The National Road in Washington County

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A marker along the National Road
A marker along the National Road
Photo credit: dbking/CC BY 2.0

The National Road was the first federally funded highway in the U.S. Referred to as “The Road That Built The Nation”, it is still used today. It passes through downtown Washington, PA as U.S. Route 40.

The National Road was built two hundred years ago to provide a stable route from the eastern seaboard through the Allegheny Mountains and westward to open up settlement in what is now referred to as the Midwest. George Washington conceived of the project.

The road started in Cumberland, Maryland. It followed the earlier Braddock Road, which had been just a path for wagons to roll or people to walk. Near Uniontown, Fayette County, Braddock Road branched north to Pittsburgh. The National Road continued from there past pike towns and through South Strabane Township to Washington, PA and points west.

Six miles west of Washington, the road passed over an S bridge at Claysville. S bridges, which are shaped roughly like the letter S, were built in the U.S. in the early 1800s to cross streams that curved and had uneven banks. The Claysville S bridge was constructed of stone. The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the bridge reported “the extant part of the bridge remains in good condition.”

A litle past the S Bridge was the Caldwell Tavern, where travelers could stop for the night, enjoy a meal, and have a drink or two.

At Wheeling, West Virginia, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge was built to take the National Road over the Ohio River into Ohio. At the time, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world. During the Civil War, that bridge was strategically important. The bridge still carries local traffic, although U.S. 40 has been redirected over another bridge that was constructed for Interstate 70.

Washington was the western frontier. The National Road made it possible for wagons and stagecoaches to take settlers west of Pennsylvania during the American expansion. Farmers and the U.S. mail relied on the National Road. The road provided industrial transportation that opened this area for coal mining. At the peak of the road, there averaged a tavern for every mile to provide food, drink and lodging for all those people traveling the road. For generations, the availability of the National Road was woven in the national fabric.

The National Road was constructed across the state of Ohio as a condition of Ohio becoming a state. “The opening of the National Road saw thousands of travelers heading west over the Allegheny Mountains to settle the rich land of the Ohio River Valley,” Legends of America wrote.

The road was eventually built halfway through southern Illinois. From start to finish it was 820 miles long. It brought prosperity to southwestern PA.

The federal government shifted the costs of the road to the states that, in turn, imposed tolls. The rise of a railroad system provided faster, more direct routes. Budgets and changing technology diminished the importance of the route.

The National Road became Route 40 in the late 1920s. Route 40 pretty much follows the path blazed by the National Road – although its exact route through downtown Washington has been adjusted.

In 1949, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a roadside marker in Washington County noting the historic importance of the National Road. The text read as follows:

Our first national road; fathered by Albert Gallatin. Begun in 1811 at Cumberland, Md.; completed to Wheeling in 1818. Toll road under State control, 1835-1905. Rebuilt, it is present U.S. Route 40.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker Search

Interstate 70 largely parallels the National Road. The interstate is designed without sharp curves, steep grades and narrow bridges, which the National Road is known for.

The National Road still carries a lot of local and regional traffic.

Step back in history during the National Pike Festival held in Scenery Hill in Washington County in May. Scenery Hill is about 20 minutes southeast of Washington, PA. People wear clothes from way back when. A wagon train arrives. Live music is performed. There are craft and food vendors, activities for children, community church and a fireworks display, because what’s a festival in Southwestern PA without fireworks? The National Pike Festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Pike Steam Gas and Horse Association runs their Spring Show in conjunction with the National Pike Festival. While it was canceled in 2020, The National Pike Steam Gas and Horse Association operated their Spring Show as a standalone event in 2021.

The National Road is also known as the National Pike, because Pennsylvania charged tolls to use the road from 1835 until 1905. East of Uniontown, the National Road is also called the Cumberland Road.