National Road: Definition & History

Instructor: Freda Bradley

Freda holds a Master's Degree in History and teaches a variety of college history courses.

The National Road was the first major interstate highway in America. This lesson gives the history and description of the road from the early 1800s to today.

The National Road

Driving east to west today is relatively painless thanks to the modern American highway system. Today's superhighway networks tie towns and cities together for travelers and provide a method for large trucks to transport and deliver a wide variety of freight at all hours of the day and night. Restaurants, hotels, rest areas and truck stops are a common sight along these routes.

While America's superhighway system is modern, the idea of it is not. The idea of a major highway actually has its roots back in the early days of the Republic when the 'west' was only as far inland from the Atlantic coastline to the Ohio River. The first major interstate highway to connect the Ohio River and the eastern seaboard came in the form of the National Road, which was constructed in the early 19th century. Ultimately expanded from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois, this road was the first American interstate highway.

National Road Map Image

Early History

Following the line of an existing roadway that had been marked for the Ohio Company by a Delaware Indian named Nemacolin, the military created an east-west road, today known as Braddock's Road. This road was created sometime around the 1750s under the early leadership of Lieutenant George Washington to gain passage to its western outposts especially during the French and Indian War.

Braddock's Road was crude and difficult to traverse. Although its location was considered for the National Road, the grade was too steep making the Braddock's Road location unsuitable in many areas. Additionally, the Constitution had not provided for financing interstate transportation, so although most agreed that an interstate roadway was needed, they also agreed that it was not constitutional for the federal government to fund one.

Funding the National Road

Many of our early leaders were supporters of the National Road as a transportation line into our rapidly expanding western landholdings. Among these supporters were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Gallatin. Albert Gallatin, as Secretary of the Treasury, presented a plan for funding this massive expansion. Those ideas were later modified and included within the Enabling Act for the State of Ohio, 1802.

Besides creating the boundaries for the newly formed state of Ohio, the Enabling Act stated that one-twentieth of the proceeds of all land sales in this new state would be earmarked for the construction of a road from waterways flowing into the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River.

Until this roadway was completed, it was far easier to float goods on the rivers north to British Canada or south to the foreign settlements residing along the Gulf Coast. This roadway became an important development to ensure the viability of domestic trade with the Northwest Territories, which was essential to the economic stability of the new nation.

Construction of the National Road

In 1806, Congress authorized the funding for and the construction of the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) where it would connect to the Ohio River. However, it would take another five years for the first building contracts to be awarded and construction to begin.

The specifics for the National Road were clearly spelled out in a legal document from March 29, 1806. For example, the road was to be a consistent 4 rods in width (4 rods equals 66 feet), raised in the middle and built of stone, earth, gravel or sand (or a combination of these) with drainage ditches on either side. The elevation was also very specifically stated as not exceeding 5 degrees from the horizon. It was also declared that this road was to be laid in a straight line or as closely as possible from end to end and clearly marked every quarter mile for ease and accuracy of travel. This ensured that no matter what state this road passed through, the building requirements would be consistent, but it also took the needs of the future users into consideration as well.

This road quickly became the main thoroughfare for east-west travel in the early Republic. In addition to new settlers, consistent and reliable mail delivery, stagecoaches, and huge Conestoga wagons filled with goods made the trip across the road in regularly scheduled trips. Additionally, patterns of settlement sprang up quickly along this road as small towns, taverns, blacksmiths, stores, and schools began to dot the landscape.

Damage and Innovation Along the Road

It was good news to the federal government that the National Road was ensuring domestic economic stability as well as ensuring the population growth of formerly sparse western settlements. However, all this traffic was hard on the new road. The current road surface building materials were not stable enough considering the amount of traffic the new road was receiving.

In the early 1820s, a Scottish immigrant and engineer named John Louden McAdam had invented and used a new road building technique he called macadamisation (also known simply as macadam). McAdam's method was the most significant engineering advancement in road building since the advances made by the Romans, and the builders of the National Road used it liberally from Wheeling through Ohio and beyond as new areas were opened up with westward expansion.

Macadamisation created roads that were layers no less than fifteen inches thick that consisted of crushed stone bound by gravel on top of a firm road base of larger stones. Additionally, the top of a macadam roadway was convex in nature ensuring water drained off quickly into the ditches on either side of the road surface. This created such a more stable road surface and ensured the survival of the National Road, which was completed in 1839.

Due to continuing maintenance issues, particularly in the first section from Cumberland to Wheeling, the federal government relinquished control of the National Road back to the states in which it crossed beginning in the early 1830s. Maintenance fees were collected from travelers through the payment of tolls, and tollbooths became a common sight along the route. Even though the tolls collected were to be used for maintenance, it was inconsistent, and parts of the road became difficult to pass particularly in the wetter months. Despite the additional toll charge to the travelers and the decline of the roads surface, the National Road continued to be quite crowded with everything from sheep drovers to the enormous Conestoga wagons.

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