National Road Tidbits

Over the long history of what was the National Road, there are tons of stories told. Tales of lives, tolls, decisions, and other things that have been basically lost to history.

A brief history of the road screams to be told. President Thomas Jefferson signed the law creating the Cumberland, or National, Road on 29 March 1806. The commission that charted the road decided that Braddock’s Road would be followed from Cumberland, MD, to Brownsville, PA. Pennsylvania only approved the road if it would pass through Uniontown and Washington, PA. So, the road followed a native american trail from Brownsville to Washington. From there, the road was was to go to either Wheeling, VA (now WV) or Steubenville, OH. Wheeling won after some influence of Henry Clay.

It would not be until 3 March 1825 that the Congress gave the green light to extension of this road. Appropriations were outlaid to build the road to Zanesville, OH, and survey the route through the capital cities of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. By 1832, the National Road reached the Indiana-Ohio State Line. (An astute reader now asks the question why the National Road doesn’t connect to Springfield, IL. Well, the capital of Illinois at the time was Vandalia, which is one the National Road. Springfield became the capital in 1839.) Hence, the history of the building of the National Road…in shortcut fashion.

But local stories abound when it comes to the road. For instance, in Richmond, according to the Richmond Paladium-Item of 2 October 1910, “Main street turns near Ninth and makes a slight curve towards the northwest. One hundred years ago there was a large mud puddle north of Main street and when the National road was constructed the contractors built it around the puddle. Main street retained the curve.”

The National Road would also be the site of a County Seat War in Wayne County. Wayne County’s government had been located in Centerville since it was legally moved from Salisbury with an act of 21 December 1916. (The last meeting of county commissioners was held at Salisbury in August, 1817. [Indiana Boundaries: Territory, State and County, available on ancestry.com]) Later, a Wayne County courthouse was built in Richmond. Richmond officials went to Centerville to move the government. Centerville refused. The Richmond interests actually used cannon fire in the effort to move the county seat from Centerville to Richmond. According to the Plymouth Weekly Republican of 24 December 1874, the United States Supreme Court, with a unanimous decision, ended the county seat war in favor of Richmond. “The struggle between Richmond and Centerville has been protracted nearly two years.”

On 3 May 1919, the Indianapolis News published a story about the conditions and construction of the National Road through Indiana from the perspective of “caravans of motor lorries during war.” Very little of the old road was improved at the time of World War I. While most of the wartime traffic occurred by railroad, quite a bit went by truck. Very few roads at the time were improved, making travel no better than it had been for years. And, with the increase in truck traffic, the “Famous Old Highway Has Gone to Wreck – Miles of Hard Going Are to Be Found Along the Indiana Link of the Road Between Richmond and Terre Haute.”

The story of a couple of farmers in Wayne County is also worth mentioning. On the old road, west of Richmond, lived a man and woman “around which is woven one of the first romances of the National road in Indiana.” The story of their romance isn’t covered, being that it “does not concern us here.” Anyway, they bought a farm and became successful. However, a toll gate was built not far from their farm, requiring a toll to be paid to reach Richmond. They objected to this toll, to the point of building a road, on their property, around the toll gate.

With the National Road came the tavern. There were numerous taverns built along the way. Keep in mind that a tavern, at the time, included anything that a traveler needed to rest: food, drink, beds, and stables. One of the things reasons that US 40 is such a slow route across Indiana is the tavern. Towns sprung up around the tavern. Towns were placed at convenient intervals depending on the distance one could travel in a day. In the motoring era, these “convenient intervals” led to the motor hotel, or motel. In the four miles that I travel the National Road daily, from Cumberland to I-465, there are still three motel buildings in existence. I remember many more that have been demolished over the 50+ years that I have been alive.

In Indianapolis, the last vestiges of the National Road in downtown survived into the 20th century. Early in the century, the old National Road bridge, a covered bridge that originally carried the National Road over the White River, was finally removed. That bridge had been in place for over 70 years, although most traffic, at that point, had been using the Washington Street bridge. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that the original road, called Washington Avenue, was removed. Today, a walking path has been built along the path of the old road.

Over the 180+ years of the National Road in Indiana, there have been many lives affected. Their stories are out there. I hope to find more of them in the future.

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