland Road
that would connect Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio River.
The National Road built in 1811 makes a
path through the states of Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
Photo Map courtesy Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
The contract for the construction of the
first section was awarded to Henry McKinley on May 8, 1811, and
construction began later that year, with the road reaching Cumberland,
Maryland and Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1817.
The next year, it was completed to the Ohio River at Wheeling, West
Virginia on August
1, 1818 and mail coaches began using the road. Wheeling would remain
its western terminus for several years. Eventually the road was pushed
through central Ohio and Indiana reaching Vandalia, Illinois in the
1830's, and at that time, it became the first road in the U.S. to use
the new macadam road surfacing. During that decade, the federal
government conveyed part of the road's responsibility to the states
through which it runs. Tollgates and tollhouses were then built by the
states. Plans were made to continue the road to
St. Louis, Missouri
at the confluence of the
Rivers, and to Jefferson City upstream on the Missouri River. Following the panic of 1837 however, funding ran dry and
construction was stopped, leaving the terminus at Vandalia, Illinois.
The opening of the
National Road saw thousands of travelers heading west over the
Allegheny Mountains to settle the rich land of the Ohio River Valley.
It also became a corridor of moving goods and supplies. Small towns
along the National Road's path began to grow and prosper with the
increase in population. Towns such as Cumberland, Maryland; Uniontown,
Brownsville, and Washington, Pennsylvania; and Wheeling, West Virginia evolved
into commercial centers of business and industry. Uniontown was the
headquarters for three major stagecoach lines which carried passengers
over the National Road. Brownsville, on the Monongahela River, was a
center for steamboat building and river freight hauling. Many small
towns and villages along the road contained taverns, blacksmith shops,
and livery stables.
Taverns were probably the most important and numerous business found
on the National Road. It is estimated there was about one tavern
situated on every mile of the road. There were two different
classes of taverns, including the stagecoach tavern, which was more
expensive and designed for the affluent traveler; and the wagon stand,
which was more affordable for most travelers. The Mount Washington
Tavern, which still stands in Uniontown, Pennsylvania
as part of Fort Necessity National Battlefield, was a
stagecoach tavern. All taverns regardless of class offered three basic
things; food, drink, and lodging.
During the heyday of the
National Road, traffic was heavy throughout the day and into the early
evening. Almost every kind of vehicle could be seen on the road. The
two most common vehicles were the stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon.
Stagecoach travel was designed with speed in mind and would
average 60 to 70 miles in one day. The Conestoga wagon was the
"tractor-trailer" of the 19th Century. Conestogas were designed to
carry heavy freight. They were often brightly painted with red running
gears, Prussian blue bodies and white canvas coverings. A Conestoga
wagon, pulled by a team of six draft horses, averaged 15 miles a day.
The height of the National
Road's popularity came in 1825 when it was celebrated in song, story,
painting and poetry. During the 1840's popularity soared again as
westbound travelers and drovers crowded the inns and taverns along the
route. Huge Conestoga wagons hauled produce from frontier farms to the
East Coast, returning with staples such as coffee and sugar for the
western settlements. Thousands moved west in covered wagons and
stagecoaches traveled the road keeping to regular schedules.
By the early 1850's technology was changing
the way people traveled. The steam locomotive was being perfected and
soon, railroads would cross the Allegheny Mountains. The people of
fought strongly to keep the railroad out of the area, knowing the impact
it would have on the National Road. However, in 1852, the Pennsylvania
Railroad was completed to Pittsburgh and shortly after, the B & O Railroad
reached Wheeling, West Virginia.
This spelled doom for the National Road, as the traffic quickly declined
and many taverns went out of business.
An article in Harper's
Magazine in November, 1879 declared, "The national turnpike that led
over the Alleghenies from the East to the West is a glory
departed...Octogenarians who participated in the traffic will tell an
enquirer that never before were there such landlords, such taverns, such
dinners, such whiskey...or such an endless calvacades of coaches and
wagons." A poet lamented "We hear no more the clanging hoof and the
stagecoach rattling by, for the steam king rules the traveled world, and
the Old Pike is left to die."
In 1912 the pathway became part of the National Old Trails Road. Just a
few years later, just as technology caused the National Road to decline,
it also led to its revival with the invention of the automobile in the
early 20th century. As "motor touring" became a popular pastime, the need
for improved roads began to grow. Many early wagon and coach roads such as
the National Road were revived into smoothly paved automobile roads. The
Federal Highway Act of 1921 established a program of federal aid to
encourage the states to build "an adequate and connected system of
highways, interstate in character." In 1926, the grid system of numbering
highways was in place, thus creating US Route 40 out of the ashes of the
This spurned a generation of
new businesses -- stage taverns and wagon stands were replaced by hotels,
motels, restaurants and diners. The service station replaced the livery
stables and blacksmith shops. Some of the National Road era buildings
regained new life as with the influx of new businesses. Route 40 served as
a major east-west artery until the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 created
the interstate system, and much of the traffic was diverted away and interest
in the National Road again waned.
Decades later; however, new
generations are finding these older two-lane roads to be not only a more
relaxing journey, but, are once again enjoying the history. Today, the old
pavement is a National Scenic Byway where visitors can experience a
physical timeline, including classic inns, tollhouses, diners, and motels
that trace 200 years of American history. Along this historic path,
cameras capture old buildings, bridges and old stone mile markers. Old
brick schoolhouses from early years sporadically dot the countryside and
some are found in the small towns on the National Road. Many are still
used, some are converted to a private residence and others stand
There are numerous sites on the National Road
that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places:
Casselman River Bridge near Grantsville,
Dunlap's Creek Bridge, near Brownsville,
Pennsylvania, the first
cast iron arch bridge in the United States completed in 1839.
Hudleston Farmhouse Inn in Mount Auburn,
James Whitcomb Riley House in Indiana.
National Road Corridor Historic District in
Wheeling, West Virginia.
Old Stone Arch, National Road, near
Petersburg Tollhouse in Addison,
The Red Brick Tavern in Lafayette, Madison
County, Ohio, built in 1837.
Road Segment of the road in Cambridge, Ohio.
Searights Tollhouse, National Road, in
S Bridge in Washington County, Pennsylvania,
near Washington, Pennsylvania.
Wheeling Suspension Bridge in Wheeling, West
of America, updated September, 2017.
In 1848 Robert S. McDowell counted
133 wagons pulled by six-horse teams pass along
the National Road in one day. He took no notice of as many more teams of one, two, three four and five
Thomas Searight remembered as many as 20
stagecoaches in a line at one time on the
road. Another man named Jesse Peirsol, a wagoner remembers a night at a
tavern where there were 30 six-horse teams parked in the wagon yard, 100
mules in a pen, 1,000 hogs in an enclosure and as many cattle in the
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