A National Road System

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A National Road System


Country Roads. For most Americans in 1815 the only means of overland travel from farm to market, mill, and store were rural roads, many developed from Indian trails and farmers tracks. Chronically muddy and filled with stumps and boulders, the nations country roads were nonetheless crucial to farmers and the national economy they supported. Country roads were, by Anglo-Saxon tradition, the responsibility of the county, and every year farmers congregated during slow times to work off their county road taxes by repairing or constructing local roads. Because county-road supervisors rarely possessed engineering skills, and because the work crews were less than highly motivated, rural roads in America remained almost uniformly poor even into the early twentieth century. Yet farmers did not worry over much. Except when moving or heading to market, they rarely traveled, and rather than pay higher taxes or contribute more of their valuable time to roadwork, they simply made do with roads as they were. Only where the state government or private turnpike companies did the road building could Americans find improvement in overland travel.

Military Needs. During the first decades of the nineteenth century the nations road situation improved with the development of turnpikes, or toll roads. The best of these new roads were constructed with solid stone foundations and gravel topdressings. They crossed streams on stone bridges and were sloped and side-ditched for better drainage. By the War of 1812 turnpikes connected the major commercial cities in America north of the Potomac and east of the Alleghenies. Yet none of these roads breached the Appalachian barrier, and two of the major theaters of military operations during the war, the West and the South, lacked even a rudimentary turnpike system. Thus, when the British naval blockade of 18131815 forced Washington to rely on the existing road system to move and supply the nations armies, Americas roads were simply not up to the task. During the height of the conflict it took one wagon of cotton seventy-five days to traverse the thousand miles between Charleston, South Carolina, and Worcester, Massachusetts. After the war a tidal wave of settlers began pouring over and around the Appalachians, adding a new chorus of voices to the persistent demands for dependable transportation links to the West. Congress responded in 1815 by renewing construction on the National, or Cumberland, Road from western Maryland over the Appalachians to the Ohio River at Wheeling. Contractors reached Wheeling in 1818, but it would take another twenty years for the National Road to arrive at what became its final destination in Vandalia, Illinois. There, one hundred miles short of its ultimate goal, Saint Louis and the Mississippi, the grand free national highway expired in the mud, the victim of the railroads superiority.

Opposition. Despite widespread support for an eastwest national road, not everyone was equally excited about the prospect of the federal government financing, building, and then maintaining such a large internal improvement. Reasons for opposition varied. Some congressmen, especially from the South, opposed federal internal improvements on constitutional grounds. They argued that only states had the right to appropriate money for these purposes, not the central government. Eastern businessmen worried that better roads to the West would lure their workforce to new lands, raising labor costs in the East. Others simply opposed the choice of route, especially those who lived in localities bypassed by the road. Still others, including Andrew Jackson and his numerous followers, worried that federally financed internal improvements would serve to enrich only one locality or state and not the nation at large. And some believed that any large government project would be a source of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. One or more of these negative constituencies was usually enough to kill the legislative proposals to fund a federal system of internal improvements that periodically emerged in the 1820s and 1830s.

State Funds. The National Road managed to survive partisan bickering and government attack but only at the expense of severe limitations imposed from Washington. The most serious of those limitations arose in 1822 when President James Monroe vetoed a bill to finance the upkeep of sections already completed. Without the authority to maintain the National Road, the only alternatives were to let it go to ruin or to give it to the states. Congress chose the latter, and in 1834 the National Road became the property of the states through which it ran. Shortly thereafter the Western states began placing toll gates on the National Road every ten miles or so to raise revenue for upkeep and repair. In most states only schoolchildren, those attending church and traveling to funerals, or men going to militia muster were exempt from these tolls. Commercial stage lines found the toll gates particularly galling. They paid their tolls on a quarterly basis, but when payments were late it was the habit of state governments to refuse the stage lines passage through the toll gates. At such times lines of the brightly colored stagecoaches would stack up at the gates, passengers and drivers alike fuming on the roadside.

Construction. The initial legislation funding the National Road called for a right-of-way eighty feet wide with a thirty-foot center of broken stone one foot deep and drainage culverts and bridges of cut stone. Working west from Cumberland, Maryland, over the Alleghenies, it took construction crews three years to arrive at Wheeling, at a cost of $13, 000 per mile. From Wheeling west it did not take long for contractors to deviate from the initial specifications. In 1832 an Army Corps of Engineers inspector found huge stumps still in the center of the road on a section near Columbus, Ohio, that had been reported as complete. All along the road frontiersmen broke up bridge walls to use the dressed stone for their own purposes. Others stole the gravel or built on the right-of-way. These depredations and the natural decline of the road from wear and tear led one historian to conclude that never at any one time was the National Road a good road all the way from Cumberland to Vandalia. Construction crews presented other problems. Bands of off-season farmers working on the road were admonished not to bring ardent spirits to the place of labor or be caught insulting travelers or quarreling or fighting because these actions would be cause for dismissal. Presumably, contractors issuing these rules had learned from past experience.

First Interstate. Writing home to his wife in Virginia, an 1840s traveler on the National Road in Ohio commented that it looks as if the whole earth is traveling this way. For a few brief decades before the railroad permanently eroded the importance of the National Road, this highway to the West operated very much like a modern interstate, where a cross section of the country passed every day in commercial carriers, family passenger vehicles, and public conveyances, all jostling for room on its thirty-footwide surface. Burly teamsters drove huge wagons of goods west from Maryland and slept under them on the side of the road. Stagecoaches weighing a ton or more flew by, warning other travelers out of the way with honks from their horns. Drovers pushed immense flocks of pigs, sheep, and cattle east along the road, destined for markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Mixed in with all of these vehicles was a continuous stream of settlers traveling steadily west in family groups or caravans of neighbors, with all the family possessions stacked in Conestoga wagons and all but the youngest children walking alongside.


R. Carlyle Buley, The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 18151840, 2 volumes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1950);

Philip D. Jordan, The National Road (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948);

George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 18151860, Economic History of the United States, volume 4 (New York: Holt, 1951).

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A National Road System

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