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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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    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.

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. "

 

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