A drive across Indiana on the National Road is a trip back in time. This was the route taken in the 19th century by pioneers hauling household goods west in Conestoga wagons, by stagecoaches carrying mail and by farmers moving crops to markets.
Today it’s paved and known as U.S. 40. Though it looks nothing like the primitive roadway it replaced, relics are everywhere. In Centerville, two original mile markers still stand. In Cambridge City, tourists can visit the Huddleston Farmhouse that served as a rest stop for weary travelers. In Stilesville, unmarked graves remember 12 who died of food poisoning en route from Ohio to California gold fields.
The National Road is called “the road that built the nation,” and in many ways it built central Indiana.
“Really the road was designed for economic development at a time that term hadn’t been coined yet,” said Joe Frost, community preservation specialist with Indiana Landmarks and executive director of the Indiana National Road Association.
The National Road was the country’s first federal highway, authorized by Congress in 1806 and designed to facilitate westward migration. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1811.
Laborers wielding axes, hoes and shovels cleared the path. They cut trees, removed stumps, leveled hills and broke rocks. They laid surface materials. The most advanced was macadam, a blend of pebbles and crushed stone; more typical were wood planks and packed dirt.
Work on the Indiana section began in 1827 at Richmond and ended 156 miles later at Terre Haute in 1834. The cost was a half-million dollars.
As the road moved west, settlers followed, crossing the Allegheny Mountains to settle the rich farmland of the Ohio River Valley. Towns popped up along the way; taverns, inns and stagecoach businesses flourished. Indiana’s population more than quadrupled between 1820 and 1840, and many arrived via the National Road.
The prosperity was short-lived. By the late 1830s, Congress faced money problems, and the project was suspended as the road reached Vandalia, Illinois, short of its intended terminus at St. Louis.
The federal government began surrendering ownership of the road to states, which implemented toll roads to pay for upkeep within their borders. Indiana was essentially broke and handed operations over to private companies.
Road usage continued to drop as the railroad emerged in the 1850s as the preferred mode of transit. It wasn’t until the invention of the automobile in the early 20th century that the road was reborn as U.S. 40 — this time paved with asphalt, which attracted a new wave of commercial activity. That ended with the development of the interstate system in the 1960s, which again diverted traffic.
Today the road is a tourist destination, recognized as an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration because of the 200 years of history it illustrates.
It’s called a “scenic byway,” Frost said, but a more fitting adjective is dynamic.
“There are layers of history,” he said. “You have piketowns, row houses, rolling countryside, suburban sprawl.”
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.