America’s First Highway | The National Road, National Geographic

America’s first highway, the historic National Road, is a tribute to small town life and a tapestry of different eras.

Settlers heading west in wagon trains in the early 1800s were often stuck on muddy, rutted mountain roads or inching along barely negotiable trails even across the flatlands. Thomas Jefferson put surveyors to work in 1806 to chart the course of a national road.

Construction began in Cumberland, MD in 1811 and work had progressed to Wheeling, West Virginia by 1818. Through six states, this project encouraged settlement and exploration. Towns sprouted up along the road, which became “Main Street” and a center of small town activity.

The steam engine led to the death of the road. Train travel became so popular for …

America’s First Highway | The National Road, National Geographic

America’s first highway, the historic National Road, is a tribute to small town life and a tapestry of different eras.

Settlers heading west in wagon trains in the early 1800s were often stuck on muddy, rutted mountain roads or inching along barely negotiable trails even across the flatlands. Thomas Jefferson put surveyors to work in 1806 to chart the course of a national road.

Construction began in Cumberland, MD in 1811 and work had progressed to Wheeling, West Virginia by 1818. Through six states, this project encouraged settlement and exploration. Towns sprouted up along the road, which became “Main Street” and a center of small town activity.

The steam engine led to the death of the road. Train travel became so popular for long distances that more roads were not needed. Work stopped in 1852, in Vandalia Illinois, and the brick road fell into disrepair. Sections are still visible, but farmers sometimes dug up the bricks and planted crops where the roadbed cut through their fields.

The invention of the bicycle in the 1880s revived an interest in the National Road. The American Wheelmen lobbied to have better paths for their big-wheeled bicycles.

Then came the automobile, and the resulting car culture with motels and diners. In no time, Americans wanted to drive everywhere and faster. When the interstate highway system took shape in the ’50s, ninety percent of the traffic left the old road.

Traveling along the road today you may find fruit and vegetable stands, a reminder of a time when wagons loaded with much needed commodities crowded the road in the 1800s. Stagecoach inns now serve as wedding chapels and the old buildings seem to draw those who don’t want to forget local history.

Many generations have been shaped by the westward migration. The ancestors of one Centerville, Indiana farm family were headed west long ago in a covered wagon when a wheel broke and it took three weeks to for materials to arrive to make the repairs. In the mean time they looked around Centerville and decided it wasn’t such a bad place to stop. Four generations later, the family is farming the same land.

Stone bridges spanning 80 feet still stand as architectural marvels of the time. Today, wagons rattle along during reenactments of the period, but these “settlers” stop for hot coffee at McDonalds.

The road and the communities along it are still in flux. Some towns continue to decline. Others, also isolated by their distance from interstate highways and suburban sprawl, now reap the benefits of having the opportunity to preserve and revive old churches and other historic buildings.

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