National Road

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National Road

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Route information
Major junctions
East end Cumberland, Maryland
West end Vandalia, Illinois
Country United States
Highway system

The National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road) [1] was the first major improved highway in the United States built by the federal government. Built between 1811 and 1837, the 620-mile (1,000 km) road connected the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and was a main transport path to the West for thousands of settlers. When improved in the 1830s, it became the second U.S. road surfaced with the macadam process pioneered by Scotsman John Loudon McAdam. [2]


Construction began heading west in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River. [3] After the Financial Panic of 1837 and the resulting economic depression, congressional funding ran dry and construction was stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, the then-capital of Illinois, 63 miles (101 km) northeast of St. Louis across the Mississippi River.

The road has also been referred to as the Cumberland Turnpike, the Cumberland–Brownsville Turnpike (or Road or Pike), the Cumberland Pike, the National Pike, and the National Turnpike. [4]

In the 20th century with the advent of the automobile, the National Road was connected with other historic routes to California under the title, National Old Trails Road. Today, much of the alignment is followed by U.S. Route 40 (US 40), with various portions bearing the Alternate U.S. Route 40 (Alt. US 40) designation, or various state-road numbers (such as Maryland Route 144 for several sections between Baltimore and Cumberland).

In 1976, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the National Road as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In 2002, the entire road, including extensions east to Baltimore and west to St. Louis, was designated the Historic National Road, an All-American Road. [5]


Braddock Road

The Braddock Road had been opened by the Ohio Company in 1751 between Fort Cumberland, the limit of navigation on the upper Potomac River, and the French military station at Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River, (at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers), an important trading and military point where the city of Pittsburgh now stands. It received its name during the colonial-era French and Indian War of 1753–1763 (also known as the Seven Years' War in Europe), when it was constructed by British General Edward Braddock, who was accompanied by Colonel George Washington of the Virginia militia regiment in the ill-fated July 1755 Braddock expedition, an attempt to assault the French-held Fort Duquesne.

Cumberland Road

Marker at the start of the Cumberland National Road Cumberland-national-road-marker-riverside-park2012.jpg
Marker at the start of the Cumberland National Road

Construction of the Cumberland Road (which later became part of the longer National Road) was authorized on March 29, 1806, by Congress. The new Cumberland Road would replace the wagon and foot paths of 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 towards Pittsburgh, the new National Road/Cumberland Road continued west to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), also on the Ohio River.

The contract for the construction of the first section was awarded to Henry McKinley on May 8, 1811, [6] and construction began later that year, with the road reaching Wheeling on August 1, 1818. For more than 100 years, a simple granite stone was the only marker of the road's beginning in Cumberland, Maryland. In June 2012, a monument and plaza were built in that town's Riverside Park, next to the historic original starting point.

Beyond the National Road's eastern terminus at Cumberland and toward the Atlantic coast, a series of private toll roads and turnpikes were constructed, connecting the National Road (also known as the Old National Pike) with Baltimore, then the third-largest city in the country, and a major maritime port on Chesapeake Bay. Completed in 1824, these feeder routes formed what is referred to as an eastern extension of the federal National Road.

Westward extension

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River was completed in 1849 and was still in use by local traffic until its closure on September 24, 2019. The bridge is now limited to pedestrians only. Wheeling Suspension Bridge west approach Wheeling Island West Virginia.jpg
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River was completed in 1849 and was still in use by local traffic until its closure on September 24, 2019. The bridge is now limited to pedestrians only.

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

In 1849, a bridge was completed to carry the National Road across the Ohio River at Wheeling. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, designed by Charles Ellet Jr., was at the time the world's longest bridge span at 1,010 feet (310 m) from tower to tower.

Transfer to states

The Cumberland Narrows west of Cumberland, part of the realigned routing Alt US 40 Cumberland Narrows.jpg
The Cumberland Narrows west of Cumberland, part of the realigned routing

Maintenance costs on the Cumberland Road were becoming more than Congress was willing to bear. In agreements with Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the road was to be reconstructed and resurfaced. The section that ran over Haystack Mountain, just west of Cumberland, was abandoned and a new road was built through the Cumberland Narrows.

On April 1, 1835, the section from Wheeling to Cumberland was transferred to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (now West Virginia). 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 being cast by Henry Clay. By that time, railroads were proving a better method of long-distance transportation, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was being built west from Baltimore to Cumberland, mostly along the Potomac River, and 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. Much of the road through Indiana and Illinois remained unfinished and was transferred to the states.

Federal construction of the road stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, which at that time was the state's capital. Illinois officials decided not to continue construction without the federal funds because two state roads from Vandalia to the St. Louis area, today's US 40 and Illinois Route 140 (known then as the Alton Road), already existed. [7]

Subsequent events

Madonna of the Trail monument along the Old National Road in Vandalia, Illinois Madonna-of-the-Trail-Illino.jpg
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 Los Angeles, California. Five Madonna of the Trail monuments, donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, were erected along the Old Trails Road.

In 1927, the National Road was designated as the eastern part of US 40, which still generally follows the National Road's alignment with occasional bypasses, realignments, and newer bridges. The mostly parallel Interstate 70 (I-70) now provides a faster route for through travel without the many sharp curves, steep grades, and narrow bridges of US 40 and other segments of the National Road. Heading west from Hancock in western Maryland, I-70 takes a more northerly path to connect with and 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 US 40) near Washington, Pennsylvania.

The more recently constructed I-68 parallels the old road from Hancock through Cumberland west to Keyser's Ridge, Maryland, where the National Road and US 40 turn northwest into Pennsylvania, but I-68 continues directly west to meet I-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, completed in 1814 CardCasselman014.jpg
The Casselman River Bridge in western Maryland, completed in 1814
Mile marker along the National Road in Columbus, Ohio National Road marker, Columbus, OH 01.jpg
Mile marker along the National Road in Columbus, Ohio

Many of the National Road's original stone arch bridges also remain on former alignments, including:

Another remaining National Road bridge is the Wheeling Suspension Bridge at Wheeling, West Virginia. Opened in 1849 to carry the road over the Ohio River, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world until 1851, and is today the oldest vehicular suspension bridge in the United States still in use. A newer bridge now carries the realigned US 40 and I-70 across the river nearby.

Three of the road's original toll houses are preserved:

Additionally, several Old National Pike Milestones—some well-maintained, others deteriorating, and yet others represented by modern replacements—remain intact along the route.

Route description

The S Bridge on the National Road east of Old Washington, Ohio S Bridge by Old Washington.jpg
The S Bridge on the National Road east of Old Washington, Ohio
Madonna of the Trail in Richmond, Indiana, with the National Road in the background Madonna of the Trail Richmond, IN.jpg
Madonna of the Trail in Richmond, Indiana, with the National Road in the background

In general, the road climbed westwards along the Amerindian trail known as Chief Nemacolin's Path, once followed and improved by a young George Washington, then also followed by the Braddock Expedition. Using the Cumberland Narrows, its first phase of construction crossed the Allegheny Mountains entered southwestern Pennsylvania, reaching the Allegheny Plateau in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. There, travelers could turn off to Pittsburgh or continue west through Uniontown and reach navigable water, the Monongahela River, at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, which was by then a major outfitting center and riverboat-building emporium. Many settlers boarded boats there to travel down the Ohio and up the Missouri, or elsewhere on the Mississippi watershed.

By 1818, travelers could press on, still following Chief Nemacolin's trail across the ford, or taking a ferry to West Brownsville, moving through Washington County, Pennsylvania, and passing into Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), 45 miles (72 km) away on the Ohio River. Subsequent efforts pushed the road across the states of Ohio and Indiana and into the Illinois Territory. The western terminus of the National Road at its greatest extent was at the Kaskaskia River in Vandalia, Illinois, near the intersection of modern US 51 and US 40.

Today, travelers driving east from Vandalia travel along modern US 40 through south-central Illinois. The National Road continued into Indiana along modern US 40, passing through the cities of Terre Haute and Indianapolis. Within Indianapolis, the National Road used the original alignment of US 40 along West and East Washington Street (modern US 40 is now routed along I-465). East of Indianapolis, the road went through the city of Richmond before entering Ohio, where the road continued along modern US 40 and passed through the northern suburbs of Dayton, Springfield, and Columbus.

West of Zanesville, Ohio, despite US 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 Alt US 40 to the city of Cumberland (modern US 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 was approved—along what is now Maryland Route 144 from Cumberland to Hancock, US 40 from Hancock to Hagerstown, Alternate US 40 from Hagerstown to Frederick, and Maryland Route 144 from Frederick to Baltimore. The approval process was a hotly debated subject because of the removal of the original macadam construction that made this road famous.

The road's route between Baltimore and Cumberland continues to use the name National Pike or Baltimore National Pike and as Main Street in Ohio today, with various portions now signed as US 40, Alt. US 40, or Maryland Route 144. A spur between Frederick, Maryland, and Georgetown (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 I-270 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Frederick.

Millionaires' Row

Nicknamed the "Main Street of America", [9] the road's presence in towns on its route and effective access to surrounding towns attracted wealthy residents to build their houses along the road in towns such as in Richmond, Indiana, [10] and Springfield, Ohio, creating Millionaires' Rows. [11]

Historic designations

Plaque marking National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation The National Road - National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark plaque - National Road Museum - DSC02787.JPG
Plaque marking National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation

In 1976, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the National Road as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. [12] [13]

There are several structures associated with the National Road that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.



The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has installed five historical markers noting the historic importance of the road: one in Somerset County on August 10, 1947, one in Washington County on April 1, 1949, and three in Fayette County on October 12, 1948, October 12, 1948, and May 19, 1996. [14]

West Virginia




See also

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The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first common carrier railroad and the oldest railroad in the United States with its first section opening in 1830. Merchants from Baltimore, which had benefited to some extent from the construction of the National Road early in the century, wanted to do business with settlers crossing the Appalachian Mountains. The railroad faced competition from several existing and proposed enterprises, including the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike, built in 1797, the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. At first, the B&O was located entirely in the state of Maryland; its original line extending from the port of Baltimore west to Sandy Hook, Maryland, opened in 1834. There it connected with Harper's Ferry, first by boat, then by the Wager Bridge, across the Potomac River into Virginia, and also with the navigable Shenandoah River.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">U.S. Route 40</span> Highway in the United States

U.S. Route 40 or U.S. Highway 40 (US 40), also known as the Main Street of America, is a major east–west United States Highway traveling across the United States from the Mountain States to the Mid-Atlantic States. As with most routes whose numbers end in a zero, US 40 once traversed the entire United States. It is one of the first U.S. Highways created in 1926 and its original termini were in San Francisco, California, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. US 40 currently ends at a junction with I-80 in Silver Summit, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City. West of this point US 40 was functionally replaced with I-80, and as these segments of I-80 were constructed the western portion of US 40 was truncated several times.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wheeling Suspension Bridge</span> Bridge in West Virginia, United States

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the main channel of the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world from 1849 until 1851. Charles Ellet Jr. designed it and supervised construction of what became the first bridge to span a major river west of the Appalachian mountains. It linked the eastern and western section of the National Road, and became especially strategically important during the American Civil War. Litigation in the United States Supreme Court concerning its obstruction of the new high steamboat smokestacks eventually cleared the way for other bridges, especially needed by expanding railroads. Because this bridge was designed during the horse-and-buggy era, 2-ton weight limits and vehicle separation requirements applied in later years until it was closed to automobile traffic in September 2019.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Old Trails Road</span> Auto trail

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nemacolin's Path</span> Ancient Native American trail

Nemacolin's Trail, or less often Nemacolin's Path, was an ancient Native American trail that crossed the great barrier of the Allegheny Mountains via the Cumberland Narrows Mountain pass, connecting the watersheds of the Potomac River and the Monongahela River in the present-day United States of America. Nemacolin's Trail connected what are now Cumberland, Maryland and Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">U.S. Route 40 in Maryland</span> Section of U.S. Highway in Maryland, United States

U.S. Route 40 in the U.S. state of Maryland runs from Garrett County in Western Maryland to Cecil County in the state's northeastern corner. With a total length of 221 miles (356 km), it is the longest numbered highway in Maryland. Almost half of the road overlaps or parallels with Interstate 68 (I-68) or I-70, while the old alignment is generally known as US 40 Alternate, US 40 Scenic, or Maryland Route 144. West of Baltimore, in the Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains / Blue Ridge region of the Western Maryland panhandle of the small state, the portions where it does not overlap an Interstate highway are mostly two-lane roads. The portion northeast of Baltimore going toward Wilmington in northern Delaware and Philadelphia in southeastern Pennsylvania is a four-lane divided highway, known as the Pulaski Highway. This section crosses the Susquehanna River at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Interstate 70 in West Virginia</span> Highway in West Virginia

Interstate 70 (I-70) is a portion of the Interstate Highway System that runs from near Cove Fort, Utah, at a junction with I-15 to Baltimore, Maryland. It crosses the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia through Ohio County and the city of Wheeling. This segment is the shortest of all states through which I-70 passes, crossing West Virginia for only 14.45 miles (23.26 km). The Fort Henry Bridge carries I-70 from Wheeling Island across the Ohio River and into downtown Wheeling before the freeway enters the Wheeling Tunnel. I-470, a southerly bypass of Wheeling and the lone auxiliary Interstate Highway in West Virginia, is intersected near Elm Grove. Before crossing into Pennsylvania, I-70 passes The Highlands, a major shopping center in the panhandle, and the Bear Rocks Lake Wildlife Management Area. On average, between 27,000 and 53,000 vehicles use the freeway every day.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">U.S. Route 40 Alternate (Keysers Ridge–Cumberland, Maryland)</span> Highway in Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland

U.S. Route 40 Alternate is the U.S. Highway designation for a former segment of U.S. Route 40 (US 40) through Garrett and Allegany counties in Maryland. The highway begins at US 40 near exit 14 on Interstate 68 (I-68) and runs 31.80 miles (51.18 km) eastward to Cumberland, where it ends at exit 44 on I-68. Alt US 40 is maintained by the Maryland State Highway Administration (MDSHA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Old National Pike Milestones</span> United States historic place

The "Old National Pike Milestones" marked each mile of the old National Road in Maryland, an eastern coastal state of the United States, from its dominating city of Baltimore to major towns of western Maryland, as Frederick, and between it and Hagerstown, to Hancock, through to Cumberland in the western panhandle of the state in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The surviving stones have been included in the "National Register of Historic Places", maintained by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and may be seen along the route variously designated as U.S. Route 40, Maryland Route 144, Alternate U.S. Route 40, and several other roads that trace the path of the original "Old National Pike". From Baltimore to Cumberland, the road was surveyed and laid out with construction in several phases over different periods of time by several turnpike companies, chartered by the General Assembly of Maryland beginning in 1808. Earlier in 1806, the United States Congress with the approval of third President Thomas Jefferson, authorized the surveying and further construction of a "national road" to continue on from Cumberland on the upstream of the Potomac River further to the west across additional mountainous ranges in the Allegheny Mountains to the newly admitted State of Ohio. Later the congressional action was amended to direct the road to the state boundaries on the Ohio River and it eventually landed at Wheeling, West Virginia. In later decades, the road was extended west across Ohio, Indiana and into the Illinois Country, to eventually terminate by the 1840s in Vandalia, the territorial capital of Illinois, just east of the Mississippi River, and northeast of the newly emergent, frontier river port metropolis of St. Louis of the Missouri Territory and the former Louisiana Purchase of 1803 to the west.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transportation in Appalachia</span> Transportation infrastructure in the Appalachia region

The Appalachian region has always had to allocate much resources and time into transportation due to the region's notable and unique geography. Mountainous terrain and commonly occurring adverse weather effects such as heavy fog and snowfall made roads hazardous and taxing on the traveling vehicles. Initially, European settlers found gaps in the mountains, among them the Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road. Another notable challenge of Appalachian travel is the political elements of constructing transportation routes. Most travel systems are funded by municipalities, but since The Appalachian area has several different states it can be difficult for the various governments to agree on how to work on transportation. The most influential forms of travel in the Appalachian region are based on water trading routes, roads and railroads.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">U.S. Route 40 Alternate (Hagerstown–Frederick, Maryland)</span> Highway in Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland

U.S. Route 40 Alternate (US 40 Alternate) is an alternate route of US 40 in the U.S. state of Maryland. The highway runs 22.97 miles (36.97 km) from Potomac Street in Hagerstown east to US 40 in Frederick. US 40 Alternate parallels US 40 and much of Interstate 70 (I-70) to the south through eastern Washington County and western Frederick County. The alternate route connects Hagerstown and Frederick with Funkstown, Boonsboro, Middletown, and Braddock Heights. US 40 Alternate crosses two major north–south components of the Blue Ridge Mountains that separate the Great Appalachian Valley and the Piedmont: South Mountain between Boonsboro and Middletown and Catoctin Mountain, which is locally known as Braddock Mountain, at Braddock Heights.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Blair Gap</span>

Blair Gap, one of the gaps of the Allegheny, is a water gap along the eastern face atop the Allegheny Front escarpment. Like other gaps of the Allegheny, the slopes of Blair Gap were amenable to foot travel, pack mules, and possibly wagons allowing Amerindians, and then, after about 1778-1780 settlers, to travel west into the relatively depopulated Ohio Country decades before the railroads were born and tied the country together with steel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gaps of the Allegheny</span>

The gaps of the Allegheny, meaning gaps in the Allegheny Ridge in west-central Pennsylvania, is a series of escarpment eroding water gaps along the saddle between two higher barrier ridge-lines in the eastern face atop the Allegheny Ridge or Allegheny Front escarpment. The front extends south through Western Maryland and forms much of the border between Virginia and West Virginia, in part explaining the difference in cultures between those two post-Civil War states. While not totally impenetrable to daring and energetic travelers on foot, passing the front outside of the water gaps with even sure footed mules was nearly impossible without navigating terrain where climbing was necessary on slopes even burros would find extremely difficult.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Malden, Pennsylvania</span> A bedroom community in the Borough of Centerville in Pennsylvania, United States

The unincorporated hamlet of Malden is a bedroom community along the historic 'Old National Pike' (1811) within borough of Centerville Washington County, Pennsylvania. Malden was a historical wagon stop amidst farms during the early 19th century surge of westward migration to settle the Northwest Territory after 1790.


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Further reading