Road through the Wilderness: The Making of the National Road
Author: Timothy Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian
Previously published in The Magazine of the Midwest Open-Air Museum Coordinating Council
Copyright 1994,Timothy Crumrin
The first cries for a "national road" were heard before there was even a nation. These calls for a road to the west came as early as the 1740s and say much about the time and place. For instance, the "west" was viewed roughly as those lands which lay between the Alleghenies and Ohio River. And to many, the road was not an end unto itself. Due to the perceived superiority of water travel, the proposed road was seen primarily as a portage between waterways.
Several groups lobbied for a road or roads to facilitate settlement and the transfer of goods. The few western settlers themselves wished for an avenue to make it easier to market their goods and buy essential supplies in return.
Land speculators realized the importance of an infrastructure in the west. Members of the first Ohio Company, a group that included a young George Washington, clamored for a road, knowing it would greatly enhance their western land's value. The company went so far as to hire Christopher Gist and Thomas Cresap to explore their lands and seek the best route for a road. In 1752 Cresap employed a Delaware Chief named Nemacolin to mark a path for a roadway-- which eventually followed an old Indian trail.
The military, too, saw the advantages of a western road. British General Edward Braddock, accompanied by George Washington, constructed a military road from Cumberland, Maryland to Ft. Duquesne which paralleled Nemacolin's.
However, these were "roads" in name only. In actuality they were little more than crude trails carved out of the wilderness, filled with stumps, sinkholes, and deep entrapping ruts. Despite the perceived need for a sturdy road to the west, little was done.
Surveying the Path
With the troubled birth of the United States came renewed calls for a road to the west. The cited reasons were much the same as before. Such a road would facilitate settlement and that seemed particularly important now that Revolutionary War veterans had been given tracts in the west. Also growing was the idea that the nation had to expand in order to survive and flourish.
Economic considerations weighed heavily in favor of a national road, which would be a two-way street allowing farmers and traders in the west to send their production east in exchange for manufactures goods and other essential of life. Government officials feared that if such a trade network was not established westerners would turn increasingly to the Spanish and their great "national road," the Mississippi River, or to the British in Canada as trading partners.
George Washington continued his support for a road. His extensive western travels, experiences as a military commander, and land speculating convinced him that a "smooth way" was needed to "open a wide door" to the west. In 1784 Washington traveled to the west, in part to contemplate the best routes for portages and roads
Along the way he invariably asked settlers their views of the optimal routes. While staying at a land agent's cabin near present-day Morgantown, West Virginia he met a young surveyor who was later to play a vital role in making the national road a reality, Albert Gallatin. Gallatin advised Washington on possible routes. Eighteen years later, while Jefferson's Treasury Secretary, he would help formulate the plan to fund the project.
So, by the end of the eighteenth century there was a growing consensus that a national road was needed. The two biggest obstacles were how it was to be funded and where it should be constructed.
Paving the Way
As always the most vexing problem was funding. The debate about paying for a national road came hot upon the heels of other money arguments and in the middle of the controversies surrounding the proper role of the federal government. Who should pay? Some thought costs should be borne by the states or territories it would help most. The federal government, they said, should have no role in internal improvements. It was unconstitutional to do so.
Working behind the scenes Gallatin and others came up with a workable solution. In a February 2, 1802 letter, known as the "Origin of the National Road," Gallatin proposed that states exempt federal land sales from taxation and earmark a percentage of the proceeds for roadbuilding "first from the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to the Ohio, and afterwards continued through the new states"
Gallatin's idea caught fire and the enabling act making Ohio a state contained provisions allotting federal land sale proceeds to finance the road. Such provisions later made their way into the laws of Indiana and Illinois to finance their part of the road. Like the Ohio law they stipulated 3/5 of the funds for construction within the state and 2/5 for the road to and from its borders.
The usual committee was formed. It reported to the senate that a road was feasible and would ".... make the crooked ways straight, and the rough ways smooth, .... will, in effect, remove the intervening mountains; and, by facilitating the intercourse of our western brethren with those on the Atlantic, substantially unite them in interest.... ." The road, they said, would be the "cement of the union."
With proceeds from land sales mounting, it was obvious that the new nation had found a will to do the job and now it had the means. What was missing was the way.
Pointing the Way
Still to be decided was the actual route. Needless to say politicians and merchants in cities from Richmond to Philadelphia held out hope that their city would be a terminus. The senate committee had other ideas. On December 19, 1805 it reported on several possible routes, but recommended one from Cumberland Maryland to the Ohio River. Whatever route was ultimately chosen, committee members hoped the road would be built in as straight a line as possible and with as little deviation as necessary. Congress passed a bill to that effect eight days later.
The choice of Cumberland as the starting point was a logical one. It was connected to Baltimore by an existing road and a proposal to make the Potomac navigable to Cumberland was under study (Gallatin had landholdings in the Potomac area). The city had also been the jumping off point for the Nemacolin, Braddock, and Ohio Company efforts.
The ensuing years saw the passage of various laws that set the great project in motion. In 1806 Jefferson signed legislation officially establishing a national highway to run from Cumberland to the Mississippi, with the stipulation that it run through the capitals of each state along the route.
Commissioners were appointed, surveyors contracted, bids let but it was not until 1811 that the real work actually began.
Building the Road
There were sound principles underlaying the building of the National Road. The guiding tenets were the shortest distance between two points and water crossings made where the waterway was most navigable, not where most convenient. Later there were deviations from the avowed course due to political considerations, but they were slight. Specification for the road were also well-conceived. They called for slopes no steeper than 5% of the horizon, a 66 foot, cleared right of way, and a roadway twenty feet wide and covered with "stone, earth, or gravel, or a combination of some or all of them." How closely these specifications were met depended upon the locality and officials involved.
Technically, the commissioners had to obtain permission to place the road across occupied land, though they were to make no use of the right of eminent domain. Additionally, no compensation was offered to landowners, because, it was felt, the road brought "nothing but benefits and blessings" in its wake. Few property owners balked; most were farmers who happily donated their 66 foot strip of land knowing it would benefit them in the long run.
Once the legalities were out of the way, the very hard work began. First in were the laborers with mattocks, axes, hoes, rakes, and shovels who set out clearing the land. Trees were cut, stumps removed, and brush cleared by a combination of man and animal power. Hills were leveled, hollows filled; rock was hauled in or carted away. All just to get the area ready to build the road surface.
The original specifications were issued before the advent of macadamization, but once it was introduced it became clear it was the best surface. The brainchild of Scottish engineer John Macadam, the method called for the building of the road with layers of stone. The lowest layer was 12-18 inches deep and consisted of base stones approximately 7 inches (they had to pass through a ring of that size) in diameter.
The road was then graded up with smaller stones (which had to pass through a 3 inch ring) and gravel. The smaller surface stone was mixed with soil and rounded off to allow for drainage. Drainage ditches were dug along side.
Macadamization was the near ideal surface for the time, but due to the expense and rather sophisticated techniques involved it was not adopted everywhere. The traveler might encounter several surfaces during a journey. Along any one stretch the sojourner might travel over, macadam, corduroy or plank, or rutted, washed out roads.
J. Gould, who traveled the entire length of the road in 1839, noted the National Road was for the most part "Macadamized and finished in the most desirable manner as far as Columbus in Ohio" In Indiana, he continued, ".... about four miles at Richmond...., a short piece at Centerville, about six miles at Indianapolis, and three miles at Terre haute, together with a few bridges, are completed in the same substantial manner." However in some areas of the Hoosier state the "road bed had been formed with earth.... and in wet weather holes wash out and logs must be thrown in, often by travelers themselves."
The major engineering marvels associated with the National Road may have been the bridges which carried it across rivers and streams. The bridges came in a wide variety of styles and types and were made of stone, wood, iron, and later, steel. They were the wonder of their day and bridgebuilding did much to advance engineering knowledge in America before the Civil War.
One bridge style often associated with the road was the S-type. Contrary to the popular, misguided opinion of the day, the bridges were not the product of the fevered, whiskey-inspired imagination of an engineer, but were built that way because it was easier to construct them in that configuration than as a straight span at that time.
As the bridges indicate, an amazing variety of skills were needed to build the road. Surveyors laid out the path; engineers oversaw construction. Carpenters framed bridges; masons cut and worked stones for bridges and milestones.
The most numerous group involved were the laborers who did the heavy, onerous, monotonous tasks. They were the people who pulled and tugged and cut and hauled through all types of weather. This group sometimes included local farmers who earned extra income during slack times. Breaking rock for the macadam method was one of the most tiresome jobs. It was also an endeavor that involved chicanery as foreman sometimes discovered they were paying several times over for the same load of rocks. When such behavior was suspected officials daubed each load with paint or whitewash so as not to buy them twice.
Though many people hired out for the road for only a short period, others followed it across the nation, making it their full-time occupation. Among theses were the fabled Irish immigrants who were beginning to arrive in large numbers as construction began.--many of whom were later to work on the canals. One onlooker marveled at the great brigade of Irish workers digging, hauling, and breaking rocks, intent on "Building a roadway good enough for an emperor to travel over.... ." Some worked the road to pay off their passage and were, in effect, indentured servants. To them roadbuilding was known as "working to pay off the dead horse."
The pay scale was as varied as the workers themselves. In some areas good wages of .50 $1.00 a day were paid, but for some it was as low as 12 1/2 cents for a day's toil. Some of the Irish workers were lucky to get $6.00 a month.
Initial cost estimates for the National Road were $6,000. per mile, but like many another government project this proved optimistic. Portions of the road through the hilly sections of Pennsylvania cost $9,000. to $13,000. per mile. Expenditures were sometimes lower as the road stretched across the flat lands of western Indiana and eastern Illinois.
The National Road, of course, was built in sections over more than four decades. As noted, the first axe and shovel split the air in 1811 at Cumberland. Seven years later engineers reported the completion of the first major section, the 113 mile stretch from Cumberland to Wheeling. A long held dream moved slowly to realization.
In may of 1820 Congress appropriated funds to lay out the road from Wheeling to the Mississippi. Construction in Ohio did not commence until 1825. Indiana's route was surveyed in 1827, with construction beginning in 1829. By 1834 the road extended across the entire state, albeit in various stages of completeness. The road began to inch across Illinois in the early 1830s, but shortages of funds and national will, and local squabbles about its destination, caused it to end in Vandalia rather of upon the shore of the Mississippi.
Travelling the Road
One of the easiest questions to answer about the National Road was who used it. The simple reply is: damned near everybody. People from all walks, from all trades, of all religions, from every social stratum stepped or rode along its route. Eager travelers often literally waited in line for sections to open. Hordes of people, animals, and wagons toed the line waiting for the word that travel was allowed and immediately upon getting the signal they filled the road.
One of the most important "official" uses of the road was mail delivery and its opening greatly speeded the process. By 1837 the mail could flash from Washington, D.C. to Indianapolis in 65 hours and on to St. Louis in an additional 29 hours. The arrival of the mail coach usually caused quite a stir. The driver would sound forth with a blast from his bugle as he approached the inn or stopping place to prepare the postmaster for the quick exchange of mail. For a two-year period in the mid-1830s an early version of the pony express rode swiftly along the road.
Numerous stage lines sprang up to serve the public. Every area had lines that constantly used the National Road to ferry travelers. In Indiana the Bears line was one of the most famous. One of the great advantages of the road, of course, was that it considerably shortened travel times. In 1832, even before the road was completed, it advertised its trips from Dayton to Indianapolis as taking only two and a half, with nightly stops at inns or taverns. Later, "express" stage services claimed the ability to cross 150 miles of the road in a day.
Another heavy presence on the road were the ubiquitous teamsters who, like modern-day truckers, hauled their freight day and night. They often drove conestoga wagons, perhaps the vehicles most associated with the National Road. The six-horse team so closely identified with these haulers was actually a National Road innovation that allowed the teamsters to more efficiently exploit the highly profitable business of transporting goods. The wagons often competed for space with herds of cattle and pigs being driven to market.
Perhaps the group most associated with the road were the settlers using it as an avenue to a new life. Families, often complete with household good, numerous children, and a few farm animals clogged the road. The highway became the yellow brick road to a new eden.
The above description of the road as clogged is an apt one. Observers marveled at the traffic. One Hoosier took note of the phenomena as it appeared in the 1840s: "From morning til night, there was a constant rumble of wheels.... when the rush was greatest,there was never a minute that wagons were not in site [sic], and as a rule, one company of wagons was closely followed by another." During many periods traffic was so constant a traveler noted that the wagons were so closely strung together they resembled a train upon its tracks.
It was a sight which inspired wanderlust. The same Hoosier wrote that "with the tinkling of the bells, the rumbling of the wheels, the noise of the animals and the chatter of the people.... the little boy who had gone to the road from his lonesome home in the woods was captivated and carried away into the great active world."
A wondrous assortment of vehicles passed along the road. Stage coaches, small farm wagons, and buggy-like wagons for personal use jostled for their share of roadway. But the kings of the road were the conestogas. From the larger ones used for freight hauling to the smaller models that carried a nation westward, they were everywhere.
Many myths have grown tall around the conestoga. One of the biggest is that they were built in their now-familiar shape so they might float across rivers and streams. They certainly resembled a boat, but float they could not. The design actually allowed for easier front and back loading, while maintaining a short wheel base allowing for a smaller turning radius. It also afforded greater protection from the ever present elements. Seldom were their riders on a conestoga. The driver normally walked alongside or rode the lead horse-- although some featured a "lazy board" for those unwilling to walk. Another feature often noted were the conestoga bells. A great variety of styles adorned the horses and it was said you could differentiate the drivers by the tinkling of their bells. Small debts of gratitude--or thirst-quenching-- were often settled by the teamster by the bestowing of a bell or set of bells. It was said that the married teamster who returned home without his full complement of bells would face rough treatment from his wife.
The residents of Indianapolis were accustomed to the wide variety of vehicles passing by, but in 1854 a rare sight supposedly caught them by surprise. A "take-your-own-house-and-walk immigrant" rolled along the highway in a cabin fitted with wagon wheels. This strange contraption was drawn by four horses and came complete with a fireplace at one end. A local wit commented that he "saw no barns and outhouses, but they might well be along soon."
Many business sprang up to serve all of this traffic. Blacksmith shops to make repairs, stores to victual them, and livery stables to provide for horses, lined the road. But perhaps the most numerous and renowned of theses service industries were the inns and hotels.
They were the oases, truckstops, and travel plazas of the period, offering a myriad of services. The weary traveler could get a room, food, drink, a place for his animals, and any number of other blandishments to make life a little easier. In some, it was said, those of a baser sort could entertain themselves with too much liquor, a few hands of cards, and perhaps some fleeting companionship for an evening.
Inns were everywhere. One estimate says they averaged one each mile in Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio. There was perhaps one every five miles in Indiana. Not all of the establishments could be described as elegant. Some were fly-by-night operations that were little more than farmhouses near the road which took in guests. Still more would have been more than willing to sell a bit of the ardent spirits without having to deal with providing food and shelter. To prevent such activities Indiana passed a law in 1832 which stipulated taverns and inns must have at least one spare room with two beds and stabling for four horses to acquire a liquor license.
End of the Road
The National Road stopped at Vandalia, Illinois in 1852. The dream of many to extend it to the Mississippi River and beyond was never fulfilled. Among other factors, the road fell victim to the squabbling over internal improvements, sectionalism, and constitutional interpretation. The last regular federal appropriation for the road was in 1838. States provided funding through tolls and appropriations in order to press on. The federal government began to cede control of varying aspects of the road to the states through which it passed as early as 1831.
Despite this turning away there is no doubt about the significance of the road. It fulfilled many of the promises of its advocates. It timulated settlement in the west. Indiana's population, for example, more than quadrupled between 1820 and 1840 and many came to the state upon the National Road-- especially during the swelling days of the Jacksonian migration. Similar figures may be noted for other states in the "west." Associated with this phenomena was townbuilding stimulated by the road. Again, Indiana may serve as an example. When the survey began in Indiana in 1827, Indianapolis was virtually the only town between Centerville and Terre Haute, a distance of nearly 125 miles. Within eight years more at least nine new towns and villages sprang up which still exist. The sword was double-edged though. The little Hoosier hamlet of Vandalia died because it was too far removed from the route. Some of its buildings were moved to form the nucleus of one of the towns which grew along the road, Cambridge City. Brazil, Indiana, grew from a stage line relay station to become the seat of Clay County because the previous county seat, Bowling Green, was situated far south of the road.
The National Road was indeed a two-way street that aided the economy by facilitating the transfer of goods and was to play a role in "nationalizing" trade. Manufactures from the east more readily made their way west, often passing the product of the west heading in the other direction. The road helped the nation expand while drawing it closer together.
The National Road (it was also called the Cumberland Road, National Pike and other names, but National Road was most popular by 1825) also contributed to the national consciousness. It was celebrated in song, story, painting, and poetry; political tickets adopted the name for themselves. Many towns along the route today call their main street National Avenue, Street, or Road.
The federal government drew farther away from the road as time passed. In 1879 it ceded the last of its control when it granted Ohio and Maryland the right to make the road free; in return the United States was absolved in any further responsibility or liability for the road. The National Road was national no more.
Previously published in The Magazine of the Midwest Open-Air Museum Coordinating Council
Copyright 1994--Timothy Crumrin