America's National Road
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2006)
JOHNNY’S PASSING THROUGH today, Clara Glenn told a few people in New Concord that July morning. Word spread, and not just because Clara’s son was a war hero and famous test pilot by 1957. But also because it was Johnny Glenn, and when you grow up in this little eastern Ohio college town on US- 40, people remember.
Clara made it clear that Johnny would pass by pretty quickly. At about 700 mph and thousands of feet up, in fact, on the fastest transcontinental journey taken at the time. As Johnny roared overhead in an F8U Crusader jet, two sonic booms rattled New Concord, right down to the balsa wood planes still hanging in his room.
You’ll have to forgive Johnny’s mom for the understatement. Living on the National Road means you get used to some impressive things coming through.
This was, after all, the country’s first great thoroughfare. In the early 1800s, nearly anyone who wanted to see the frontier, sell a product or run for office used the road. Even today, the National Road survives as Main Street in most of the towns it passes through from Maryland to Illinois. When you want to watch America roll by, this has long been the curb to sit on.
"The road was something almost magical, " says Licking County Commissioner Doug Smith of Harrison Township, Ohio, who is co-author of a National Road driving guide. "It really was the road that helped build the nation. "
Today’s drivers leave Interstate 70 and follow US-40 when they’re ready to put their journey ahead of the destination. Along the old trail, they find more than 800 miles of backroads full of changing scenery, a few cities and enough antiques shops and bed-and-breakfasts for a lifetime. But the biggest draw is the chance to follow historical icons from George Washington to John Glenn and to join the 200-year caravan of Americans who went looking for adventure along this famous road. It’s just another day on the National Road when you visit Washington’s first battlefield, cross a 180-year-old stone bridge and fall asleep in the home of a Civil War officer-turned-bank president.
The "Father Road" of the Country
The National Road doesn’t headline America’s highway pop culture. It’s hard to outshine Route 66, star of a Steinbeck novel and a TV show. But drivers on the National Road will find more of it intact than Route 66, and, of course, the National Road holds the trump card of coming first.
"If Route 66 is the Mother Road of the country, then the National Road has to be the Father Road of the country because it fathered the development that took place at that time, " Smith says.
US-40, designated a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, winds through forested curves in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Then, around Columbus, it starts stretching into straightaways slicing like blacktop lasers through farmland all the way to Indiana and Illinois. The road swells in places to four lanes and near-interstate speeds, but in general, it suits a more ambling pace. This is a highway that leaves time for noticing details like cloud shadows racing up hills and the worn faces of buildings with stories to tell.
"You just can’t drive down this road without being aware that these buildings are very old, " says Marcia Hoyt of Centerville, Indiana, who runs the Lantz House Inn in an 1835 house along the National Road. "People will stop here, not knowing they’re coming into an historic area. Then they start to ask questions because they didn’t expect to see buildings this old. "
The highway’s roots run back to 1806, when the federal government decided to punch a road through the wilderness from Cumberland, Maryland, to the frontier beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Construction of the route known as the Old Pike, the Cumberland Road and America's Appian Way began in 1811 and stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, in 1850.
The road’s golden era was before the Civil War, when businessman Thomas Searight wrote, "It looked more like the leading avenue of a great city than a road through rural districts. " Around 1850, wagon driver Jesse Piersol spent a night at an inn surrounded by 1,000 hogs following the road to market. Like a modern motel customer beset by traffic noise, Piersol wrote, "The music made by this large number of hogs, in eating corn on a frosty night, I will never forget. "
Prosperity followed the road back then, something Dayton’s citizens understood well enough to decide that their city would be a piketown, even if the road never came there. President Andrew Jackson ordered the road built straight between Columbus and Indianapolis, passing eight miles north of Dayton. Undeterred, businessmen built a spur from the National Road to Dayton, perfectly mimicking the road and its bridges, tollgates and stone mile markers. Most travelers turned onto what’s known as the "counterfeit road" and never touched the actual route to the north.
Rediscovering the Kevin Bacon of Highways
Traffic disappeared everywhere when the railroad arrived, and the National Road, the era’s equivalent of an interstate, eerily grew weed-choked and silent but for the chirping of birds. Today’s visitors can thank this event for many of the historic structures along today’s US-40.
"In a lot of cases, the towns along the way just went to sleep because they were bypassed by the railroad, " Smith says. "Consequently, a lot of these 19th-century piketowns have been preserved through neglect. They have remained essentially as they were. "
The road stirred again soon after the 1885 invention of "safety" bicycles, which offered matching tires instead of the cartoonishly oversized front wheels of "ordinary" bikes. Nearly anyone could ride them, but bike trails were in short supply. So the cyclists launched the Good Roads Movement to improve the National Road, by then a rutted quagmire. Momentum grew with the automobile’s arrival and crowds of drivers seeking roads for weekend motoring. By World War II, US-40 was an indispensable highway once more.
The boom went bust again in the 1960s as new interstates pulled traffic and commerce away, but another renaissance may be brewing as modern travelers learn about the National Road. New guidebooks and road signs make it easier to find original sections and understand the sights, and interpretive signs and guided-tour compact discs are coming soon.
" (Tourists) are rediscovering this jewel that has been in their midst since the 1820s, " Smith says.
Before long, travelers discover that the stops along the National Road are only separated by a few degrees from anything else. It’s the Kevin Bacon of highways. Start at pilot John Glenn’s boyhood home, which faces the road in New Concord. Follow US-40 and the path of the counterfeit road 150 miles west to visit the Dayton shop where the Wright Brothers designed the first functional airplane. The shop’s main purpose? Building bicycles for those folks demanding a better National Road in the early 1900s.
Or you could head east of New Concord to Cambridge. There you’ll find Jim and Patricia Irvin’s Colonel Taylor Inn, which they opened in 2001 after Jim’s retirement. The impeccable, 9,000-square-foot Victorian was built by Col. Joseph Taylor, a business magnate who served in the Civil War. When Jim, a former prison warden, hears a guest is going to visit the cemetery at Columbus’ Camp Chase, a Union prisoner-of-war camp, he says, "You know, that’s the camp Taylor commanded. "
To get to Camp Chase from the big home that has housed two wardens, you follow, well, you can guess which road.
Mixing History and Pop Culture
History is that way on the National Road, as common as convenience stores on most highways. If you cruise by the old county jail in Centerville, Indiana, you might notice holes in the bricks over the door. That happened in 1873 when townspeople dragged in "Black Betty, " the town’s ceremonial cannon, and fired a blast at Richmond officials trying to steal the Wayne County government for their town. Unfortunately for Centerville, the blast tore the door off its hinges, allowing the Richmond invaders to run inside and grab the records.
Down the street, the Lantz House Inn has its own marred wall, but a tamer story. Walk close to the building to see nails left over from handbills tacked up for 19th-century National Road travelers.
Farther east, and farther back in time, near Farmington, Pennsylvania, stands the regal grave of British Gen. Edward Braddock, whose 2,400 men hacked through the forest in 1755 to fight in the French and Indian War. Though his road lived on to guide the National Road’s route, Braddock died in battle, shocking soldiers who had probably never heard of anyone shooting at generals, much less seen one cut down in the wilderness. Standing by Braddock’s grave today, you can almost feel the bewilderment of men like 23-year-old George Washington, who prayed over his commander’s body. In this spot, there’s an unmistakable sense of past and present rubbing together a bit uncomfortably. While reflecting at the grave, you’ll probably notice that the Braddock Inn up the hill is advertising six-packs for six bucks.
The same feeling arises on the edge of Richmond, Indiana, where you can’t miss an unusual lawn ornament outside a McDonald’s restaurant. It’s a stone marker, and if you stop to read it, you’ll find it commemorates the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, which set this spot as the boundary between the United States and Native American lands.
National Road/Zane Grey Museum
In most places, though, the past seamlessly underlies today’s US-40. Signature National Road sights pop up mile by mile, and it’s tempting to start marking them off in your head in a sort of Old Pike bingo. Stone S-bridges, one of the road’s best-known trademarks, were built when the road crossed streams at a diagonal. The twisted shape ensures the bridge's arch stands at a structurally sound perpendicular angle to the water. You’ll find several in eastern Ohio, including one near Middlebourne that you can still drive across. Drivers also start watching for distinctive brick taverns, stone mile markers, barns painted with "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco" signs and Madonnas of the Trail, stern-looking statues erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 12 states to honor women pioneers.
One key stop for every National Road pilgrim is the National Road/Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio. The exhibits haven’t caught up to the era of museums with Hollywood production values, but the diorama that winds through the building offers a compelling picture of the road’s development. The bicyclists’ passion for better roads, for example, makes perfect sense when you see a little plastic guy sprawling on the miniature road after a nasty spill. (What’s the Zane Grey connection? The famous Western author hails from nearby Zanesville.)
Early in a US-40 drive, you’ll have to decide whether you’re faithfully tracing the original road or wandering more casually. Roadside signs point to many old road segments where you rumble across brick pavement and wind along curves engineers avoided when they improved the National Road in the 1930s. If visiting each historic spot starts feeling a little like homework, just keep rolling down US-40. Or dart off onto any number of rural side roads, which are often refreshing spins through quiet forests, hills and farm fields.
The key to any National Road trip is keeping it casual. When travelers ask Marcia Hoyt for advice, she tells them, "You need time to let yourself get into it in a psychological way where you’re just sort of moseying along. "
She’s echoing a mind-set that has remained amazingly consistent among Old Pike travelers for two centuries. No modern driver says it better than U.S. Rep. Albert Douglas did in 1909. After driving his Model T "Betsy" home from Washington, D.C., to Ohio along the road, he summed up the trip with a spirit that still draws drivers along US-40.
"To fond students of the past, to men who love to revive in imagination the days of the pioneers and to dwell in thought among the days that are no more, the romance of this old pathway of the nation will live forever. "
For information on the National Road:
PENNSYLVANIAContact the National Road Heritage Corridor (724/437-9877; www.nationalroadpa.org).
WEST VIRGINIA Contact the state’s tourism department (800/225-5982; www.wvtourism.com).
OHIO Contact the Ohio Historical Society (614/297-2300; www.ohiohistory.org).
INDIANA Contact the Indiana National Road Association (765/478-3172; www.indiananationalroad.org).
ILLINOIS Contact the Illinois National Road Association (618-664-9343; www.nationalroad.org).
FEATURED IN THE ARTICLE George Washington sites, Farmington, Pennsylvania. Visit a reconstruction of the fort in which Washington fought in the early days of the French and Indian War. Also includes Gen. Braddock’s grave and the Washington Tavern, a popular stop on the early National Road. Admission charged for those 15 and older (724-329-5512; www.nps.gov/fone). National Road/Zane Grey Museum, Norwich, Ohio. Open Memorial Dayto Labor Day. Admission charged (800/752-2602; www.ohiohistory.org/places/natlroad). John and Annie Glenn Historic Site, New Concord, Ohio. Admission charged (740/826-3305; www.johnglennhome.org). Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The sites include the Wright Cycle Company, the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Huffman Prairie Flying Field (937/225-7705; www.nps.gov/daav).
DUSK TIL DAWN HISTORIC US-40 YARD SALE The annual event will be held along the National Road from Baltimore to St. Louis. Contact Patricia McDaniel (765-478-4809; www.oldstorefrontantiques.com).
INDIANA'S ANTIQUES ALLEY The stretch of US-40 from Richmond, Indiana, to Knightstown, Indiana, features more than 900 dealers. Old National Road Welcome Center, 5701 National Road East, Richmond (800/828-8414; www.visitrichmond.org).
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CAMBRIDGE GLASS See products from the noted glass industry in the Cambridge, Ohio, area. Open April to October. Closed Monday. Admission charged for visitors 12 and older (740/432-4245; www.cambridgeglass.org).
NATIONAL CERAMIC MUSEUM AND HERITAGE CENTER Explore the storied pottery production of the Zanesville, Ohio, area at this museum. Admission charged (740/697-7021; www.ceramiccenter.org).
HUDDLESTON FARMHOUSE Tour an 1841 house and surrounding farm buildings where a Quaker family once sold goods and services to National Road travelers (765/478-3172; www.historiclandmarks.org).
WHITEWATER RIVER GORGE This 3-mile-long canyon in Richmond, Indiana, features Thistlethwaite Falls and a 3.5-mile hiking/biking trail that passes by many rocks filled with fossils (800/828-8414; www.visitrichmond.org).
FEATURED IN THE ARTICLE
Col. Taylor Inn Bed & Breakfast, Cambridge, Ohio. Rooms from $135 (740/432-7802; www.coltaylorinnbb.com). Lantz House Inn, Centerville, Indiana. Rooms from $98 (800/495-2689; www.lantzhouseinn.com).