By Marjorie Hopkins
Special to the Tribune-Star
Its significance cannot be overstated. Its past is our past. Our future will be a product of the opportunities it provided. In a young, thriving nation, it loosened the dam on economic development and provided a route for the open floodgates of prosperity. It was the great migration route west. It holds 200 years of history to be uncovered and discovered.
“It” is the Historic National Road, the nation’s first “superhighway.” It bridged the east to the west and opened up the Northwest Territory and the soon-to-be new states, making a way to get supplies and people into the new West.
“The National Road truly is the road that built America,” said Joe Frost, executive director of The Indiana National Road Association. It was the product of “very forward thinking” of our forefathers, he added.
It was George Washington who realized the need for, and began to design, an interstate highway system.
Thomas Jefferson in 1806 finally signed legislation to federally fund such a road that was designed to stretch from Cumberland, Md., through Pennsylvania, Virginia (now West Virginia), Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and ending in St. Louis, Mo. Although it didn’t reach its intended end, the Historic Road did end up extending 800 miles from Cumberland to Vandalia, Ill., opening up the territory for an exploding nation and serving as a precursor to the railroad. It is reported that as many as 200 wagons a day passed through the towns along the route. Eventually, the road also became the foundation for U.S. 40, which ended up stretching from ocean to ocean.
The importance to history of the Historic National Road was such that in 1994, Indiana Landmarks formed INRA and charged that organization with the protection, preservation and promotion of Indiana’s historical road, the resources along its path and to achieve the honor of national “Scenic Byway.” In 1998 The Historic National Road was named as a National Scenic Byway. In 2002, the road was given an even higher honor when it was deemed an All-American Road, a designation reserved only for byways that are of great national significance.
To receive both titles, a road must go through a nomination procedure and must already be designated as a state scenic byway. To be considered a National Scenic Byway by the United States Department of Transportation, the road must meet at least one of six “intrinsic qualities,” and to be an All-American Road, it must meet two of the six qualities. Those criteria include scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archeological and recreational qualities. The All-American Road designation identifies roads that have features that do not exist elsewhere in the U.S. and are unique enough to be a tourist site on their own.
The All-American Road designation “speaks to the road’s significance,” Tommy Kleckner, executive director of Indiana Landmarks said.
“It [the road] was instrumental in westward development. Even Terre Haute owes a tremendous amount to the National Road,” he pointed out.
Communities large and small all along its route also owe it a tremendous amount. If not for the road, these communities would not be in existence today. But, many are bypassed in the name of convenience and speed.
“Interstate 70 is all about destination,” Frost said. “You get from point A to point B. But you miss everything.”
In November of 2012, INRA installed 15 interpretive panels along the Historic National Road. The panels are thematic, and each tells a portion of the road’s significance. The panels have two sides; one side presents a theme, and the other an overview, with map, of the Historic National Road. The 15th and final panel was placed in June at the historic gasoline cottage, the “Coffee Cottage,” at Art Nehf Field on the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s campus in Terre Haute. Until the National Road, waterways were the only means to transport goods and people and weren’t efficient enough to support the westward movement. Few roads existed. Most “roads” were Native American trails that linked the waterways. In Indiana, construction of the Historic National Road began in 1829 and work began on the dirt, rock and timber road in Indianapolis going both east and west simultaneously. Only four communities were along its route: Richmond, Centerville, Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Indiana’s section was completed in 1834.
In 1848, the government handed over the road’s maintenance to the state, but not long after, the state, not able to afford it, handed over the reins of control to companies that built toll bridges and toll booths. The National Road’s importance waned with the railroads’ emergence in 1850 and its ongoing importance at the turn of the century. The Historic National Road did become of great interest, though, to cyclists and auto club members who rediscovered its natural beauty and scenic route. By the early 20th century, the road rose to prominence again, becoming the foundation for U.S. 40, which led from sea to shining sea. When Interstate 70 trumped U.S. 40, again communities along the path of the National Road/U.S. 40 suffered. But today, by visiting the communities along the National Road, you can find our nation’s heritage from the classic inns to the toll houses to diners, motels and museums — all tell of the rich past of our nation’s development.
There are really two main phases to the road’s history, Frost said. That of the pioneers and then the automobile era.
Today, the Historic National Road is known for its annual dawn-to-dusk yard sale, with sales running from St. Louis to Baltimore Md., always taking place the first Wednesday after Memorial Day. This is the biggest tourist draw for the state that weekend.
Bringing history into focus
Whether you take in a small portion of the road for a Sunday afternoon drive or go all out and travel the entire stretch through Indiana, Frost recommends that the best way to see it is a trip beginning at Richmond, heading west along the corridor, taking the route just as our pioneers forerunners would have taken. The Old National Road Welcome Center at Richmond provides information on traveling the old road and taking in the sites.
The settlement pattern is still visible along the road, according to Frost. Centerville is one of the best examples of National Road towns, he said. “You can see the houses from the 1830s very close together and close to the road. You can see it was developed very early on.”
In Cambridge City, for example, you can check out the importance of the White Water Canal. An example of a National Road hotel is found at the Vinton House. Or check out an 1840s example at the Huddleston farmhouse 20 miles west of Richmond, that is owned and operated by Indiana Landmarks. You can picture the weary travelers stopping for a bite to eat, some shelter and provisions, and to refresh their horses with food and rest. The museum there has a specific exhibit on the National Road.
You won’t want to miss examples of the historic stone bridges that have their own stories. Fine examples of those are as close as Reelsville and Pleasant Gardens in Putnam County.
All along the way you’ll see examples of the 1830s and 1840s taverns and farmsteads and 1940s and 1950s motels and service shops. Each community and each historic site will bring a piece of history into focus and present an opportunity to delve deeper into the road that really did build our nation.
“We want people to travel the road and experience the communities along the way — to take the slow route, the road less traveled,” Frost said.
Along with encouraging travel along the Historic National Road, INRA seeks members who are interested in preserving this rich source of our national history. It is a not-for-profit member driven organization, always seeking new members. If interested in membership or for more information, call Frost at (317) 822-7939 or visit www.indiananationalroad.org/Indiana_National_Road/About_Us.html.
• www.indianalandmarks.org/aboutus/initiatives/pages/inra.aspx (INrA)
• fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/back0103.cfmn www.countyhistory.com/nationalroad/start.html
Poetry on the Road
The following poem, written in the mid-1900s about the National Road in an autobiography “The Road and I” identifies its significance and produces images of both the pioneer and auto eras of the road.
Like weaver’s shuttles, to and fro,
the cars along the pavement go.
All day and night they constant glide
Along the cement smooth and wide.
Oft, as I watch their glint and gleam,
Some magic brings to me a dream;
I see beneath the cement crust
A road of clay o’er-hung with dust.
Within the dust there moves along
white wagons drawn by oxen strong;
Like Jason, golden fleece aquest,
‘Tis prairie schooners sailing West.
Dogs trot beneath in dusty shade;
At rear come milk-cows calm and staid.
From many wagons, as they pass;
I hear gay laugh of lad and lass,
At times a baby’s fretful cry,
Or way-worn mother’s weary sigh.
In joy and sorrow on they go
To build the empire that we know.
The dust sinks down,--The cement white
Again arises to my sight.
Bright cars along the pavement run;
What will they build my grand-son’s son?
— Paul Pickett (1869-1960)