Here in the United States, when it comes to vacations there is nothing more iconic than a good old fashioned road trip. Sure, a trip to Disney World might come to mind, or it could be a day lounging by a pool followed by a night out on the Las Vegas Strip that makes you think about time off, but there’s something about curating the perfect playlist and hitting the open road that can wash away anyone’s stress. Add in a few travel companions and essential snacks and you have the makings of some truly memorable adventures. When we think about road trips, it’s highways like California’s 101 or Route 66 that come to mind, both of which traverse some of the most historic parts of the country. And before either of those roads was established, there was one that stretched back to some of the country’s earliest years: the USA’s National Road.
Established in 1811, the National Road became the very first federally funded highway in the USA. Designed to connect the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, the National Road earned the distinction as the road that would promote westward expansion, exploration, and settlement. For many, it promoted the spirit of adventure that still inspires many of us today, whether it’s setting off for a job in a new city or a week away to explore a new corner of the country. If you, too, are a fan of road trips, here’s why you might want to consider the communities and sights along the National Road as a destination for your next vacation.
A Brief History of the National RoadMore than two centuries ago, as the United States powered through its infancy and looked toward a future of expansion, the need for a highway to connect the country became clear. Both presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson called for a national highway, noting that such a road would be essential for unifying different parts of the country. Although some infrastructure existed by way of the Braddock Road, which opened in 1751 between Fort Cumberland and Fort Duquesne, there was a need for even more. In 1806, Congress authorized the development of the Cumberland Road, which was intended to both replace and expand upon the Braddock Road. Construction began in 1811 and concluded in 1818, when the road reached Wheeling, West Virginia. Further extensions and improvements were made until 1849, as the National Road inched forward into Ohio as well as Missouri. In 1849, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge opened to allow traffic to cross the Ohio River.
For decades, wagons of all sizes traversed the National Road as people and goods moved from spot to spot. Stagecoach wagons were a common sight and could travel more than 60 miles in a day. Conestoga wagons, which were pulled by teams of six horses, were much slower as they covered just 15 miles of road a day, but they were used to carry heavy freight.
As with so many improvements, though, there was a cost to both building and maintaining the National Road. By 1835, Congress began to transfer sections of the road to the states through which it ran. It lost its remaining hope for Congressional funding in 1840, when Congress voted against further allocations to complete some of the unfinished portions of the road. By the 1840s, railroads were beginning to gain popularity as a preferred method of transportation, and there was less interest in building roads designed for carriages and less efficient means of long-distance travel.
Even as the National Road lost favor with Congress, it fueled growth and prosperity as communities popped up along the route. Today, a primary legacy of the National Road is the towns that formed along a road that has since been repurposed and paved. Although trains defined transportation for decades, the National Road made a comeback when automobiles entered the scene, and the Federal Highway Act of 1921 transformed the National Road into Route 40. These days, the road still offers a scenic, historical drive, and whether your journey takes you along the full length or just a portion, there is a lot to see. Here are some of our favorite things to see when driving along the National Road.
LaVale Tollgate House
was established to serve as a collection point for the tolls that would keep the road maintained and operable. The tollhouse itself is an interesting structure; the building is two-stories tall, boasts seven sides, and is made of brick. Curiously, it was both the first tollhouse to be constructed along the route and was the last to operate.
Today, visiting the LaVale Tollgate House can practically transport you back to the mid-1800s despite the modern stores and conveniences that have popped up close by. During our stop, we lingered for a while to marvel at the price of the tolls—and on what people were required to pay a toll. For just three cents you could take a sleigh or a sled pulled by a team of oxen. Four cents granted passage to a horse and rider. For 12 cents you could take a score of cattle or a chaise with four wheels and two horses. Tolls around the world may be a bit more expensive these days, but we were just as happy to climb back into our car after our visit; the National Road is beautiful, but it’s a long way to go by horse!
Although a stop at the La Vale tollhouse won’t require much more than 10-15 minutes, there are some picnic tables on the property that will provide for a great stop for lunch if you have some extra time. It’s a unique spot to consider the history of travel in the United States as you watch modern cars speed by what is now a tribute to how it all started.
Fort Frederick State Park
It’s rare to stumble upon a true British fortress in the United States, but a relic leftover from the 1754-1763 French and Indian War makes for a fantastic stop along the National Road. Its design made it easy to defend and difficult to attack; the fort was not designed to withstand a true attack because it was believed an enemy would never be able to haul weapons to such a remote area. Instead, the fort initially provided a safe place for settlers to rest. Later, it housed prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War and an arsenal during the American Civil War. By the time it became part of the Maryland State Park system in 1922, it had firmed its place in history as a fortress that never really saw action.
Today, the fort is free to visit and often staffed by knowledgeable docents ready to bring its place in history to life for visitors. On a nice day it provides a beautiful backdrop for a hike along the grounds, but the real history lessons are inside, where you can explore the grounds at your leisure. The nearby Big Pool Lake and campgrounds are an inviting way to extend your visit to the area or until you are ready to rejoin the National Road for more exploration.
Medieval architecture also finds its place on the National Road with the inclusion of Casselman Bridge, which was built in 1813 to provide passage across the Casselman River. At its peak, the bridge carried thousands of people toward the western part of the country as they migrated toward frontier life. In 1911, the bridge was strengthened so that it could support the weight of cars that needed to cross in place of wagons, but by 1933 the bridge was somewhat replaced by another span of road. In 1953, with some sections starting to crumble, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. Fortunately, the bridge has undergone restoration efforts to prevent it from further disrepair.
Casselman Bridge is a beautiful place to visit, and although it’s no longer used to cross over a body of water it’s still worthwhile to walk along it and look down to where water once was. Maryland’s only natural lake, which was called Buckel’s Bog, dated back to about 15,000 years ago, and although today it has dried up its nonetheless an interesting geological site.
George Washington’s Headquarters
Located in Cumberland, Maryland, George Washington’s Headquarters is a humble log cabin that twice hosted the United States’ first president. In addition to using it as his headquarters during part of the French and Indian War, he also used it in 1794 when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion. While it is well-preserved, it’s important to know that the cabin isn’t actually in its original location; it was moved to its current spot from Fort Cumberland, where it was reassembled using the original logs.
Visitors to Cumberland can peek inside to see the cabin’s interior, but the doors are rarely open to the public outside of the town’s Heritage Days. Windows provide a great opportunity to see a small exhibit, which includes an early US flag and a bust of the young commander who would eventually lead the nation. Located just off the National Road, it’s a must-see destination for US History enthusiasts.
The National Road continues into Pennsylvania, where a stop at Fort Necessity will connect you to the opening battle of the French and Indian War. Although the French and Indian War ended with France relinquishing control over North America and India, it started with an early defeat for young commander George Washington at Fort Necessity. The park preserves the battleground and provides a nice visitor center to further your knowledge about its place in history, but the real value to a visit is to explore the battlefield yourself.
If the National Road itself is your reason for traveling, stop at the Mount Washington Tavern. During the National Road era, the tavern was a stage stop that provided supplies to travelers, but today the tavern is dedicated to educating visitors about the National Road. A visit won’t require more than a 30-minute stop, but it’s a great place to learn more about the history of the National Road.
More Information: NPS.gov/fone
War Correspondents Memorial
Located in Jefferson, Maryland, the War Correspondents Memorial is one of the only memorials dedicated to journalists who have lost their lives during war. While it is now maintained as part of the National Parks Service, it was erected in 1896 by George Alfred Townsend, who maintained it on his property until his death in 1914. The memorial, while beautiful, inspired a bit of controversy in that not all of the named etched into it are identified as journalists who died in combat. Further, names are infrequently added, which means many people who should be listed do not appear on the arch. Still, it’s a peaceful stop if you are traveling along the National Road, and the surrounding park provides a comfortable place to pause for a while.
Old National Pike MilestonesYou’re probably familiar with mile markers that let you know where you are when driving on interstate freeways and national highways, and back in the early days of the National Road they used markers in a different form for the same purpose. Large stones placed a mile apart helped travelers to know where on their journey that happened to be.
Today, many of the National Road’s original stones have been removed or lost to history, but a few of them still exist and can be visited to this day. The National Road milestones were placed beginning in Baltimore in 1805, so many of those that remain are weathered and hard to read, which makes them resemble tombstones along the side of the road. We tracked down a few and found them looking almost displaced among structures like parking lots and in suburban neighborhoods. They’re 30 inches tall by 12 inches wide and about 8 inches in depth, and they have a number inscribed on them that represents the number of miles they are from Baltimore. If you’re looking for a bit of a scavenger hunt during your drive along the National Road, try to spot the remaining milestones as you pass by!
Dan’s Rock Overlook
Dan’s Rock, the appropriately named highest point on Dans Mountain in Maryland, takes visitors to almost 3,000 feet above sea level and treats travelers to great views of the Allegheny Mountains. Named for the daredevil son of one of Allegheny County’s first settlers, today it provides a beautiful overlook of the Potomac River Valley. It’s not the pristine park you may expect from the top of a mountain; Dan’s Rock is somewhat covered in graffiti, which contributes an edgy vibe that might have agreed well with the lookout’s namesake.
It takes a short hike up some stairs and across some boulders to reach Dan’s Rock Overlook, but the views are worth it. As you traverse the National Road, it’s a nice stop to stretch your legs and appreciate the scenery that has welcomed travelers just like you for centuries.
John Hanson Statue: America’s First President
Despite the fact history books agree that George Washington was the first president of the United States, could it be that every one of them got that information wrong? Some historians have claimed a Maryland man named John Hanson may actually have a claim to the title— even if it’s somewhat unlikely. The reason for the confusion is that Hanson’s official title was “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” under the Articles of Confederation, and while it may not have been quite the same job it was important nonetheless. In fact, that “other” first president, George Washington, congratulated Hanson on being elected to the position:
Maryland is one of only two original US colonies that doesn’t have a president who was born there (the other one is Rhode Island), but the state is very proud of Hanson. Route 50 in Maryland is called the John Hanson Highway, and there’s a statue of John Hanson in Frederick— right on the National Road path— outside the courthouse building. There are also statues of Hanson outside the Maryland state house in Annapolis and inside the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
Want to learn more about John Hanson? Check out this video from YouTube for more of his story!
The First Washington MonumentAs it turns out, you don’t need to drive into Washington, DC to see the Washington Monument— you can see the very first Washington Monument just off the National Road! Built in just one day in 1827, the Washington Monument in Boonsboro, Maryland was built by residents from stones they hand carried to the location, and after beginning work at 7:30 in the morning they were finished with the fifteen-foot-tall tower by four o’clock in the afternoon. The tower has benefitted from continued improvements over the years, including an expansion that took its height to 30 feet.
While you may still be partial to Washington, DC’s Washington Monument, don’t overlook this stop when driving along the National Road. Located in a beautiful part of the state, it’s a nice spot to take in the scenery and appreciate the new trivia the site has to share.
Burkittsville and the Blair Witch
If you’re a fan of the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project (or any of its sequels) then it’s worth a quick detour from the National Road to drive into Burkittsville, Maryland. The movie was set in the very woods that the War Correspondents Memorial is found, but that’s only in the story— the actual filming took place in other parts of Maryland. There are a few spots around town that fans of the film may recognize. Be sure to check out Spook Hill to experience an unusual phenomenon when you put your car in neutral at the base of the hill; you start rolling uphill. Some say it’s an optical illusion, others say it’s ghosts from the nearby Civil War Battle of Antietam pushing your car, but we’ll let you decide. Just remember to turn on your hazard lights for safety if you try it, and don’t attempt it if there are other cars (or people) in the area!
Map of the National Road
The National Road includes much more than the small section we visited in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The image below shows the full route of the National Road when it was completed.
Each state along the route has interesting buildings and locations related to their part of the road. Visit these National Road sites to learn more!
Enjoy the National Road!
Although road trips are often defined by a combination of predetermined stops and unexpected detours, the National Road offers both as well as a unique history lesson and a chance to pay homage to the original road trips that defined American life in the 1800s. In a way, life in the United States has always been defined by travel. Native Americans traveled in search of food and shelter. Later, settlers seeking a new life traveled across an ocean and along the eastern seaboard in pursuit of a new place to call home. Just a couple of centuries later, the National Road began to usher people to a new frontier and a whole new world of challenges and opportunities that started with a simple toll at a tollhouse still standing today.
Road trips today often reflect all of those sentiments: a desire to embrace adventure, learn something new, and appreciate the memories to be made along the way. As we discovered new places to see along the National Road, we were impressed by the hidden corners the USA still has to share with us, but more than that was the sense of adventure sparked by time we spent on the road. There’s nothing like a good road trip to awaken, motivate, and challenge you. If you’re ready for a great road trip, the National Road is ready for you.