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A Short Trip Down the National Road

I thought we would end our series with a trip down the Old National Road, featuring those Putnam County communities located on this historic roadway. But first, we need to explore the history and little-known facts about the old National Road.


There had been some debate in the early days of our country about creating a roadway to connect the nation’s capital to these major waterways, which were the major transportation routes at that time. But some questioned the authority the United States government had under the Constitution to use federal funds for interior public improvement projects. This question was not settled during George Washington’s or John Adams’ terms as President and carried over to the Jefferson administration. It was Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin who convinced him that not only was it necessary to connect to the major waterways, but constitutionally permissible.


In 1803 an Act of Congress authorized funding of such a roadway by allocating revenues received from sale of lands in the new State of Ohio for this purpose. Construction of the first ten miles of this so-called National Road began at the headwaters of the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, extending the existing “Braddock Road” from Baltimore, and was completed in 1811, going right past… gasp, wait for it… the home of Albert Gallatin. By 1818, the National Road, also known as the Cumberland Road or the National Pike, had been completed to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), linking the Potomac to the Ohio River. The road was constructed by clearing a 66-foot right-of-way then laying a 20-foot-wide layer of crushed stone 18 inches deep, tapered to 12 inches at the edges to allow for drainage and runoff of rainwater. Various grades and dimensions of gravel was used during the construction of the roadway, which was known as a “macadam” type of road.


One interesting engineering aspect of the road was the construction of so called “S” bridges. When a waterway was met that was not exactly perpendicular to the road, the roadway was curved so that it would be perpendicular to the waterway and typically a single arch stone bridge was built to traverse the stream, then the road would continue along its original direction, thus creating a distinctive “S” curve in the roadway.


But, being the forward looking and ambitious type we are, some thought it would be a of great commercial significance to continue the new road past Wheeling. Observing that the farmers had begun using the new roadway to transport their crops across the terrain to greater markets, some began urging Congress to authorize funding for an extension of the National Road. In 1820, Congress agreed to extend the National Road through the state capitals of Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, then to St. Louis. Using the already existing Zane’s Trace of Ebenezer Zane, the National Road was extended from Wheeling to Zanesville, Ohio, then on to Columbus and further west.


But not everyone was enthusiastic about the use of federal funds for interior improvement projects such as this. Presidents Madison (1809-1817) and Monroe (1817-1825) were not comfortable in continuing this ambitious construction project and vetoed some of the related construction projects. Possibly influenced by the Great Panic of 1837, Congress voted to abandon the project in 1840, with Henry Clay casting the deciding vote.  A statue was erected in honor of Henry Clay near Wheeling for his part in his early support of the National Road, then for getting the federal government out of the road building business.


Construction of the roadway, which had by then reached Vandalia, Illinois, ceased and responsibility for maintenance for the portions already completed was given over to the states, but the federal government continued to fund various road repairs for the already completed portion of the National Road.


With no funds themselves for this purpose, the states had no recourse but to make the roadway a toll road. Toll-houses were built about every 20 miles along the road, with the amount of the toll determined by the type of vehicle and the goods being transported. Typically, a two-horse carriage was charged the highest toll, as those would cause more wear and tear on the roadway, resulting in higher maintenance costs. Large wagons with wheels larger than six inches in width and a more significant wheel base were charged little, if any, toll because these types of vehicles packed down the gravel and helped keeping the road in good condition.


Many of the toll houses were unique structures, being typically two stores tall with an octagonal shaped second story, almost exclusively of windows, so the toll keeper could see the traffic coming and be prepared. Some of these toll houses are still standing, with a few listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some toll booths were shaped like an archway with a toll gate, anchored at one end with a weighted pike to keep it level, stopping traffic. After the toll was paid, the pike was turned, raising the gate to allow the vehicle to proceed. This type of toll gate may or may not have been the origin of the phrase turn-pike.