In 1806, Congress decided to get into the road-building business. America's first federally funded interstate highway, the National Road, ran from Cumberland, Md. (extending a road from Baltimore), to Wheeling, W.Va. (and eventually to Vandalia, Ill.). From 1818, it carried hundreds of thousands of pioneers and settlers in stagecoaches and covered wagons.
In a wagon of my own -- a Subaru -- I set out to experience "westward migration" on the National Road, aiming to get from Cumberland to Wheeling eating and sleeping only in establishments where the pioneers did. My journey along the road took me through 150 miles of history, layered in 1750s battlefields, functioning 1820s taverns, shells of 1920s coal towns and modern-day sprawling strip malls. As I learned from Norma Ryan, mayor of Brownsville, Pa., "to travel the National Road, you have to have imagination. It's not like walking into a museum and seeing a replica. It's all these little stories that you experience in each little town that tell the whole story."
My favorite story was that of Brownsville itself, in Pennsylvania's southwest corner. I expected to find some of the oldest existing buildings west of the Appalachians. I didn't expect that those buildings would be abandoned, with much of the town desolate and deserted. After all, this used to be a boomtown.
One of the few inhabited downtown buildings is a museum devoted to the National Road. Inside I met Ryan, a pleasant grandmotherly preservationist.
Brownsville, Ryan said, served as migration crossroads; the westward-bound chose to either continue along the National Road or take the Monongahela River to the Ohio River and perhaps onto the Mississippi. To supply people on the next leg of their journey, Brownsville had scores of merchants building boats and selling supplies. The town boomed again in the early 1900s during the coal-mining era, but has since fallen on hard times.
During a walk around, she pointed out Brownsville's Flatiron Building (predating New York's) and the Dunlap Creek Bridge -- the first cast-iron bridge in the country. After famed Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay's carriage fell through an earlier bridge into the creek, he declared that "Clay and mud" shouldn't mix and ordered the building of the strongest bridge possible.
If Brownsville requires imagination to picture its heyday, the town of Grantsville in far western Maryland looks nearly perfectly preserved. The main road of the heavily Mennonite community appears virtually untouched by the last few decades. All restaurants are closed on Sunday.
The Casselman Inn sits in the center of town, where it has provided food and lodging to travelers since 1824. As I sat down for lunch, I was pleased to see that prices haven't gone up much since the era of the National Road. My salad was $1.75, chocolate milk, 75 cents. I had the $1.80 Casselman Special: a deep-fried cheese and mayo sandwich that tasted like a French toast stick.
A sign outside displays a replica 1842 stagecoach advertisement. At eight miles an hour, the 49-hour trip from Wheeling to Baltimore cost $13.
In the 1800s, an area just outside Grantsville (once known as Little Crossings but now marked by the Penn Alps restaurant and an artisan craft village) was a major stop on the old pike. Signs mark the location of the post office and the blacksmith shop that stayed open all night to fix broken horseshoes. An 1879 article in Harper's Monthly described the wagons as "so numerous that the leaders of one team had their noses in the trough at the end of the next wagon ahead."
These days, traffic on the National Road moves smoothly. The road parallels Interstates 68 and 70, and most travelers use those thoroughfares instead. Some of the only traffic I hit was in Farmington, Pa., where a PGA Tour golf tournament was taking place. Farmington is less of a town than a collection of disparate attractions -- the pricey Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa, the caves of Laurel Canyons, the Fort Necessity National Battlefield and two nearby Frank Lloyd Wright houses. In all, a good place to spend the night.
I checked into the Stone House, an 1822 inn that makes every effort to authenticate a historic National Road experience -- no telephone, television or private bath in the rooms. I had planned to eat at the inn's restaurant, but stir-craziness and an unsettled stomach (possibly due to a giant French toast stick) led me to venture about five miles back down the road to the opulent Nemacolin Woodlands, where I ate a $9 roasted-vegetable pizza with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette in the relatively affordable Tavern restaurant.
I had planned to explore the Mount Washington Tavern, an 1828 inn now preserved as a museum of Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Unfortunately, the tour of the tavern was canceled because park rangers were doing an artillery demonstration. I checked out the battlefield instead, where 22-year-old Col. George Washington surrendered during the opening battle of the French and Indian War.
About a mile up the road is the grave of Gen. Edward Braddock, who died in his quest to take Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh) from the French. On his way, Braddock's troops carved a 12-foot-wide road over a trail blazed by the Indian Nemacolin in 1740. The National Road follows Braddock's Road from Cumberland through much of Pennsylvania but diverges where Braddock turned north for Pittsburgh. A sign at his grave describes how Washington performed the funeral service for his mentor.
The Century Inn in nearby Scenery Hill, Pa., is another hostelry still active from the old days; in continuous operation since 1794, it boasts the longest run on the National Road. Andrew Jackson, the Marquis de Lafayette and Gen. Santa Anna all stayed there, and the hotel displays an authentic Whiskey Rebellion flag.
The menu features a peanut soup billed as "George Washington's own recipe." Apparently Washington liked his soup a little saltier than I do, but the Caesar salad and bread with pesto were delicious.
Several of the attractions on the road are no longer in use, but they still give clues to its history. In LaVale, Md., just outside Cumberland, an original tollhouse is nestled amid the suburban sprawl of a Super 8 and a Ruby Tuesday.
The tollhouse was built in 1836, when the feds transfered upkeep of the pike to the states, to collect 4 cents for every horseman and 12 cents for every chariot or coach -- more than 20,000 passengers the first year. Traffic peaked in the 1840s before the road was supplanted by railroads. In the 1920s, much of it was renamed Route 40 and was heavily traveled before I-68 and I-70 arrived.
Across the street from the LaVale tollhouse stands one of the road's cast-iron mile markers, which note the distance to Cumberland and Wheeling, as well as to the nearest town (in this case the former mining -- and now university -- town of Frostburg).
There are other enduring markers, including two 18-foot-high Madonna of the Trail roadside statues, one in Beallsville, Pa., and one outside Wheeling. (They are two of 12 monuments to pioneer women that the Daughters of the American Revolution erected in the late 1920s; another is in Bethesda.)
After two days on the National Road, I felt like a pioneer woman myself -- a pioneer eager to get back to modern life. But dreams of zooming home were dashed by a monster backup on I-70 outside of Wheeling.
My pace -- seven miles in an hour -- was slower than the stagecoaches of the National Road.
The National Road's Casselman Bridge had the country's largest arch when built in 1813.