Friday, August 12, 2016

Twists and turns in history of the old National Road

The Old Stone House in Farmington, Pa. started serving travelers on the National Road circa 1822.
Even as a boy I knew old U.S. Route 66 was special. It ran through the little Missouri town I grew up in and it led, I knew, either to Chicago to the northeast or the golden dream of Los Angeles to the west.

Since then I've learned of other magical highways in the U.S. The Mighty Lincoln Highway. The Old Dixie Highway. And, this summer, the old National Road.

While Route 66 and the Lincoln and Dixie highways all date to the 20th Century, the path of the old National Road is much older. Its long history had many twists and turns.

"Braddock Road" was its original name. British General Edward Braddock and his aide George Washington and thousands of British regulars and colonial militiamen cut it through virgin forests in 1755.

They were on their way to throw the French out of their fort at the place we now call Pittsburgh.

You can still walk original sections of the 1755 Braddock Road.
The soldiers made a road 12 feet wide, ideal for cannons and supply wagons, but making it slowed the army's progress to as little as two miles a day. Braddock decided to take a picked force of 1,300 men ahead to attack the French. But when this column ran into a much smaller force of French and their native American allies, it panicked.

Braddock was among the many killed. Washington had the general buried beneath the road, then had the grave trampled so the enemy couldn't find it.

Remains assumed to be Braddock's were found in 1804 and eventually moved to a more elaborate monument nearby, but the original grave site is still marked. The general's claim to the name of the road he lay beneath is certainly justified.

Original site of General Braddock's grave beneath his road.
Stretches of the original Braddock Road, including the section over his original grave, remain as little more than hiking trails through the woods. But, starting in 1811, the United States would build what it called Cumberland Road to replace, improve and extend Braddock Road.

It proved popular, so popular that wagons and livestock churned up the gravel road. Unwilling to foot the price of improvements, the federal government turned the National Road over to the states through which it passed. They paid for a much better roadway, by erecting tollbooths and charging for its use.

An historic tollbooth? Now I've seen everything.
Hard to imagine anyone considering a tollbooth an historical landmark, but sure enough, at least four of them are preserved.

Funny thing is, the National Road quickly fell out of heavy use. Railroads were coming and could move people and goods faster, cheaper and far more comfortably than a Conestoga wagon — especially up the mountains along this route.

They really nickel and dimed you back in 1835.
It was the automobile that brought the road back to life. U.S. Route 40, designated in 1926, today carries the name "National Road" in many places.

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