National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
The National Road
The National Road, today called U.S. Route 40, was the first highway built entirely with federal funds. The road was
authorized by Congress in 1806 during the Jefferson Administration. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland in
1811. The route closely paralleled the military road opened by George
Washington and General Braddock in 1754-55.
By 1818, the road had been completed to the Ohio River at Wheeling,
which was then in Virginia. Eventually the road was pushed through
central Ohio and Indiana, reaching Vandalia, Illinois in the 1830s
where construction ceased due to a lack of funds. The National Road opened the
Ohio River Valley and the Midwest for settlement and commerce.
The opening of the road saw thousands of travelers
heading west over the Allegheny Mountains to
settle the rich land of the Ohio River Valley. Small
towns along the National Road's path began to
grow and prosper with the increase in population.
Towns such as Cumberland, Uniontown,
Brownsville, Washington, and Wheeling evolved
into commercial centers of business and industry.
Uniontown was the headquarters for two major
stagecoach lines which carried passengers over the
National Road. Brownsville, on the Monongahela
River, was a center for steamboat building and river
freight hauling. Many small towns and villages
along the road contained taverns, blacksmith
shops, and livery stables.
Taverns were probably the
most important and numerous businesses found on
the National Road. It is estimated there was about
one tavern every mile on the National Road. There
were two different classes of taverns on the road.
The stagecoach tavern was one type. It was the
more expensive accommodation, designed for the
affluent traveler. Mount Washington Tavern was a
stagecoach tavern. The other class of tavern was the
wagon stand, which would have been more
affordable for most travelers. A wagon stand would
have been similar to a modern "truck stop." All
taverns regardless of class offered three basic
things: food, drink, and lodging.
During the heyday of the National Road, traffic was
heavy throughout the day and into the early
evening. Almost every kind of
vehicle could be seen on
the road. The two most
common vehicles were the
stagecoach and the
Conestoga wagon. Stagecoach travel was designed
with speed in mind. Stages
would average 60 to 70 miles
in one day.
The Conestoga wagon was
the "tractor-trailer" of the
19th century. Conestogas were designed to carry
heavy freight both east and west over the Allegheny
These wagons were brightly painted with red
running gears, Prussian blue bodies, and white
canvas coverings. A
Conestoga wagon, pulled
by a team of six draft
horses, averaged 15 miles a
Cast iron mile markers, set out
in the early 1830s, let travelers
know distances on the road.
Many of the original road
markers may be found on the
north side of the highway.
Fiberglass reproduction obelisks were
set out to replace the missing cast iron obelisks in
By the early 1850s, technology was changing the
way people traveled. The steam locomotive was
being perfected and soon railroads would cross the
Allegheny Mountains. The people of Southwestern
Pennsylvania fought strongly to keep the railroad
out of the area, knowing the impact it would have
on the National Road. In 1852, the
Pennsylvania Railroad was completed
to Pittsburgh and shortly
after, the B & O
This spelled doom for the
National Road. As the traffic quickly
declined, many taverns went out of business.
An article in Harper's Magazine in November 1879
declared, "The national turnpike that led over the
Alleghenies from the East to the West is a glory
departed...Octogenarians who participated in the
traffic will tell an enquirer that never before were
there such landlords, such taverns, such dinners,
such whiskey...or such an endless calvacades of
coaches and wagons." A poet lamented "We hear
no more the clanging hoof and the stagecoach
rattling by, for the steam king rules the traveled
world, and the Old Pike is left to die."
Just as technology caused the National Road to
decline, it also led to its revival with the invention of
the automobile in the early 20th century. As "motor
touring" became a popular pastime, the need for
improved roads began to grow. Many early wagon
and coach roads such as the National Road were
revived into smoothly-paved automobile roads. The
Federal Highway Act of 1921 established a program
of federal aid to encourage the states to build "an
adequate and connected system of highways,
interstate in character.” By the mid 1920s, the
grid system of numbering highways was in
place, thus creating U.S.
Route 40 out of the ashes
of the National Road.
Due to the increased automobile traffic on U.S.
Route 40, a completely new network of businesses
grew to aid the 20th-century traveler. Hotels,
motels, restaurants, and diners replaced the stage
taverns and wagon stands. The service station
replaced the livery stables and blacksmith shops.
Some of the National Road era buildings regained
new life as restaurants, tourist homes, antique
shops, and museums. Route 40 served as a major
east-west artery until the Federal-Aid Highway Act
of 1956 created the interstate
system as we know it
today. With the
opening of the
traffic was diverted
The "Old Pike" has certainly not been "left to die"
as the poet of the 19th century lamented.
Technology of the 21th century combined with
increased interest in historic preservation has led to
the creation of heritage corridors. The National
Road Heritage Corridor has been designated a state
heritage park to preserve and showcase
Pennsylvania's rich industrial heritage. The
National Road Heritage Corridor is a partnership
among government, businesses, organizations, and
individuals all working together to enhance the
region's economy through tourism.
The National Road story is told at the Fort
Necessity/National Road Interpretive and
Education Center. It is a story of American growth,
development, and migration — the story of the past,
present, and future of American travel.
"The Historic National Road" was designated an
All-American Road by U.S. Secretary of
Transportation in 2002. The designation means it
has features that do not exist elsewhere in the
United States and is scenic enough to be a tourist
destination unto itself.
For more information on other historic sites and
touring along the National Road, visit the National
Road Heritage Corridor web site at
EXPERIENCE YOUR AMERICA