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The National Road An Enduring American Icon

Brief history of the country's first interstate highway.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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It has witnessed the birth of a new nation, ushered new hopes and dreams toward the western frontier, and pieced together a country embroiled in the mist of war and conflict. The National Road celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006 and it seems appropriate to reflect a moment upon its span of our Nation's history. Stretching for more than 800 miles and now bearing the name of US route 40, this road is a national treasure of scenic beauty and extreme historical, social, and archeological importance.

In 1806 Congress saw the need for an all-weather route across the Allegheny Mountains and authorized construction of the National Road. Construction of the Road began at Cumberland, Maryland in 1811 and became the Nation's first federally funded interstate highway. By the 1830's the road crossed Pennsylvania and Western Virginia, reaching the Old Northwest Territory opening up trade and westward expansion for a burgeoning new nation. The road ended in Vandalia, Illinois due to lack of funding. This road would ultimately see traffic in excess of 200, 000 persons annually and unlike many of the privately constructed road of the day was free to travel. The National Road lays claim to the first Iron Bridge in the United States which was at Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Many famous and historic sites follow the National Road such as Fort Necessity, General Braddock's grave, and historic Olglebay Park in Wheeling, West Virginia.

After reaching Wheeling West Virginia, then Virginia in 1818 the road then travels along the route of Zane's Trace which was the first Ohio Road. In fact the National Road follows many early roads and Indian footpath's thereby preserving these routes across the span of time into the present day.

One interesting feature of this road are the stone mile markers that lined the route. Some of these mile markers still remain along the route and provide opportunity for nostalgic photographs. These mile markers informed the traveler how far they had come and how far they had to go and were placed at 5-mile intervals. In 1833 some of the markers were replaced with cast iron markers and were situated every mile between Cumberland, Pennsylvania and Wheeling.

Another interesting feature of the road is the tollhouses. In the 1830's the Federal government gradually began to turn control of the National Road over to the individual states because it was becoming costly to maintain. The states built tollhouses along the road and began to charge a fee for its use in order to maintain the road. Some of the tollhouses in Pennsylvania and Maryland were octagon shaped and were interesting architectural structures.

The National Road opened up the frontier and provided a route for many of our ancestors to seek fortunes and new lives of hope and promise. By studying the routes that they took as they made their way West, we can gain a better understanding of their daily lives and the hardships that they faced. This can give us better understanding of their character as people and admiration for the challenges that they faced.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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