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Historic National Road

Two hundred years after its birth, the National Road, America's first interstate highway, offers a rich historical tour.

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  • 1
    Bricks remain on Ohio's Peacock Road, an abandoned stretch of the National Road.
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    The 1883 Guernsey Courthouse in Cambridge, Ohio.
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    Ohio's S-bridges.
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    Lantz House Inn in Centerville, Indiana.

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.

 

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