Connecting east with west

Photo from the National Road Association of Illinois. 
A visitor to Illinois from the east coast has many easy and convenient ways of reaching the Land of Lincoln. Daily flights from points up and down the coast deliver passengers to Illinois airports around the clock. Direct Amtrak service connects Illinois with New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and seven east-west interstate highways and countless smaller roads bring travelers across Illinois’ eastern border somewhere between Lake Michigan and the state’s southern tip.

Two hundred years ago it was not so easy. Before construction began on one of the nation’s first large-scale public works projects in 1806, the frontier on the far bank of the Wabash was about as hard to reach as the cities on the far shore of the Atlantic.

Leaders in Washington recognized the need for a connection between the young nation’s eastern seaboard and its newly-settled interior, and the many benefits such a connection would bring. Thus began the construction of the road which would connect the east coast with Illinois.

In 1806 most roads in America were dirt trails originally cut by hand and worn down by human and animal feet. The road, which would come to be called the National Road, would not be that different, but in some sections it would incorporate innovative new roadbuilding designs such as crushed rock or “corduroy,” which consisted of wooden timbers laid side by side. It would take more than 30 years to build, but it would eventually help tie the eastern and western sections of the new country together.

Neither Congress nor the President had any intention of laying out a federal appropriation for road building, a project which most at the time generally believed should be left to state and local governments. To find the funds for this multi-state project, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin came up with a system by which the sale of public lands along the route would generate the money for the construction. Variations of Gallatin’s plan would become common as roads and railroads stretched across the west in the 19th century.

The first question to be answered concerned where the route would go. At the time, the primary routes to the west were constrained by the location of passes through the Appalachians. The route chosen for the National Road would follow an existing path through the mountains: beginning 100 miles upstream of Washington on the Potomac River near the town of Cumberland, Maryland, then crossing over the mountains and continuing across the Ohio River into the new state of Ohio and the territories to its west. Because of its starting point, the highway has been alternately known as the Cumberland Road, which in turn led to the naming of one of the Illinois counties along its route.

Construction began in 1811 and gradually worked its way west. It proceeded in fits and starts, taking seven years to reach Wheeling, Virginia; now West Virginia; before finally crossing the Ohio River (by boat: a bridge would not be built at Wheeling until 1849). On May 15, 1820, Congress authorized an extension through Illinois to St. Louis, and in 1825 another extension farther westward into Missouri.

But these legs of the road were well off into the future. Survey crews for the road did not even reach Illinois until 1828, ten years after statehood. A surveyor named Joseph Shriver began his work near the point where the Illinois-Indiana border separated from the Wabash River.

His survey would proceed in a remarkably straight line west-southwest from Terre Haute, Indiana, to a point just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Construction in Illinois would proceed differently than it had in the earlier days of the road work. For one thing, by the time workers started building in Illinois, the original sections they had constructed twenty years before in Maryland and Pennsylvania were already deteriorating. Money was now being spent for new construction in the west and repairs in the east, including a new hard-surface paving process called “macadamizing.”

When the economy crashed in the Panic of 1837, funding for the National Road went down with it. Parts of the road were turned over to the states, some of which began building toll booths to collect the funds to keep the road in operation.

Congress finally pulled the plug in 1838, bringing Uncle Sam’s total investment in the project to $6.8 million. The road, meanwhile, was not finished. It had not yet reached the Mississippi, instead stopping right outside Vandalia, Illinois, which had just lost the state capital to Springfield. In honor of the Cabinet member who helped make the road a reality, its path in front of the state house in Vandalia is named Gallatin Street.

The effects of the funding shortfall were apparent.

The supervisor of the Illinois segment of the road, William Greenup (also the surveyor of the town of Vandalia), was faced with some tough choices about how to extend the road with dwindling resources. Some parts of the road in Illinois had not been fully cleared: trees had been cut down but the stumps remained – oftentimes the stumps were left in place but sawed down to a level at which a loaded wagon could safely pass above them.

The National Road did not make it to the Mississippi, but it achieved its goal nonetheless. By the 1830s, pioneer families were loading up their belongings and leaving the crowded cities of the east coast for the open lands of the prairies. These new settlers followed the road to its end in Illinois and then spread out to settle the surrounding area. Illinois’ population tripled between 1820 and 1830, then tripled again by 1840.

The road helped to create new communities along its route. Immigrants fleeing instability in central Europe in the early 1830s came to America and followed the road to the farmlands of central Illinois. Travelers settled towns all along its route, creating historical sites which still stand today. Its impact on Illinois’ history and the present is both deep and far-reaching.

During his years as a circuit-riding lawyer, Abraham Lincoln used the National Road to attend court in Marshall, the seat of Clark County and Greenup when it was the seat of Cumberland County. Marshall’s founder, William Archer, spoke in support of his friend during a campaign, calling him, “as pure a patriot as ever lived.” Nearby Casey was one of the many towns created due to the road, and one of many in the area which achieved prosperity in the early 20th century oil boom. Other towns like Altamont and St. Elmo trace their origins to stops on the National Road or on the railroad line that succeeded it after the Civil War. In Greenville, the transcontinental road met the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Charles Johnson wrote a history of the Bond County town of Pocahontas and recalled watching the many different kinds of traffic on the National Road as a child in the 1850s.

“In my childhood I got much pleasure in watching what passed by on the National Road. Now it was maybe a drove of very slow-moving hogs, now a flock of sheep, next a drove of cattle and then a bunch of horses led by halters and in all cases one or more faithful dogs were along watching and dutifully taking orders from their masters.”

By the 1850s, railroad service had expanded into Illinois to such an extent that the National Road seemed obsolete. Far to the north, Chicago became one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation and the National Road became an afterthought. But its story does not end there.

With the turn of the 20th century and the rise of the bicycle and then the automobile, road travel was once again in style, and the National Road was no exception. Joseph Shriver’s original survey across mid-Illinois formed the route for one of America’s first transcontinental highways, U.S. 40, which closely parallels the route of the National Road from Maryland to the central United States. It was followed in the mid-20th century by the construction of Interstate 70 along the same route.

Today Interstate travelers crossing this portion of mid-Illinois still visit the many towns and sites along the old National Road, which has now followed the same route across Illinois for nearly 200 years. The communities have formed the National Road Association to remember their shared history and promote their future.