The National Road – Two Days over Memorial Day Weekend 2015

During our spring travels we had, a couple of times, ended up on the National Road for a short distance. The National Road was the first major improved highway in the country to be built by the Federal Government. About 620 miles long, the National Road connected the Potomoc and Ohio Rivers and was a gateway to the West for thousands of settlers. When rebuilt in the 1830s, the National Road became the first U.S. road surfaced with the  macadam process pioneered by Scotsman John McAdam.

Since the original National Road had tolls, it was thought of as a turnpike, and many of the towns along the way are referred to as Pike towns. This also gave way to a number of terms that we still use today in reference to the people and places along the way

We took off east on I-70 early on the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, destination Wheeling, West Virginia. Wheeling had been the original end point of the National Road in the 1830s, before it was extended through Ohio. Our starting point was to be the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which when completed in 1849 was the largest suspension bridge in the world, a title it held for only a couple of years.

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The main span is 1,010 feet from tower to tower, with the east tower resting on the Wheeling shore, and the west tower on Wheeling Island. This bridge is thought of as the most significant pre Civil War bridge in America, and I thoroughly enjoyed surveying the east tower and landings.

After touring downtown Wheeling, we headed west across the bridge. Similar to the Roebling Bridge in Cincinnati, the bridge deck is metal grating, which makes a great humming sound, with a bit of squirm out of the steering wheel as you cross.

The first town in Ohio, Bridgeport, was originally a trans-shipment point for goods going down the Ohio River from Zane’s Trace. Later it was a Pike town. Bridgeport’s later growth and decline were dictated by the growth and subsequent decline of the railroad and mining industries. As you enter Bridgeport there is a small park with the Ohio Gateway sign, as well as a memorial to war veterans.

The first noteworthy stop on the westward route is just beyond the town of Blaine, where there is an S bridge, and the Blaine Hill Viaduct. 

The first Blaine Hill Bridge was constructed in 1828 as part of the National Road, the nation’s first federally funded highway. This three-arch S-shaped structure, 345 feet in length, spans Wheeling Creek and is the longest original “S” bridge in existence on the old National Road. At a gradient of approximately 6.3 percent from east to west, it significantly eased, for the first time, the arduous 500-foot western climb out of the valley. Crumbling and in poor condition, it was saved from demolition in 1999 and in 2001 was designated Ohio’s official Bicentennial Bridge. Now tucked between the 1933 U.S. 40 viaduct and Interstate 70, it illustrates the earliest of Ohio’s three eras in national highway transportation.

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The current Blaine Hill Viaduct was built in 1933. It overlooks the 1828 “S” bridge, which could no longer handle increasing automobile traffic on the National Road, averaging 2,700 vehicles daily. The opening of Interstate 70 in 1964 diverted most of the traffic flow from this bridge. It continues to carry traffic along the historic National Road (U.S. 40), designated an All-American Road in 2002. It represents the middle generation in this view, which encompasses three eras of highway travel in Ohio.

We parked under the viaduct and walked across the S bridge, continuing up the other side onto the old roadway, which is brick, but nearly overgrown with weeds. It was easy to imagine a Model T chugging up this fairly steep hill along the National Road, with a family headed west for a new life.

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An S bridge is a bridge whose alignment follows a curve, shaped like the letter S in plan, used in early 19th-century road construction in the United States. They were generally used for crossing small streams with uneven banks. The design was adopted where the road crossed the creek or river at an angle. Constructing a bridge at an angle was much more complicated and expensive than building the bridge perpendicular to the water flow and banks. The bridges were constructed at 90 degrees to the bank, while two ‘aprons’ were constructed at opposite angles to direct the traffic flow smoothly onto the bridge, thus creating the ‘s’ shape.

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Many of the bricks on the bridge and roadway have the makers mark, indicating they were made locally in Eastern Ohio. Once we returned to the car, we continued up and across the viaduct, stopping at the other end of the bridge.

The viaduct bridge was dedicated to World War 1 veterans in the 1930s, and as noted, served as the main route west until the building of the interstates. From the top of the viaduct you get an amazing view of the S bridge below, as long as you lean over the edge a bit and don’t fall off.

All along the National Road there are Mile Markers, with two-hundred and twenty miles of the National Road run through Ohio and a stone marker on the north side of every mile that told travelers how many miles they were from Cumberland, Maryland, the beginning point of the highway.  To date, over 83 of these stone markers remain along the original routes of US 40.

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Congress required that there be distinguishing marks at regular intervals to aid travelers. The milestones were set at 1 mile intervals on the north side of the road. Congress did not specify the appearance of the markers, so each state was free to select its own milestone design.

In Ohio, the markers were a square column with a rounded head. Each is marked at the head with the distance to the eastern terminus of the road at Cumberland, Maryland. Below, the square base is set at an angle to the road, with exposed sides showing the distance to the nearest city or village for the east- or west-bound traveler. As originally built, the markers were 5′ tall and set directly into the ground, leaving 3′ exposed.

Continuing on we arrived in St Clairsville, the county seat for Belmont County. As with most county seats they seem to look nicer than the other town around, and St Clairsville is no different. Beside the county courthouse, there are a number of nice 1800s homes and businesses along the National Road, along with a quirky 10’ tall statue of a pizza chef.

On the south side of the Road just west of town is a well-preserved bypassed (bricked) segment of original roadbed. The curve and steeper incline were eliminated when the Road was upgraded in the 1920s.

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Just beyond this is the one-room Great Western Schoolhouse. This charming brick building was constructed in 1870 and was named for the proposed community of Great Western. The town, which was never built, was platted on land across from the school.

In the town of Morristown is Church Street, one block north of the National Road, was part of Zane’s Trace, and pre-dates the National Road by 50 years. Morristown was a major stagecoach stop and prospered during the heyday of the National Road, with approximately fifty businesses, including blacksmiths, saddlers, wagon-makers, grocers and hotel operators. Morristown began to decline after 1850 when it was bypassed by the railroad. Today it remains a classic Pike town with numerous brick and frame row-houses typical of eastern cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. Of particular note is the Black Horse Inn, ca. 1807, located at West and Cross Street and the National Road.

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Leaving Morristown, the National Road dead-ends at Stillwater Creek, west of town, as Interstate 70 runs on the same path. Taking the freeway to the next exit and backtracking you come across the former four lane segment of U.S.40 alignment, you can see to the north a relic brick segment of the National Road that terminates at a private residence. It is at this point that all 3 roads exist within 200 feet of each other. Continuing down the county road that is the remains of US 40, you can see how I-70 was overlaid onto U.S. 40.

Crossing over into Guernsey County, we went into the town of Fairview, whose ‘fair view’ is of reclaimed strip mines. A far sight better than when they were working strip mines, they look out of place with large expanses of grassy hills in otherwise wooded areas. In Fairview is the Pennyroyal Opera house, built in 1803.

West of the town of Middlebourne is the Salt Fork S Bridge. This is one of two “S” Bridges in Guernsey County. This rural setting appears to have changed little from what it would have looked like during the days of wagon and stagecoach travel. While Kim stayed safely up on the bridge I wandered through the weeds to get a closer look at the constructions.

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This bridge was in a bit of disrepair as some of the stonework was cracked open. This did however give us an opportunity to check out the construction. Overall though it is in good shape, and an impressive sight.

The next county is Guernsey, with it’s county seat of Cambridge. Since we had recently visited Cambridge we skipped stopping there, continuing on to New Concord, the hometown of John Glenn. His boyhood home is open as a museum, however it was closed on the day we were there.

Just west of town on the north side of the Road is the Fox Run S-bridge. The bridge and short segment of old Road were abandoned when U.S. 40 was realigned in the 1930s. The bridge was restored in 2000 and is now part of a small park with parking, a walkway and interpretive panels.

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The next town is Norwich, which has the dubious distinction of being the site of the first fatal traffic accident in Ohio. A westbound stagecoach rounded a sharp curve, ran into a drove of pigs and overturned on August 20, 1835, killing Christopher Baldwin, librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, Worchester, Mass.

At the edge of Norwich is another well maintained brick road segment, aptly named Brick Road.

Just east of Zanesville is the National Road Musem/Zane Grey Museum. Exhibits review the history of the road and its building, transportation – like wagons and cars and the construction methods. A 136-foot diorama of the National Road with many accompanying objects, illustrates what it was like to travel on the National Road from its beginning, to the mid-20th century. The diorama is in 3/8th scale and measures 136 foot.

In addition to the National Road information, they had a nice collection of transportation objects including a Conestoga Wagon, a few cars and a great collection of Ohio license plates.

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Zane Grey was born in 1875 and lived in Zanesville. Although he started out to become a dentist, he soon changed occupations and became one of the earliest western writers. The museum has on display many of his books, articles and memorabilia from his novels that were turned into motion pictures

In addition, there is a nice section on pottery that was made in the Zanesville area, a renown pottery center. It was a strange mix of subjects, but somehow they make it work. The gentleman that worked there took pride in his knowledge of the history and the area, as he had been a college professor in New Mexico before returning home to Zanesville to run the museum.

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Across the road from the museum is the vacant Baker’s Motel. This motel complex was once one of the largest along US 40, but now is completely unused, although still intact. The scene reminded me of some of the ruins of Route 66 I had seen in California.

As with Cambridge, we decided to skip Zanesville since we had recently spent time there. We took Interstate 70 and bypassed the town in about 5 minutes, getting off at the first exit west of Zanesville, returning to the National Road.

Three miles west on Township Road 420 north (old National Road), is a stone bridge built by John Carnahen in 1830. The bridge is a typical twelve-foot span with a single segmental arch and projecting keystone. However, along the National Road in Ohio, it is unique in having a stone engraved with the builder’s name and date.

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Just beyond this is another original bridge. This 1830 stone bridge was named Reciprocity (tit for tat) for a Congressional inspection committee comprised of representatives from Indiana and Ohio, who cut a deal about the Road as they were riding toward this bridge.

After crossing into Licking County we entered Brownsville. According to the 1875 Licking County Atlas, Brownsville was originally platted with a town square. Later, a realignment of the Road led to the removal of the square. On the north side of the Road, just past the south intersection of Ohio Route 668, stood a ca. 1826 brick tavern, known variously as the National Hotel, the Old Coach Inn and the Balthis Inn. It served travelers in the first part of the 20th century as a hotel. Farther west in town, an old grist mill sits on the north side of the Road in Berry Run Valley.

On the north side of the Road, about a mile west of Brownsville, is the Eagle’s Nest Monument, a large granite rock with an inscription commemorating the concrete paving of the National Road from Zanesville to Hebron, from 1914 to 1916. The inscription on the rock reads:”Old National Road Built 1825. Rebuilt 1914 Through the efforts of James M. Cox Governor of Ohio”. Also chiseled in the granite are renderings of a Conestoga wagon and an early automobile, as well as the distances to Columbus (32 miles) and Cumberland, Maryland (220 miles).

In the town of Wagram is Fairmount Presbyterian Church built in 1883. The congregation dates to 1833, about the time the Road was built through this area. The church’s cemetery is home to a Hopewell Culture Indian mound.

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In Hebron we found the location at which the Ohio & Erie Canal and the National Road intersects in Hebron. The actual location is essentially covered up with streets and buildings now, but the town marks this significant spot with a monument just west of Main and Basin streets.

In a remarkable coincidence of Ohio history, groundbreaking for two of Ohio’s greatest construction projects occurred on the same day: July 4, 1825. Groundbreaking for the National Road occurred in St. Clairsville, opposite the old courthouse, while the Ohio and Erie Canal commenced construction at Licking Summit, just north of Hebron. The Road and the Canal intersected at Hebron.

Continuing west towards Columbus the area quickly becomes developed, passing National Trails Raceway, a dragstrip that for 50 years has drawn some of the biggest names in racing.

As you approach Reynoldsburg you pass a few 1950s era motels that are still in use as cheap transient housing, but for the most part it is impossible to tell that this was once the most important road in America with strip malls and housing developments.

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Monday was a holiday, and as we set off going west towards Whitehall, we immediately started passing a series of the 1950s motels. It is obvious that the pre interstate travelers going through Ohio made Columbus their night’s destination.

The National Road has divergent routes through Columbus. Originally it took Main Street all the way into downtown, then up Front Street before heading out West Broad Street. This occurred because there was no bridge across the Scioto River on Main Street.

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Eventually the jog up to Broad Street was moved back a few miles to take Drexel Avenue in Bexley. This route today is a much nicer route, avoiding some of Columbus’s worst neighborhoods. This day, however, we took the Main Street route.

We stopped briefly in the Bottoms to check out the Toledo and Ohio Central Railroad Station, Columbus’ only remaining railroad station, built in 1895 with a pagoda style tower, the T&OC station is one of Central Ohio’s greatest architectural oddities. The station was used until 1930, when the then-New York Central transferred its functions to Columbus’ Union Station.

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Further west, between Broad Street and Sullivant Avenue is Camp Chase, a Civil War camp established in May 1861,). Named for former Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, it was a training camp for Ohio volunteer army soldiers, a parole camp, a muster outpost, and later a prisoner-of-war camp. As many as 150,000 Union soldiers and 25,000 Confederate prisoners passed through its gates from 1861–1865. By February 1865, over 9,400 men were held at the prison. More than 2,200 Confederates are buried in the Camp Chase Cemetery.

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It was a coincidence we were there on Memorial Day, and it is a sad sight to see the rows upon rows of headstones for people who died so far from home.

As we continued our trek we passed the ’40 Motel’, with a great 1950s neon sign. This was followed by miles of suburban clutter, until finally reaching the countryside.

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At the junction of US 42 is Fettrow Village. From the original grill and filling station on a single acre of land, it eventually expanded to 44 acres, including a motel, trucker’s dorm, a Lubritorium, a garage, the restaurant, and not one but two filling stations, using the slogan ‘Host to a Motoring Nation’

Eventually Interstate 70 bypassed them, however, and the owners sold out where it operated like many of the others as a transient motel, before finally closing and remaining as a relic to a bygone era.

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After crossing into Clark County we entered the passed the town of Brighton, where the westbound lanes of US 40 go through the town and the eastbound lanes bypass it to the south.

Just beyond is the village of South Vienna, named after Vienna, Austria. However they were late and there was already a town called Vienna near Youngstown, so they added South to their name. They are proud of their corn in South Vienna, so much so they have a festival and a giant corn cob paining in the middle of the main street.

Just before reaching Springfield we passed the Crawford Campground, which appeared to be more of a junk yard for campers, than a true campground, but they did have one of the better ‘Ohio’ signs, with the O’s made out of tractor tires, and painted red, white and blue.

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As you yet again cross I-70 and continue into Springfield you pass the Melody Drive In theater, which is still in use, as are a number of the 1950s motels. As opposed to Columbus these look like you could stay there and not be in danger of Anthony Perkins visiting you in the shower.

Much like Zanesville and Cambridge, we had been to Springfield and had seen most of what is there, but they had relocated a statue into the middle of town. Madonna of the Trail is a series of 12 monuments dedicated to the spirit of pioneer women. The monuments were commissioned by the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. They were installed in each of the 12 states along the National Road.

Springfield is the home of the first of twelve Madonna of the Trail Monuments. Springfield’s Madonna of the Trail Monument dedication and unveiling ceremony was on July 4, 1928, and after a series of moves she is now at a park, National Road Commons, in downtown Springfield.

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Just prior to arriving in Vandalia we crossed the Taylorsville Dam, the first of two Miami Conservancy District dams, constructed in response to the great flood of 1913. The flood inundated large portions of Dayton and many other communities in the Miami River valley. The dam was quite an engineering feat at the time of its construction. It is 3000 feet long and 415 feet wide at its base, and capable of carrying U.S. 40 across its top.

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The next town on the National Road is Edgewood. Interestingly US 40 goes dead straight across the entire state, except for just before Vandalia where it jogs around to go across the Taylorsville Dam, and just before Edgewood it makes a similar jog, nearly a carbon copy feeling.

The town of Edgewood has a nice mural depicting the history of the town, as well as an impressive oversized mile marker in front of a newer city hall.

Nearing the Indiana line we stopped at a place called Foot Print Rock, which is supposed to have a 5 foot swath of metamorphic rock that appears out of the grassy earth as if some giant was playing golf and left a divot in the earth with their pitching wedge. On this exposed rock is a natural indentation that looks exactly like a size 10 left foot, however after wandering around in this field for 15 minutes neither Kim or I found it – bust!

While most of the road in western Ohio lacked the appeal of eastern Ohio, we did pass a couple of the 1950s truck stops, one of which was still operating.

After a brief detour to an earlier section of road, blacktop, not brick, we reached the Indiana state line. Along the way we learned the origination of terms such as “highball, or balling the jack”, which came from the days when an inn would want a driver to stop they would lower a ball on a chain, therefore if it was a “highball” they could continue uninterrupted; a “piker”, someone who skipped paying their tolls, and a “stogey” attributed to drivers of the Conestoga wagons habit of smoking cigars.

Without a doubt this was one of the better road trips we did and has motivated us to find other routes to take in the future.