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In Maryland, the National Road – America's First Highway West – Still Leads to Amazing Places

By Mike Tidwell
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 6, 1999; Page E01

Something catches my eye that first afternoon along a winsome stretch of rural road just outside West Friendship, Md., in Howard County. It's more than just the wood-shingled log cabin that appears to be at least 175 years old. It's the cabin door. It's just 3 1/2 feet high. It looks absurd. Why so short?

I knock at the old yellow farmhouse next to the empty cabin for an answer. No response. I holler inside a red-roofed barn out back, and only a cat meows from atop a rusty pile of tools. I stick my head inside a series of rambling greenhouses strewn across the back field of this working farm and finally find owner Joe Festerling. He's a German immigrant with a pronounced accent and he's rearranging a forest of flourishing begonias.

"The cabin door?" he says in a heavy German accent that renders the word "the" as "zee." He wipes black soil from his hands and leads me back to the roadside cabin. "The door was for the thieves, you know."

It's Day One of my self-declared mission: to traverse nearly the entire state of Maryland along an all-but-forgotten relic called the National Road, one of the nation's oldest and most fabled pioneer trails west. Built between 1811 and 1852 along a course that would later become (mostly) two-lane U.S. Route 40, the National Road was a turnpike spanning 750 miles from the Chesapeake Bay to Vandalia, Ill. It crossed a middle passage of the Appalachian Mountains and so opened the fertile Midwest to settlers. I'm exploring the trail's 200-mile Maryland segment, from the sea-level flatness of Baltimore's Lombard Street to the ear-popping mountains of Maryland's western panhandle.

And I'm getting my first extended history lesson. According to farmer Festerling, this particular cabin was built to house workers constructing the National Road through Howard County. The door was made barely 3 1/2 feet high so that the highway thieves and other rascals of that frontier period would have to crouch low to enter, a disorienting procedure that gave people inside the chance to wallop them over the head.

"Very clever, don't you think?" says Festerling, simulating a chop to his forehead.

As Festerling speaks, time's curtains seem to part and I fall through. It's not just the obvious authenticity of the cabin, with its flat-sided logs "chinked" together with stones in the pioneer style. Nor is it the treasury of 19th-century "trail" artifacts that Festerling has collected behind the cabin, including an 1840 Conestoga wagon jack made entirely of hand-forged iron.

It's the man's accent. German pioneers settled all along the National Road in Howard and Frederick counties in the 19th century, and Festerling has followed suit, drawn to America's open spaces like his ancestors, turning the soil along this surviving ribbon of roadway history.

So when he drops to one knee to show me how the wagon jack works with his dirt-stained hands, and as his German "zees" and "zats" fly through the air, I might as well be back on the original road. I can almost hear the rattle of stagecoaches and see the buckskin-clad pioneers who, at the National Road's peak around 1840, traveled west by the tens of thousands, toting guns and axle grease and leading herds of cattle.

Remarkably, this time travel feeling occurs numerous times during my three-day journey across the state. The history of the National Road is, arguably, the history of America itself, and Maryland's portion is loaded with palpable signposts. From the Colonial-era structures of old Baltimore to the 19th-century train depots scattered along the way; from the quirkily haunted frontier inns to the little mountain taverns where George Washington stopped; from the blood-soaked ground of Civil War battlefields to the time-capsule general stores and the encroaching urban sprawl of modern life--Maryland's old turnpike is the story of America spread across 192 miles of two-lane wonder.

I stop to stretch my legs along a sharp curve called Devil's Elbow, between Catonsville and Ellicott City, just outside of Baltimore along the old National Road.

"It's from all the motorists who die here," says Tony Poleski when I ask about the Devil's Elbow moniker. "Four people in the past two years--trying to make this nasty turn and dip." Poleski is a produce vendor along the Elbow, his sign saying: "You'll love our sweet corn." He talks more about the traffic: "We also have a problem with motorists hitting deer here."

I thank him for the information and get back in my car, driving the curve very slowly and with my eyes wide open. My snug seat belt suggests more than just the risks of modern car travel; it reminds me of the hundred-fold hazards faced by immigrant settlers with pack mules negotiating steep hills, swollen creeks and hairpin curves with names like Devil's Elbow. Of course, 175 years ago the National Road running along this very curve was much cruder, only 30 feet wide and paved with rough stones. It was known to wash out and tear up bare feet and rattle the skulls of teamsters. But it was the superhighway of its time, and it fueled Baltimore's rise as a great port city with a surge of trade goods from the West, including barrels of Indian corn, bear grease and furs from as far away as the Rockies.

Baltimore's still a big town, of course. I spend two hours getting in and out of downtown thanks to a trio of I-95 wrecks and an Orioles game bottleneck. But now, with the Devil's Elbow behind me and deer in the vicinity, I'm finally feeling the freedom of the open two-lane road, my car pointed west.

A patchwork of contemporary designations traces the National Road's original pioneer trail through Maryland--Scenic 40, Alternate 40, regular 40 and Maryland 144. It's the latter that takes me into the stone masonry of historic downtown Ellicott City, established 1772. On the edge of town, a 200-year-old log cabin--with rope beds and candle lanterns--is preserved as a typical way station along the turnpike. At such places, located every 10 miles or so, a teamster was sure to find an able blacksmith and a stable boy forking hay. Rates were standard: For $1.75 a teamster got his dinner, feed for six horses and all the whiskey he could drink. Today, on summer weekends when he's not away on U.S. Navy duty, area resident Chris Petronis plays the role of an old turnpike road surveyor here, equipped with quill pen and old maps and a 19th-century range pole that keeps youngsters transfixed.

As I head west again on 144, the horrors of sprawl development threaten to poke holes in my time-travel trance. Cattle guards give way to gated subdivisions. Names like "Oster Farm Road" yield to "Pink Dogwood Court." But eventually rural country prevails again, green and expansive, and the towns I pass through--Lisbon and New Market--are small, old and "linear." These are old turnpike towns, with few cross streets and no downtown square because the businesses ran in a line along the pike, catering to travelers with road-facing taverns, inns and stables. Many of these structures still remain, like New Market's old Utz Hotel (now Mealey's restaurant), where the original wooden pump for watering horses stands beside a fireplace that has warmed guests every year since 1836.

More than a few turnpike towns have smaller populations today than they did 150 years ago for the obvious reason that the road is utterly obsolete. Its demise, paradoxically, is also the story of America, as technological leaps in the form of canals, railroads and finally, definitively, interstate highways, tapped the road's traffic. Today, the turnpike seems all but forgotten except by the small-town barbers, grocers and farmers who live along its course. Nor has the road jelled as a tourist destination. Over the next three days, I won't meet a single traveler doing what I'm doing. Two of my three nights I'll be the only guest at old inns along the way.

All of which is immensely appealing. I feel, well, like a pioneer, pushing west on my own, blazing a trail that few people--alive, at least--have traveled in full. I'm thoroughly energized by this thought as I reach downtown Frederick and find a worn but dignified granite milepost marking the original turnpike outside Blueridge News and Spirits on East Patrick Street. A few blocks away, I admire a stretch called "Shab Row"--so named because it was once abandoned to a shabby, rundown appearance--where perfectly restored log structures once housed wheelwrights plying their trade for Conestoga teamsters.

For the gushing stream of wagons heading west, the suddenly mountainous landscape outside Frederick must have given pause. I follow Alternate 40 up and over a ridge called Braddock Heights just as the sun is setting. Passing Middletown, Md., whose small-town church-steeple charm is right out of New England, I begin the more serious climb up fabled South Mountain. This is just a warm-up for the bigger mountains west, but already I slip my car into low gear just before crossing the Appalachian Trail. I can't help but imagine the dusty, foot-sore drovers who once trudged up this slope with their bawling herd of cows or bleating sheep, sustained only by the promise of $2-per-acre virgin land in the Ohio Valley still so very far away.

At the summit of South Mountain, at Turner's Gap, I arrive at arguably the most famous structure along the entire turnpike in Maryland: the Old South Mountain Inn. Nearly 250 years old, it has served trail travelers continuously since 1790, first as an inn and--in more recent years--as a restaurant only. If ever one could will that stone walls speak, this would be the spot. Andrew Jackson took the National Road to his first inauguration--and stayed here. Abe Lincoln did the same as a freshman congressman in 1841. And George Washington almost certainly stopped here as a young Indian fighter.

But it's the inn's role in the Civil War that's on my mind as I order dinner with the day's last light seeping through beautiful diamond pane windows. For decades, the National Road was key to fueling America's westward expansion. That expansion, by 1861, threatened to tear North and South apart over the issue of slavery's spread west. After dinner, I visit the inn's imposing and somberly lighted "Civil War Room," whose 15 paintings commemorate the pivotal 1862 battle of South Mountain. In fighting all around this inn, Confederate Gen. D.H. Hill held off a much larger Union force, thanks in part to a trick. Hill armed and sent to the front a band of cooks, teamsters and camp aides, giving the impression of sizable reinforcements arriving from the turnpike. The trick worked, momentarily stalling a Union attack and saving the day--but not before 4,000 men, Union and Confederate, had become casualties. A few minutes' walk from the inn, just off the turnpike, 100 Confederates were buried by being stuffed down a drinking well.

You know you're a big-city Washingtonian out in the country when you plop down $2 for a large coffee and morning newspaper, and the gas station attendant, embarrassed by your failing math skills, slides $1 back to you even before operating the old cash register, which has raised buttons. Cha-ching!

This happens to me the next morning in tiny Funkstown, south of Hagerstown, where I begin to realize that Maryland is a different state on the other side of South Mountain. Here in the vast Cumberland Valley and beyond, where Irish workmen broke stones for the National Road in the 1820s, some of the surviving turnpike towns are so small that the only bar is the American Legion post and the local paper's top story is not Kosovo but the nearby calf born with two mouths. Everything's just different on this side of the divide.

Forty miles farther down the road, in the microdot community of Wilson, west of Hagerstown, these differences deepen still. All I want is a soda as I enter the red-brick Wilson General Store, a historic resupplying spot for turnpike travelers for the past 149 years. I find no one inside, not even the proprietor. This gives me time to recover from the shock of stumbling into a world that would not have provoked a blink from my great-grandfather.

All around, nine-foot-tall oak shelves reach almost to the ceiling, laden with bolts of cloth, stick candy and crude bricks of lye soap. A rear counter offers jarred whole pickles, dried hominy and Frostburg bologna by the pound, regular or hot. A chalkboard on one wall announces, "Hay--$2.75 bale," and the whole place smells faintly of the stuff. Just behind the checkers table sits a potbelly stove glowing with locust oak logs and surrounded by a litter of 8-week-old kittens tumbling across the original plankwood floor.

Finally, a side door opens and 38-year-old store manager Mickey Stinger, boyishly handsome and in need of a shave, apologizes: "I didn't know you were here. I was selling feed next door."

Stinger quickly asserts that this is no tourist-bait diorama of 19th-century rural life. "It's a real, working general store," he says. "People drive 40 miles for our cheddar cheese and farmers still buy their feed here." Still, he admits that the store's partly an informal history museum, with old wagon wheels and horse bridles from the trail days scattered about (and not for sale). The store seems to suffer from a general inability to throw things out. An 1853 ledger sheet on one wall shows that one of Stinger's ancestors owed the store 27 cents. "But I'm not paying it back," Stinger chuckles. "No way. Can you imagine? With the interest?"

I buy my soda and, with some regret, prepare to leave, but not before Stinger offers me one of the store kittens on the way out. Of course, he also tells me to hurry back real soon. Amiable storekeepers like this--how many dozens over the years?--must account for the store's amazing survivability, I consider, including enduring the huge drop in turnpike traffic in the 1850s brought on by the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad.

Thirty minutes farther west down the turnpike in Hancock, I stop at the C&O Canal Visitors Center, operated by the National Park Service. Beginning in the late 1820s, the canal was hailed as "a dream passage to western wealth," with boats navigating 61 locks between Cumberland, Md., and Washington, D.C., taking coal and wheat downstream and finished goods upstream--just as turnpike wagons had once done. But by 1850, the greater speed and efficiency of railroads had done to the canal what the canal had done to the turnpike.

At any rate, by the 1880s, many turnpike settlements were nearly ghost towns--and some apparently still are haunted today. About four miles west of Hancock on Maryland 144, I find an old turnpike inn--now a private residence--in somewhat rundown condition beside a vast orchard of apple trees awash in sunset light. Mechanic Mark Neilson, sporting a hunting cap and grease-stained hands, tells me his family of six tries to keep the two-story inn's old boards and stone foundation in shape. But, I infer, there can't be much time left after caring for the family's Noah's Ark of yard animals, a spectacle that caused me to pull over in the first place. Neilson counts on his fingers: "One horse, three cows, one pig, one donkey, seven pheasants, 10 geese, seven dogs, five cats, 12 chickens, 26 chicks, one turkey, two ducks and four rabbits."

This happy, if crowded, home is also overrun by ghosts. Neilson's girlfriend has seen an apparition float through the bedroom at night, and everyone has heard chamber music fill the house, sans the aid of a single radio or stereo. Most amazing, a light in the dining room once came on by itself--unplugged. No one's quite sure what these "friendly" ghosts are trying to say, but it appears the walls of this old turnpike inn are trying to speak.

Still scarier than this is something that happens toward the end of my second day on the National Road: I'm forced to drive the interstate. Just past the town of Indian Springs and the old French and Indian War garrison of Fort Frederick, the gentle and meandering two-lane 40 merges with four-lane I-70 for a six-mile stretch built right on top of the old turnpike. It's the first time since I left I-95 way back in Baltimore that my car has exceeded 50 mph. The sudden speed seems bizarre to me, fantastic, reckless, weird, a little dangerous. If I were in outer space, the stars would blur and streak from the effect of warp speed. This same blurring, of course, happens to all the small towns and landmarks along the adjoining landscape. Gone are the tilting, cast-iron historic markers and the hand-scrawled signs advertising apples by the bucket. It's all far away, incomprehensible, obliterated. I seem not to have left just the charisma of the old turnpike, but Earth itself. If American history is one of transportation changes that shape culture, then speed, interstate speed, is a transportation phenomenon whose attendant culture has no connection whatsoever to history or the land. We're going much too fast to comprehend either.

Not soon enough, the exit sign for Maryland 144 announces itself, taking me back to the old trail. I return to Earth.

Just west of Cumberland, in the town of LaVale, I find a seven-sided "Toll Gate House" with white-brick walls and a wood-shingled roof. It was built for the turnpike around 1833 and is well preserved today. Tolls were charged all along the National Road, with most of the money going to the young federal government for construction and maintenance of America's first federal highway. A sign quotes the tolls of 1833, including "6 cents for every hog" and "12 cents for every score of cattle."

I'm in the Maryland panhandle now, serious mountain country, in a county whose very name--Allegany--derives from the Native American word meaning "land of endless mountains." Farms become scarce along the turnpike, and thickly forested slopes lead to scenic lookouts where the mountains do indeed seem to roll west forever. I pass wild turkeys and deer along the road, and the entrances to state parks carry black bear warnings. Farther west still, steep climbs up Big Savage Mountain (2,900 feet) and Negro Mountain (3,075 feet) are part of the reason it took struggling wagoners about 10 full days to travel the turnpike from Baltimore to the state's westernmost border. Today, Marylanders out here live in a world apart. They root for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, and you never see a "Save the Bay" license plate because the bay might as well be part of the Eurasian steppe.

The economy in this region is generally depressed, though the people of Frostburg seem to have maintained a sense of humor. I pause along beautiful old Main Street at a coffee shop whose sign says "Tombstone Cafe: A Unique Undertaking." It occupies an old, former shop for headstone sculptors. I sip my latte and try to imagine the warren of abandoned coal-mine tunnels running below the downtown streets of this fading old mining town.

More scenic mountain driving along Alternate 40 takes me to the glorious and very lonesome Casselman River Bridge, just east of Grantsville. This 80-foot span of stone, built for the turnpike in 1813, includes a magnificently elongated arch engineered in anticipation of the canal traffic that never made it this far west.

It's just 10 more miles to the Pennsylvania border and my journey's end. I stop, appropriately, at the State Line United Methodist Church. It's a frame one-room sanctuary built right on the border amid forested land abutting Pig's Ear Road. Seventy-year-old Ruth Wirthing, who lives across the street in Pennsylvania, sees me admiring the old country church.

"It's been here since the 1800s," she says, gesturing toward the church's steeply pitched roof and old-fashioned arched windows. "It's been my church since the 1930s."

Wirthing walks over in her baseball cap and trousers and grows a bit nostalgic. Situated hard by the road, the church attracted turnpike travelers in the old days. Wirthing remembers as a child the Model Ts pulling over for Sunday service. This was a brief era of renaissance for the turnpike, when car travel was suddenly possible, but the interstate system had not yet been invented. In those days, Wirthing's father had a lumber mill across the street, close enough to the turnpike for easy truck transport of boards to market.

Wirthing tells me she's part of a local historic society dedicated to preserving the heritage of the National Road. "This old turnpike," she says as we cross the narrow two lanes back toward her cedar-sided house, "has been part of our families here--part of who we are--for generations. We just don't want to forget what it's done for us or for this country."

I prepare to leave, fetching my car along Pig's Ear Road, when Wirthing adds, "You should come for church some time. You know how to find us now, right? Just follow the turnpike."

Mike Tidwell last wrote about Ragged Island in the Bahamas for the Travel section.

DETAILS: The National Road

DON'T MISS: Through October, the B&O Railroad Station Museum (410-461-1944) in Ellicott City will feature a "Roads to Rails" exhibit focusing on the early National Road and the emergence of railroads in Maryland. Walk along Main Street in New Market, a 19th-century turnpike town whose taverns and inns have been converted to a cluster of we-have-everything antiques shops that include old turnpike artifacts. Stop at Turner's Gap on South Mountain, 12 miles west of Frederick, to stretch your legs on the Appalachian Trail, visit the first monument built to George Washington (you can see four states from the top), and dine at the Old South Mountain Inn restaurant (reservations are encouraged). Buy dried hominy and Frostburg bologna at the time-capsule Wilson General Store in Wilson. Spend a day in Grantsville at the Elliott House Victorian Inn (1-800-272-4090; doubles start at $95). You can fish for trout just behind the inn, visit artisans working out of log cabins next door, stroll across the historic Casselman River Bridge along the turnpike, and dine at the Penn Alps Restaurant, part of which was once a turnpike stagecoach station.

Each year in mid-May, the Washington County Historical Society sponsors National Pike Days. This popular three-day festival features a train of 24 horse-drawn Conestoga wagons on a colorful journey along the original turnpike from Clear Spring to Boonsboro. Participants wear period costumes and camp on park grounds featuring music, food and crafts. For more information, call 301-797-8782.

READING: The best history ever written of the National Road is out of print: Thomas B. Searight's "Old Pike." Check your library. Unfortunately, there's little left after that, a sign of the road's forgotten status. Two companion books are available from Johns Hopkins University Press titled " A Guide to the National Road" and "The National Road" (essays and history), both edited by Karl Raitz. The books are expensive coffeetable volumes whose writing veers maddeningly toward dense scholarese. Despite the flaws, the guidebook volume was helpful to my own trip preparations and is probably worth the price if your library doesn't have it. A cheaper and more entertaining book is "The Old South Mountain Inn: An Informal History," which gives lots of great information about the turnpike and can be purchased at the inn restaurant itself for $7.95.

INFORMATION: Limited additional information on traveling the National Road is available from the Maryland Office of Tourism Development at 410-767-3400. Also, a very informative and well-illustrated wall poster describing significant sights along the National Road in Western Maryland is available in Cumberland at the Allegany County Convention & Visitors Bureau (301-777-5874).


A patchwork of state and federal highways trace the original National Road through Maryland, and some degree of alert navigating is required to avoid blind alleys.

The old Road begins in downtown Baltimore on Lombard Street. Follow Lombard to Frederick Avenue/Maryland 144 west. Stay on 144 for roughly 30 miles until it intersects with Maryland 27 at Mount Airy. Here you'll have to do some footwork. Turn right on 27; go under the Interstate 70 bridge; turn left at the first traffic light, past the McDonald's and the old water tower; turn left (or west) at the first light on to Ridgeville Boulevard, which is the old National Road and is so marked through New Market and into Frederick. In Frederick, pick up Alternate U.S. 40 west to Hagerstown, then regular 40 west to Indian Springs. Here you'll have to get on I-70 for six miles before picking up Maryland 144 at Hancock. Route 144 will end a few miles later at Interstate 68. Don't get on the interstate. Take McFarland Road west, which will turn into Scenic 40, which will take you on a stunning mountain drive all the way to Flintstone, Md. Here you'll face another unavoidable stretch of freeway--I-68/40 west--into Cumberland, where you pick up Alternate 40 west all the way to Keysers Ridge in far Western Maryland, then regular 40 for the short hop to the Pennsylvania border and the little town of Addison, Pa.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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