Road Trip Through History: America’s First Interstate

George Washington was a road builder long before he was a nation-builder. As a young officer under the ill-fated General Braddock, he helped construct a military road from western Maryland to Pennsylvania.* As president of the new United States, he dreamed of a trans-Appalachian road that would unify the new nation and aid westward expansion.

In 1806 Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that made Washington’s dream a reality.** Funded by the sale of land in what would become Ohio, the National Road was built in pieces between 1811 and 1834. It was carved out of wilderness and prairie, constructed of rock and dirt and mud and macadam over timber corduroys. When it was completed, the National Road traveled through six states, from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois, then the state capital.

The National Road became a major route not only for settlers traveling west, but for commerce. Conestoga wagons, the semi-trailers of the early nineteenth century, carried farm produce from the west to eastern cities and brought back supplies and luxuries to frontier towns. Drovers herded pigs from Vandalia to Baltimore along the road. (And turkeys as far as Saint Louis.***) As the frontier developed, the National Road became Main Street in the towns through which it traveled.

The road flourished through the 1870s, when the railroad replaced it as a major transport system. It revived at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the rise of the automobile brought with it a demand for better roads. The National Road was reincarnated as Highway 40 and expanded from Vandalia to the Pacific.

The National Road Interpretive Center in Vandalia is an excellent introduction to the history of the road–not to mention surveying methods, covered bridges, frontier road construction, the economics of wagon trains, and the development of the Illinois territory. But be warned, it will leave you wanting more. My Own True Love and I are already plotting a road trip through history along the Illinois portion of the National Road. Stay tuned.

*And helped trigger the French and Indian War in the process. But that’s a story for another day.

**Jefferson’s own dream– a road that went all the way to the Pacific–took a little longer to fulfill.

***Does anyone know how you herd turkeys? I assume you walk softly and carry a big stick.

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