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.