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The National Road

This article appeared in the Journal Herald June 17, 1976

The National Road – There was nothing like it
by Jim Casey

            There is nothing like it in the United States. Leaping the Ohio at Wheeling, the National Road throws itself across Ohio and Indiana, straight as an arrow, like an ancient elevated pathway of the gods, chopping hills in twain at a blow, traversing the lowlands on high grades like a railroad bed, vaulting river and stream on massive bridges of unparalleled size.

            Archer Butler Hulbert clearly was impressed.
            Writing for the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society in 1901, he saw the road as a wonder of the world.
            For his time, Hulbert probably was right. The National Road was the first interstate highway and the first easy link between the Eastern Seaboard and the Ohio Valley, eventually extending through Illinois to the Mississippi.
            “Until that day (when the road reached the Ohio in 1818) travelers spoke of ‘going into’ and ‘coming out of’ the West as though it were Mammoth Cave,” Hulbert wrote.
            “Without exaggeration, the building of the National Road from the Potomac to the Ohio River was the crowning act of all that had gone before. It proved that a republic of loyal people could scorn the old European theory that mountains are imperative boundaries of empire.”
            The road, however, was merely a paved path of least resistance, existing since prehistory as a buffalo trail, the central of three traces trodden over the Appalachians.
            The northernmost passage, through northern New York State and along the Great Lakes, eventually became the famed “Water Level Route” of the New York Central Railroad.
            The southern trail, southwest between the Allegheny and the Blue Ridge mountains, then west through Cumberland Gap, was first blazed by Daniel Boone as the Wilderness Road.
            And the route which became the National Road was first marked out by the Indian Nemacolin for the first Ohio Company, “a line of wounded trees,” according to Hulbert. Later it was widened by Lt. Col. George Washington and his militia in the French and Indian War, and was the site of Gen. Edward Braddock’s annihilation near the Monongahela River in 1755.
            The notion of a “national” road from the Potomac to the Ohio was conceived by secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin in 1806, and President Jefferson commissioned its initial construction.
            By 1811, the first 10 miles westward were completed, and the road reached the river at Wheeling in 1818.
            Four rods wide, drainage ditches on each side, never climbing more than a 5 percent grade, the road was built at a cost of $3,400 per mile. By 1822, it needed repairs, and Congress appropriated funds to be repaid by tolls. President Monroe vetoed this as unconstitutional, but two years later signed a similar bill.

            In 1825, Congress appropriated $320,000 to extend the road as far as Zanesville, with an eye on going as far as the then-capital of Illinois, Vandalia. The road to Zanesville followed a trail blazed in 1796, known as Zane’s Trace.
            The National Road reached Columbus in 1833. It reached Springfield by 1837; Indianapolis by 1850. By this time it had been turned over to the states, Ohio erecting toll gates every 10 miles.         Coaches, herds of cattle and four-ton freight wagons jammed the road in each direction, pioneers going west and the harvest of the heartland heading east.
            Coach lines sprang up, the largest being the National Road Stage Co., rivaled by the Good Intent Line, the Ohio National Stage Co. and Neil, Moore & Co. Passengers sat three to a seat, three seats to a coach as they trundled along at 10 miles per hour.
            The fare from Wheeling to Zanesville was $3; from Zanesville to Columbus, $2. It cost $2 to get from Columbus to Springfield, and another $3 to go to Indianapolis. An express mail coach could travel from Washington, D.C., to Columbus in 45 ½  hours, but an ordinary stage took three days, 16 hours.     The state was strict about the road’s upkeep. Anyone caught vandalizing mile stones, culverts, parapets or bridges was liable to be fined up to $500 “or be imprisoned in a dungeon of the jail of the county and be fed on bread and water only, not exceeding 30 days, or both.”
            Also prohibited were allowing drains to become clogged, traveling on unfinished portions of the road and driving with locked wheels.
            Tolls were set according to wear and tear on the road. A score of sheep or hogs traveled for 5 cents, a score of cattle for 20. A horse and rider paid a nickel; a sulky, 12 cents.
            A ride to church was free, however, as was passage to muster, a funeral or polling place on Election Day. School children, clergymen, soldiers and munitions also traveled free.
            But the tolls, although totaling $2,000 a year at some booths, failed to pay for the road. Embezzlement and deception were not uncommon among toll keepers, and revenues fell short of expenses by $37,000 in 1839.
            In 1850, the state tried leasing sections of the road to private companies but abandoned the practice in 1859.
            So in 1876, Ohio turned the road over to the counties through which it ran, and a year later allowed local option elections to turn the highway into a toll-free pike.
            By the turn of the century, the nation’s westward expansion nearly finished, the road had lost much of its importance, and historian Hulbert sadly said, “A few ponderous stone bridges and a long line of sorry-looking mileposts mark the famous highway of our middle age.
            “Scores of proud towns, which were thriving centers of transcontinental trade, have dwindled into comparative insignificance, while the clanging of rusty signs on their ancient tavern posts tell, with inexpressible pathos, that ‘There hath passed away a glory from the Earth’.”