Smoke Signals

Jul/Aug 2012





Staff Writer

Blowin' Smoke




How Did They Get Here

How do most people envision the trappers and explorers of the west actually getting to the mountains? Many of the now famous mountain men came from the east. We know that most arrived by first getting to Saint Louis. Okay, from Saint Louis to the mountains was relatively straight forward, the routes blazed by Lewis and Clark, Ashley, and the various traders and fur companies. But we don’t hear much of brigades trekking from the east to Saint Louis. Many records are there, journals and diaries, letters and news accounts, and later interviews of old-timers who made the trip in their youth. But few mid-1830s travelers specify just what their route to Saint Louis was.

Cumberland Gap, the Alleghenies, rocks, mud, and dangerous fords made early travel east to west a dangerous undertaking. Today’s U.S. Route40 covers portions of the National Road. Parts of it have been designated as the National Pike or Baltimore National Pike. Between Frederick, Maryland and Georgetown in Washington, D.C., is now Maryland Route 355 and is sometimes referred to as the Washington National Pike It is paralleled by Interstate 270.

The National Road was the first major highway to be built by the federal government. Its history actually began with the Braddock Road opened by the Ohio Company in 1751. It ran from Cumberland, Maryland to Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River ( site of today’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). It got its name during the French and Indian War when it was used by General Edward Braddock and George Washington when they attempted to assault Fort Duquesne.

In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson authorized construction of the Cumberland Road, This replaced the Braddock Road for travel between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and followed pretty much the same route as the Braddock. but just east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania instead of going north to Pittsburgh, it continued west to Wheeling, West Virgina (then part of Virginia), on the Ohio River.

In May, 1811 the government awarded a contract to Henry McKinley to build the first section of the National Road which was to run from Cumberland, Maryland to St. Louis, Missouri. The first portion was completed in August, 1818. In May, 1820, Congress authorized an extension to St Louis. On March 3, 1825, they authorized a further section to go across the Missouri to Jefferson City, MO. Work on the portion between Wheeling and Zanesville, Ohio, used the already established Zane’s Trace. It was completed in 1833 to Columbus, Ohio and in 1838 to Springfield, Ohio.

In April, 1835, the government transferred the section east of Wheeling to the three states, who in turn made it a turnpike. The last government appropriation was made in May, 1838. In 1840 Congress voted against completing the rest of the road, the deciding factor being the rapid advance of the railroads. The old road was not a bad route at all as proven by many of today’s highways that travel along portions of the National Road.

The old road ended at the Kaskaskia River in Vandalia, Illinois. Going east from there it went through south central Illinois, into Indiana where now are Terre Haute and Indianapolis. In Ohio it passed Dayton, Springfield, Columbus, Zanesville and Morristown before going into Wheeling, WV. It then crossed Pennsylvania into Maryland to the city of Cumberland, where it had begun.

The National Road made the previously onerous and difficult trip over the Allegheny mountains a comparative lark. Accounts of travelers recall horse drawn wagons nearly touching each other, herds of cattle and sheep, and celebrities such as Davy Crockett, Harrison, Houston, Taylor, Polk and Allen, seen using the route. Nearly every mile sported a tavern and in every tavern a pretty maid. The food to be had rivaled the finest in New York.

The road at first was layered with rock and gravel, 18 inches deep at center tapering to 12 inches at the sides to produce good drainage. Later, about 1837, it was paved with Macadam. Stone bridges spanned the rivers, making dangerous fords a thing of the past.

The road provided for fast travel. In 1837, the mail was delivered from Washington. D.C. to Indianapolis in 65 hours. It could get to St. Louis in another 29. In 1832, the Bears line coach company advertised trips from Dayton to Indianapolis in two and a half days with nightly stops at inns or taverns. Express stage companies claimed to travel 150 miles a day!

At least from a great portion of the country in the east, during the early 1830's to the 1840's Atlantic to St. Louis was a surprisingly (to us) quick and easy jaunt. Judging by the natural abilities of the men of the fur trade, is it unwise to think they may have used the National Road?


Bill Cunningham

NAF #006



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