In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the United States' Northwest Territory1 was almost completely inaccessible from the Eastern Seaboard - it was hemmed in by numerous mountain ranges.
In fact, it was often easier to reach Ohio by boat from Louisiana than it was to go overland from Philadelphia. In 1788, for example, it took a wagonload of goods one month to travel over the mountains from nearby Cumberland, Maryland to Brownsville, Pennsylvania. By 1806, there was enough political pressure for westward expansion that Congress authorised the construction of a National Road connecting Cumberland, Maryland with Wheeling, Maryland2 by cutting across the southwest corner of Pennsylvania.
Albert Gallatin and General Braddock
Pennsylvania politicians made sure that the National Road passed through several out-of-the way towns in Fayette and Washington counties. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin was a Fayette County native - and a former US Senator - and he is generally credited with convincing the powers that be to include the towns of Uniontown and Brownsville on the road's route.
As it turned out, Uniontown was the halfway point between Cumberland and Wheeling and prospered a great deal as a result of the National Road traffic passing through the centre of town.
The first leg of the road from Cumberland to Uniontown followed a military road carved from the wilderness by British General Edward Braddock.
During his campaign in the French and Indian War3 Braddock's forces built the road to enable them to haul the cannons and supply wagons they would need to capture the French fort at Pittsburgh. Braddock was wounded during the fighting and died on the march home to Virginia. His troops buried his body in the middle of the road they had built and the entire army marched over the grave so the Native American and French could not exhume his corpse and mistreat his body. There is a large monument to him located along the National Road just north of the Early American Farm Implements Museum.
Leaving General Braddock safely interred, the road then went over Dunbar's Knob, which today is capped by the Great Cross of Christ and into Uniontown. From here, it struck north to Brownsville and Jacob Bowman's Trading Post4. From there it turned west to Washington, Pennsylvania before moving on to Wheeling, Maryland.
Construction contracts were granted for this section in 1811. The War of 1812 delayed construction and work was not started until 1815. Three years later, in 1818, the road finally reached Wheeling, making it possible to travel the entire 125-mile route between Wheeling and Cumberland in just three days.
Henry Clay - Not Quite St Louis
In 1824, Kentuckian Henry Clay proposed the 'American System'. The American System was a combination of protective tariffs and internal improvements intended to strengthen the domestic network of industry and trade. Due to Clay's efforts, the National Road was extended westward to Columbus, Ohio in 1833. However, just two years later the Federal government turned over the expense of maintaining the road to the individual states through which it passed. The states quickly imposed a system of tolls on the roadway and its name changed to the National Pike.
Pennsylvania built six tollhouses along the route and two still exist today - one made of stone at Addison and one of the more common brick tollhouses at Searights, which is now operated as a museum. Along the route stone markers counted off the miles from one major town to the next. They were replaced around the time of the tollhouse construction by white-painted cast iron markers, and many of these can still be seen along the roadside.
Continuing ever-westward, the road reached Vandalia, Illinois in 1850. However, before the road could reach its intended destination of St. Louis, Missouri, technology caught up with it, and railroad construction became the new national priority.
Decline and the Road Today
The road lost importance through the years. Pennsylvania finally dropped its toll charge in 1905. But with automobile travel, the road saw a resurgence, and it became part of US Highway system with the new (and rather less glamorous) name of Route 40.
Today, the National Road is mainly used by locals as a means to get from Point A to Point B as the Interstate highway system has taken over the US Highway system's former role of transporting freight and passengers across the nation.
However anyone touring the USA will be better served leaving the Interstates alone and travelling the backroad US Highways to get a real glimpse of American life and culture.
If You're in the Area...
Jumonville, Pennsylvania, USA - A small village which is named for the first casualty of the French and Indian War.
Fabrizi's Restaurant, Jumonville, Pennsylvania, USA - An Italian restaurant on the top of Dunbar's Knob.
Ferncliff Peninsula, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, USA - A beautiful part of a nearby state park.