Would you like some context to Mr. Flint’s descriptions of traveling westward in 1818?

For a look at the larger picture, here’s an article I wrote on the National Road, which was published in the March 2011 issue of The Carriage Journal.


It’s easy these days to take our modern transportation networks for granted. We can use back roads, county roads, state highways, and interstate highways to drive anywhere we need to go. Goods come and go, all over the country, by airplane, train, and truck. But when the United States was a very young nation, and the areas we know now as Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee were the western frontier, simply getting around could be a monumental task. Outside the major eastern cities, roads ranged from rough, narrow, rutted, and uneven to nonexistent. The most reliable way for people to get themselves from place to place was often on foot or on horseback. For merchants and traders, the best method was usually a navigable waterway — if one was nearby.

Almost from the beginning, U.S. government officials looked for ways to improve and extend existing roads — an effort that was vital to both commerce and communication within the young nation. Of course — as always — there was also a question of how to pay for these improvements, and for any new roads.

In 1803, Ohio was admitted to the Union as the seventeenth state. As part of the discussions surrounding Ohio’s impending statehood, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin suggested that a percentage of proceeds from the sale of federally owned land in Ohio be set aside for building public roads to connect navigable Atlantic-coast rivers to the Ohio River. Congress approved the plan as a condition of Ohio’s admittance to the Union.

In December 1805, Mr. Tracy of Massachusetts presented a report to the Senate, showing that, in accordance with the Ohio land-sale law, $12,652 was now available for laying out a new “national” road. His report also suggested several possible routes and locations.

By 1806, everyone had agreed on the basic route for the new road. It would begin at Cumberland, Maryland, and end in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), at the Ohio River. Once across the river, travelers and merchants could continue on Zane’s Trace, in a southwesterly arc, and back across the Ohio River by ferry to Maysville, Kentucky. From there, a series of roads and turnpikes stretched all the way to New Orleans.

Congress approved of the new road in theory, and President Jefferson signed the bill into law in March 1806. The president was authorized to appoint three men to examine the actual route on the ground. These three — Eli Williams, Thomas More, and Joseph Kerr — presented their reports to the president. He, in turn, approved their final report and presented it to Congress in February 1808.

Permission was granted by the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia for the road to pass through their territory; Congress appropriated funds to build the road; and, in 1811, a contract was awarded to begin building the first ten miles heading out of Cumberland, Maryland. Unfortunately, the War of 1812 delayed matters for several years, but construction did eventually begin on the “Cumberland Road” in 1815. The new road was wider, flatter, and less susceptible to the weather than any other previous major road. The builders of this first section of the National Road used an early version of the construction method that would be refined and popularized by John McAdam around 1820.

In 1817, the British writer William Cobbett lived in America for a year and kept a detailed, daily journal. On July 28th he was in Wheeling “to see the new national road from Washington city to this town.” He wrote: “It is covered with a very thick layer of nicely broken stones, or stone, rather, laid on with great exactness both as to depth and width, and then rolled down with an iron roller, which reduces all to one solid mass. This is a road made for ever; not like the flint roads in England, rough, nor soft or dirty, like the gravel roads; but, smooth and hard. When a road is made in America it is well made.”

The first section of the road, from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, Virginia, was opened to traffic in 1818.

In 1822, a bill went before Congress to fund more roads and maintain existing roads through tolls payable to the federal government. Although the bill was approved by Congress, President Monroe vetoed it. By the early 1830s, the federal government had reached agreements with Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, and was in the process of turning the Cumberland Road over to these states. Each state then took responsibility for its own section of the road, collecting tolls and making repairs as needed.

Construction on the National Road continued. In 1833, the road traveled through Zanesville, Ohio, and had reached Columbus. And still it continued westward. The plan? To take the road all the way to St. Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. But it only reached Vandalia, Illinois, before the railroads began their westward trek and made the road less of a priority.

This new modern road allowed trade, communication, and settlers to travel with relative ease from the eastern seaboard to the frontier states of Ohio and Kentucky, and beyond. As evidence of this tidal wave of goods and people, the 1840 census acknowledged Ohio as the nation’s third most populous state.

According to the Maryland Geological Survey (published in 1899): from the opening of the road in 1818 “until the coming of the railroad west of the Allegheny Mountains in 1852, the National Road was the one great highway over which passed the bulk of trade and travel and the mails between the East and West.”  The book’s authors then quoted an article first published in 1879, which said that the National Road “was excellently macadamized; the rivers and creeks were spanned by stone bridges; the distances were indexed by iron mileposts, and the toll-houses supplied with strong iron gates.… There were sometimes twenty gaily painted four-horse coaches each way daily. The cattle and sheep were never out of sight. The canvas-covered wagons were drawn by six or twelve horses. Within a mile of the road the country was a wilderness, but on the highway the traffic was as dense as in the main street of a large town. Ten miles an hour is said to have been the usual speed for coaches; but between Hagerstown and Frederick they were claimed to have made twenty-six miles in two hours. These coaches finally ceased running in 1853. There were also through freight-wagons from Baltimore to Wheeling, which carried ten tons. They were drawn by twelve horses, and their rear wheels were ten feet high.”

article © Jennifer Singleton / Carriage Association of America / The Carriage Journal