Monday, November 19, 2018

The National Road, including the Illinois portion.

The National Road (aka The Cumberland Road) was the first major improved highway in the United States to be built by the federal government. The approximately 620-mile long the National Road provided a connection between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and was the gateway to the West for thousands of settlers.

Construction began heading west in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River. It crossed the Allegheny Mountains and southwestern Pennsylvania, reaching Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), on the Ohio River in 1818. Plans were made to continue through St. Louis, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and then to Jefferson City upstream on the Missouri River.

The original route of the National Road would have taken it near Columbus, Indiana, however, Indiana Congressman Oliver H. Smith successfully lobbied to change its path through Indianapolis. The road first moved into Indiana through Wayne County in 1827 and in 1831 there was an appropriation of $75,000 for work that included the bridge over the White River in Indianapolis making this quite possibly the location for the first ancestor of Indiana's beloved covered bridges. In early Indiana history, while the road was winding its way across the state and country, much of Indiana had not been divided into counties.
Beyond the National Road's eastern terminus at Cumberland and toward the Atlantic coast, a series of private turnpikes (toll roads) was completed in 1824, connecting the National Road (Pike) with Baltimore, Maryland and its port on the Chesapeake Bay; these feeder routes formed what is referred to as an eastern extension of the National Road.

The National Road became "Main Street" for many small Illinois towns built along its unpaved path during the early 1800s. The route from the Indiana line to Vandalia, approximately 89 miles long was surveyed in 1827. In 1830 Congress appropriated $40,000 for opening and grading the Illinois section. Additional money was granted each year thereafter but was limited to clearing, grading, and bridging. Construction problems and corrupt practices resulted in the project's being placed under the Army Corps of Engineers in 1834.
Following the panic of 1837[1], however, funding ran dry and construction was stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, after crossing the states of Ohio and Indiana. The road was opened to Vandalia in 1839; however, the Illinois section remained an unfinished dirt surface with only 31 miles of grading and macadam[2] paving was completed. The road had been surveyed to Jefferson City, Missouri but in 1840 Congress terminated construction at Vandalia. On May 9, 1856, Congress transferred the 'Rights and Privileges’' connected with the road in Illinois to the state.
National Road construction through Marshall Illinois.
The older, unpaved, wagon road stops at Vandalia. Located along that segment, Marshall, Casey, Greenup, Teutopolis, Effingham, Vandalia, and Livingston are just a few examples of towns that were built on the National Road. The oldest settlement along this stretch of the National Road was the town of Vandalia, which was platted in 1819. The newest settlement was Casey which was founded in 1854.
While the National Road was popular, these cities flourished. Small-town shops thrived because of travelers and business people on the National Road. They stopped, stayed the night, and went on the road again. A new surge of people arrived each day, and this was the cycle that followed for some time. Plans to turn them into great business towns and economically sound communities were created. These plans, however, never came to fruition.
For a number of obvious reasons, the unpaved National Road in Illinois was only traveled during the summer and did not bring the predicted prosperity to many of the towns and communities. Once the National Road was paved, which made the road a lot smoother and faster, carriages and stagecoaches were able to travel on it even in the winter, which would take 5 to 7 hours to cover 10-miles.
History Museum in Vandalia, Illinois.
By the 1840s and 1850s, the railroads were the National Road's main competitors. This competition eventually took its toll on the bustling National Road and many business travelers stopped using it because of the road's high cost of shipping goods and long travel times. Instead of using the road, farmers and businessmen used railroads and water passageways for transportation and shipping. In the early twentieth century, the National Road made a comeback because of the growing popularity and affordability of the automobile. The use of the National Road brought business back again to small towns, but this did not last, and the use of the National Road declined once again.

People often used the National Road for vacations and for a brief time families would camp alongside the road just for fun or if they could not afford to lodge. The new road did benefit St. Louis, Missouri, which became known as the Gateway to the West.

Although it was still being used, the National Road was not as prominent as it might have been because around 1960 a wider interstate highway system was being built to provide a more direct route. Activity began to slow down and the individual cities dropped into a small-town lifestyle.

The National Road influenced the culture of many small towns and encouraged the building of towns along with it. It helped revolutionize the interstate highway system and established a more sophisticated way of constructing major roads and highways. Even though small towns along the National Road were not transformed into bustling urban cities, they are home to many people. The National Road will always have an important place and a significant role in the history of Illinois transportation.

The National Road was also known the National Old Trails Road. Today, much of the alignment is followed by U.S. 40 (I-64). The full road, including extensions east to Baltimore and west to St. Louis, was designated "The Historic National Road, an All-American Road" in 2002.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis or market correction in the United States built on a speculative fever. The end of the Second Bank of the United States had produced a period of runaway inflation, but on May 10, 1837, in New York City, every bank began to accept payment only in specie (gold and silver coinage), forcing a dramatic, deflationary backlash. This was based on the assumption by the former president, Andrew Jackson, that the government was selling land for state banknotes of questionable value. The Panic was followed by a seven-year depression, with the failure of banks and then-record-high unemployment levels.

[2] Macadam (John Loudon McAdam) is a type of road construction pioneered by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam in around 1820. The method simplified what had been considered state of the art at that point. Single-sized aggregate layers of small stones, with a coating of the binder as a cementing agent, are mixed in an open-structured roadway. With the advent of motor vehicles, dust became a serious problem on macadam roads. The area of low air pressure created under fast-moving vehicles sucks dust from the road surface, creating dust clouds and a gradual unraveling of the road material. This problem was approached by spraying tar on the surface to create tar-bound macadam. A more durable road surface, modern mixed asphalt pavement, sometimes referred to in the US as blacktop, was introduced in the 1920s.

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