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 Highway 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,” says 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 half a 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,” says Frost, but a more fitting adjective is dynamic. “There are layers of history. You have piketowns, row houses, rolling countryside, suburban sprawl.”
Frost oversees a museum at the Huddleston Farmhouse with exhibits tracing the history of the road from pioneer times to the present. Tours of the site are offered at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. every Friday, April through November, and by appointment by calling (317) 822-7939.
Directions to Huddleston Farmhouse: Take the National Road (U.S. 40) to the west side of Cambridge City. The GPS address is 838 National Road.
EDITORS NOTE: This is a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial In December 2016. The essays focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, in chronological order, tying each to a place or current event in Indiana that continues to tell the story of the state.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. She has written extensively about taxes, good governance, higher education, civic education and K-12 reform. Contact her at [email protected]
Indiana Policy Review Foundation is a non-profit education foundation focused on state and municipal issues.