National Road, Building of the
NATIONAL ROAD, BUILDING OF THE
The National Road, also known as the Cumberland Road, was the first great turnpike to run across the Appalachian Mountains and into the territory that was known as the Old Northwest (the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). The National Road was built with the intention of creating closer economic ties between the American west and the original thirteen colonies. At the time it was considered a state-of-the-art roadway. Its surfaces were graded to limit water damage and it was surfaced with gravel. Streams, rivers, and gullies were crossed with stone bridges, not the more common and less expensive wooden ones. Thousands of migrants moving westward to take advantage of new land and new economic opportunities used the National Road to move westward. It was the first major road to be built with federal funds and the largest single road-building project until the construction of the modern interstate highway system after World War II (1939–1945).
Although different sections of the country (particularly in New England) had developed their own turnpike systems in the late eighteenth century, most of the country was not well served by roads. The roads that existed were funded and built mostly by private corporations, who ran them as profit-making toll roads. Construction on the National Road itself did not begin until immediately after the War of 1812 (1812–1814). The road began at Cumberland, Maryland, but it was linked to the earlier Frederick Pike, which led to Baltimore on the coast. Construction continued steadily until 1818, when the road crossed the Cumberland Gap over the Appalachians and reached Wheeling, West Virginia. By 1838 the road stretched all the way to Vandalia, Illinois, and about mid-century it reached St. Louis, Missouri. Construction on the National Road was neglected after the American Civil War (1861–1865) in part because of the boom in railroad construction. It was revived as part of Route 40 in the early twentieth century, when increased automobile traffic highlighted the need for improved roads.
The National Road was a controversial project for several reasons. First, many people questioned whether the federal government was permitted by the Constitution to use its money on internal improvements. Most such internal improvements (such as the Erie Canal, which was built by the state of New York) were undertaken by local or state authorities. Congress had appropriated money to build a trans-national highway as early as 1802. In 1808 Albert Gallatin proposed a series of internal improvements including a number of roads. Even then, several presidents—notably James Madison (1809–1817) and James Monroe (1817–1825)—vetoed the road's funding on the grounds that using federal money for internal improvements was not specifically allowed in the Constitution. Secondly, roads at the time were far less efficient for transport than canals or river traffic. Most of the profits that could be made were for shipping goods over short distances, usually at a rate of about 15 cents a mile per ton. Riverboats and canals, and in later decades railroads, were more cost-effective ways of moving bulky farm produce to markets. Third, the National Road was very expensive to build. At the peak of construction in the early 1820s, it cost more than $13,000 per mile to build and maintain.
Despite its inefficiencies and expense, the National Road helped draw the young United States closer together. Farmers in the Great Lakes and Ohio River valley were able to ship their produce to markets in Atlantic ports rather than sending their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to French or Spanish markets. Northern political support for western improvements also helped draw the two sections of the country closer together.
See also: Cumberland Gap, Economic Development (Federal Involvement in), Maysville Road
Rautz, Karl, ed. The National Road. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. New York: Rinehart, 1951.