It’s a highway, all right, just not a new one. And it was an interstate – in fact, the very first federal highway, begun in 1811, about 140 years before land was cleared for what we now know as America’s 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 along which travelers struggled to move at the time.
|Travel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in "Les Misérables," “a curse”|
|George Washington commanded, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road.|
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, far to the west, was the mightiest river of all: the distant Mississippi. 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. That’s because speedy, capacious new railroads stole the road’s thunder as well as most of its people and freight.
|Here’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road|
If that’s so, The National Road, begun 110 years earlier, is wiry old Great Grandma.
|The 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|
|Doug and Glenn’s travel guide spans many generations of "The Road That Helped Build America"|
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 down 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 as far back as the opening of the American frontier.
|Signs old and new adjoin each other along the venerable road in eastern Ohio|
But those colorful signs reflect fiction as well as truth. U.S. 40 does follow the general path of the old National Road, but many of the most compelling remnants of the original, 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
|This is a piece of the original National Road, as first paved with concrete about 1916. Driving along U.S. 40, you’d never see it|
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.
|The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, over which The National Road still runs, looks its age, for sure|
The National Road had first reached Ohio via smaller bridges, igniting a human flood so profound that, by the 1840 census, “frontier” Ohio had become the nation’s third-most-populous state.
Going in Cycles
|Safety bikes were all the rage, even among the nation’s “new women,” in 1895, when this poster was produced|
That’s more than 58 times as many “horseless carriages” in a decade. And an awful lot of them rolled along The National Road.
|Site Manager Mary Ellen Weingartner near the end of the National Road/Zane Grey Museum’s meticulously accurate diorama|
Site manager Mary Ellen Weingartner pointed out three 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
|That’s an ordinary shoe, all right, between the pieces of wood in the braking device of an old Conestoga wagon|
I note this because a Conestoga wagon’s brake shoes were, in fact, 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 antiquarian 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.
|In 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|
That’ll Be 27 Cents
|This was one of the first toll booths travelers would have encountered on The National Road, near La Vale, west of Cumberland|
|Here’s a short stretch of the Old National Road that had been paved in brick. Note how narrow it was!|
|You can see the narrow-gauge railroad engine at work alongside highway workers as The National Road was repaved in the 19-teens|
Rest Only if You Must
Doug 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.
|This is part of the inscribed rock at “The Eagle’s Nest” along the National Road|
|And this is a look at another old marker on site|
|Here’s what’s left of one of those old strip motels that sprouted along The National Road in the 1940s|
Don’t stick your arm
Out too far
It might go home
In another car
Out too far
It might go home
In another car
|An old, but photogenic, rustic barn along The National Road|
S as in Bridge
|Here’s an early postcard view of an S-bridge in eastern Ohio|
|And here’s the approach to one of the S-bridges as it looks today|
My favorite stop was a pretty park, high above Zanesville. Below sat not just the town, in postcard splendor, but particularly a bridge over the intersecting Licking and Muskingum rivers.
|Zanesville’s world-famous Y-bridge|
|Here's the Ohio capitol, past which U.S. 40, successor to the National Road, still runs. No, they didn't run out of money to finish the dome. The roof is flat, but there's a rounded dome inside it!|
One of the treats of our ride along the old National Road occurred at a few spots where it was possible to stand on a fragment of the original pike, look across a field or up a hillside, and see two more generations of the road: U.S. 40 and today’s ultramodern, ultrafast Interstate 70. Not surprisingly, I-70 was the only busy one of the bunch.
|I was standing on part of the old National Road when I took this shot of U.S. 40 in the distance. My eye could also see I-70 farther away, but it doesn’t show up very well here|
In 2002, The National Road added a name when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta designated it as “The National Historic Road.” That was rather a waste of effort. The “historic” part, as I hope Doug and I have demonstrated, 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.]
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the 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 in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Capacious. Large in capacity.
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.”