Essay: National Road

It is impossible to talk about the I-70 without looking into its history, and for more than 150 years that history has been the “National Road.”

Before the National Road

In the 17th and 18th century, the Appalachian Mountains formed a major obstacle for East-West traffic. During colonial times, the colonies did not really extend beyond the mountains. Access to the land behind the Appalachians was chiefly around the North (from Lake Eerie down) or around the South (up the Mississippi).

The first real road across the middle of the Appalachians was built in 1755 as a military road. The British general Edward Braddock led an expedition in the French and Indian Wars to attack the French fort at what is now the site of Pittsburgh, with the goal to continue fighting the French on the central plains. The road he built to move his troops got to be known as the Braddock Road [Wikipedia].

General Braddock was fatally wounded when his expedition ran into an Indian and French force. His troops buried him in the middle of the road and then marched over his grave, to hide the fact that someone was buried here and thus preventing Indians from disturbing the grave.

First Highway

In 1806, President Jefferson authorized the construction of the Cumberland Road, which was to connect the Eastern states with the Ohio river. The road started at Cumberland and went East, mostly following Braddock’s road, and then on to Wheeling, VA (nowadays Wheeling, WV). This road connected with the navigable rivers of the Potomac on the East side and the Ohio on the West side.

During the first half of the 19th century, this National Road [Wikipedia] was extended Eastward to Baltimore, and Westward to St. Louis, MO and later to Vandalia, IL. Maintenance of the road passed to the hands of the various states and often different parts of the road were in disrepair. Yet, during this period the National Road was one of the major arteries for the Westward emigration into Ohio and beyond.

Decay and Decline

With the rise of the railroads in the middle of the 19th century, the National Road lost a lot of its importance. Although the road had started out as a Federal initiative, responsibility for the maintenance was quickly passed to the individual states. With interstate traffic going mostly by train, the National Road devolved into a patchwork of locally maintained farm roads and stretches of deeply rutted dirt roads.

Resurgence as US-40

Early in the 20th century, with the advent of the automobile, the National Road made a come-back. When in the mid-1920s the Joint Board on Interstate Highways was formed, and a system of U.S. Highways was established, the National Road became US-40 [Wikipedia]. Over the past century the exact has shifted in some places from the original National Road, and it has been extended on both ends, but to this day US-40 is still known as the National Pike.

Interstate I-70

Interstate 70 mostly parallels the path of US-40 and its predecessors, in some places joining with US-40. One notable exception is that I-70 turns north into Pennsylvania from Cumberland, MD where the National Road (and US-40) continue on a more direct westward course (about what is now I-68, the National Freeway).

Eric, April 21, 2012

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