Highway System

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The National Road:
A Leeway into the Modern Highway System

How long does it take to get from Maryland to California? To answer that question, one may look up plane tickets, but other people who are more prone to ground travel may look up a highway or state route to get them from point A to point B. The question is, do they know where the idea of that type of system came from? In the light of growing concern and popular demand for products to be transported in the western areas of the country, Thomas Jefferson proposed a road be constructed to extend and satisfy the needs of uneasy minds. In 1806, Congress passed the law that enabled the construction of such a road. This road would become “the nation's first multi-state, federally funded highway” (http://www.nationalroadpa.org) and donned the name Cumberland Road, or better known as the National Road. The National Road and other major roadways literally paved the way to faster travel, a widespread of population growth and the ultimate birth of the United States Federal Highway System.

“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson believed that a trans-Appalachian road was necessary for unifying the young country” (Longfellow). They were correct in that manner and in 1806, Jefferson proposed the idea to Congress who accepted the plan to build the eventual 800-mile stretch of road. Construction on the National Road began in 1811 in Cumberland, Maryland after surveying 130 miles of wilderness in order to determine the grade and terrain through which the road would pass through. By 1818, those 130 miles of the National Road reached the town of Wheeling, West Virginia. After completing the first stretch of road, Congress appropriated the necessary funds to survey west of Wheeling with instructions that the road between that Ohio River port and St. Louis be as straight as possible (http://www.nationalroadpa.org). States that the National Road ran through received the rights and responsibilities to appropriate as they saw fit. Road repairs became the only federal government responsibility and the contents of the road, while a technological advancement in construction, were relatively simple.

The base of the road consisted of stone and a gravel/sand surface thirty-two feet in width. The center twenty feet had a depth of 18 inches, while the twelve-foot edges were twelve inches deep (http://www.nationalroadpa.org). Each layer had certain specifications; the deepest layer must have stones no smaller than seven inches in diameter, and the superficial layer contained stones no smaller than three inches in diameter (Crumrin). Rounded off stones allowed better drainage for the road, as well as ditches dug out where water or other materials would collect. “Macadamization” as it was called, was considered the best option for the “paving” of these early roads in the United States as the time (Crumrin). Above: Men working on a portion of the National Road

Above: Fox Creek Bridge today and as it was in the early 1900s
With the development of the National Road, came the building of bridges along the rugged pathway westward. The National Road seldom came across 90-degree angles at rivers and creeks, and seemed to run parallel to these waterways. “S-Bridges” solved this issue as they spanned the waterway to direct the road across and continue. Rather than building right angle 90 degree bridges, “S-Bridges” became a more unique and popular feature for crossing small creek beds and minor rivers (Ohio National Road Association). So called for their shape, “S-Bridges” were easily navigable enough for wagons and carriages to travel. “S-Bridges” are now used for pedestrian traffic only due to the wooden structure inability to support common cars used today (Longfellow). The pictures above are ones of the Fox Creek “S-Bridge” that is located near New Concord, Ohio. The one on the right is a drawing of the bridge in the early 1900s and on the left is as it stands today. There were also straight...
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