On the map, it’s almost a straight shot west and north from Baltimore before turning up toward Wheeling, W.Va., and then skating across Ohio and Indiana to end abruptly deep inside Illinois.
But the National Road — America’s first federally-funded interstate highway — was never a smooth ride.
“Old Route 40 was almost undrivable,” said John Daugherty, the founder of Fernwood Soap in Grantsville. “When I was a boy, trying to get to (Washington) D.C. was a nightmare. It took hours.”
Flatter, faster highways carry most of the westbound traffic today, but the old two-lane road still meanders through Maryland, holding historical secrets that date back to the road’s first incarnation as an Indian path.
Gens. Edward Braddock and George Washington lugged artillery over the route, and Lafayette traveled it in his time. The road passes hills of Antietam and Frederick that saw bloody Civil War battles, and the homes of notables like Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll and Barbara Fritchie from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem.
When it was approved by Congress in 1806, the National Road was meant to open the young nation’s western frontier to commerce and settlers.
“It’s a milestone in transportation history,” said Elise Butler, programs director for Preservation Maryland. “We want to highlight and bring attention to the historic resources of the road.”
To do so, Maryland and five other states are each planning to nominate their portions of the route to the U.S. Department of Transportation as an “All- American Road.” There are only nine such roads in the country, including such famous routes as California’s Pacific Coast Highway and the Freedom March route from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
The Federal Highway Administration started the All-American Road program in 1996 to commemorate routes with distinctive beauty, natural resources, recreational value, archaeology, history or cultural significance. Roads with All-American status receive the highest priority for federal funds for preservation, community development or other projects.
Maryland’s State Highway Administration won a $351,818 federal grant last July to develop a plan for the state’s 170-mile section, which is already recognized as a Maryland scenic byway. The plan should be completed by October 2000.
Officials with the Maryland National Road Partnership — five state agencies involved in the project — said the proposal will detail plans for historic preservation and environmental conservation, as well as economic development and tourism.
Proposals under discussion include promotional brochures and signs marking the road, as well as a visitor center, radio tour or low-interest loans to preserve history-related businesses. The total cost could be $20 to $30 million, with 80 percent from the federal government and the rest from state agencies and private investors, said Cindi Ptak, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Planning.
“We are trying to balance a lot of things: heritage tourism, local economic development and community revitalization,” Ptak said. “We want to come up with a common vision.”
The National Road was officially born in 1806, when Congress authorized construction of a highway to link the Atlantic to the burgeoning western frontier.
“The biggest key for the National Road was the opening up of America in general,” said David Shackelford, of the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum.
Boston, New York and Philadelphia competed with Baltimore to be the starting point of the road, but Charm City prevailed because it was closer to the Ohio River Valley and the roads across Maryland were the most extensive.
Construction began in 1811 at Cumberland and ended in 1839 in Vandalia, Ill. Plans to extend the route to Jefferson City, Mo., were scrapped when states could not agree on a Mississippi River crossing.
Maryland banks and turnpike companies, meanwhile, smoothed over the rough stagecoach trail from Cumberland east to Baltimore to complete the road now known variously as the Baltimore Turnpike, the Cumberland Turnpike, the Frederick Turnpike — or just the National Road. It largely follows the path of today’s U.S. Route 40.
“It was the first east-west highway. Roads that followed were similar in character and nature,” said Shackelford, who is writing a thesis on Maryland’s portion of the National Road.
Butler, of Preservation Maryland, called it “the center of early commerce and life in Maryland.”
Dotted by heavy white-granite mile markers, the road ushered passengers, mail and freight across the state. Herds of cattle, sheep and turkeys also made the journey, escorted by “drovers” who sought respite in the inns and taverns that sprouted along the road.
“The inns were the places where people went to get local news and where there were activities and events,” Ptak said. “At the end of the night, you could see why the inn was the social center of the town.”
Towns mushroomed along the road: Catonsville developed as a service point in the 19th century, and cities like New Market, Boonsboro, Ellicott City and Hancock all flourished.
The road’s decline began in the early 1830s, when the federal government shifted maintenance to the states, according to a 1916 guidebook about the road. At that time, the Maryland portion became a “turn pike”: Octagonal tollhouses were built with gates blocking the road, and gatekeepers turned the “pike” aside for drivers who paid the toll.
The completion of the B&O Railroad in 1852 cemented the road’s demise, followed by the construction of modern highways.
“It highlights the development of towns, from their rise as stagestops and taverns down through today, when the sleepy little towns were bypassed by the new highways,” Shackelford said.
Officials at Maryland’s Office of Tourism Development said they hope the All-American Road designation will bring more “heritage” tourists off those new highways and into the small towns.
“It’s an opportunity to have another itinerary, another opportunity for visitors to pull off the main streets and see the back roads,” said Hannah Byron, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Tourism.
Her office seeks heritage tourists because they stay longer and spend more. In 1997, 12 percent — or 2.2 million — of Maryland’s 19.2 million visitors came to see historical sites, and stayed an average of 3.6 nights compared with the overall average of 2.4 nights, said Andrea Thomas, a tourism office spokeswoman.
The office predicts that shops and sites along the way will gain the most from the extra tourist dollars, although they have not estimated how much more it will attract.
Most believe the National Road will enjoy modest success as a tourist attraction and will heighten Marylanders’ awareness of their own history.
“I don’t think we’ll have pilgrimages to the National Road, but the first of anything historical is very interesting to people,” said Butler.
Ptak said she hopes the National Road will help Marylanders reconnect to their history.
“Local citizens need to be reintroduced to their heritage,” she said. “We want to inject a certain mentality that has been lost over the years with contemporary lifestyles.” — Keri P. Mattox contributed to this report.