Construction of the National Road

The first federally financed interstate transportation project, the National Road helped to link the states, but it was so politically controversial that the federal government did not again participate in highway development until the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

As the United States expanded westward into the Ohio Valley Ohio Valley;and National Road[National Road] , transportation became increasingly difficult. Much of the commerce of the eastern seaboard relied upon rivers for transportation, but no existing water routes cut through the Appalachian Mountains Appalachian Mountains;and National Road[National Road] to the Northwest Territory. Roads were needed both for economic reasons and for military security. Recognizing the need for internal improvements, Congress Congress, U.S.;and National Road[National Road] passed a bill authorizing the construction of a road from Cumberland, Maryland, Maryland;and National Road[National Road] to Ohio in 1806. National Pike
Cumberland Road
National Road (U.S.)
[kw]Construction of the National Road (1811-1840)
[kw]National Road, Construction of the (1811-1840)
[kw]Road, Construction of the National (1811-1840)
National Pike
Cumberland Road
National Road (U.S.)
[g]United States;1811-1840: Construction of the National Road[0500]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1811-1840: Construction of the National Road[0500]
[c]Transportation;1811-1840: Construction of the National Road[0500]
[c]Engineering;1811-1840: Construction of the National Road[0500]
Gallatin, Albert
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and National Road[National Road]
Zane, Ebenezer

Construction began in 1811, and the road reached Wheeling, Virginia, on the Ohio River Ohio River in 1818. It was 130 miles long and cost, on the average, thirteen thousand dollars per mile. As the first federally mandated highway, it became known as the National Road. Construction continued intermittently until 1840, when the road reached Vandalia, Illinois. By then, railroads and canals had eclipsed turnpikes in transporting freight, and construction on the National Road ended. The federal government did not become involved in road construction again until the twentieth century.

Construction of the National Road coincided with a report that Albert Gallatin, Gallatin, Albert secretary of the Treasury under President Thomas Jefferson, submitted to Congress Congress, U.S.;and National Road[National Road] on the transportation needs of the nation. Gallatin recommended that the central government expend some twenty million dollars to develop a comprehensive and national transportation network. He was well aware that private or state capital, without the active financial aid of the federal government, could not accomplish such a vast undertaking. Gallatin recommended the construction of both roads and canal systems to link the expanding frontier Frontier, American;and transportation[Transportation] with the more developed eastern states. Approval of the National Road project seemed to indicate that Gallatin’s proposed system had taken the first momentous step.

Construction of the road from Cumberland, Maryland, a city located on the upper reaches of the Potomac River, to Wheeling, Virginia, a site on the Ohio River Ohio River , would link the two river systems and make transportation of freight and people from the mid-Atlantic states to the interior of the growing country easier. Cutting through the ridges of the Appalachian Appalachian Mountains;and National Road[National Road] Mountains would prove a daunting task. After five years of extensive surveys to determine the best route, road crews commenced preparing a sixty-six-foot-wide right-of-way. The thickly forested hills were cleared, and workers excavated a roadbed twelve to eighteen inches deep. The roadbed was filled with broken stones and rolled to form a level surface. Stone and masonry bridges Bridges;and National Road[National Road] were constructed to cross the numerous streams and small rivers common in the mountains.

In 1818, when the road reached Wheeling, it became a major trade route to the West. Large numbers of travelers left testimony to the economic importance of the road. Goods from Baltimore Baltimore;and National Road[National Road] could now reach the Ohio River Ohio River via wagon, at a considerable savings in freight. The road gave Baltimore a decided but brief commercial advantage over its major competitor to the north, Philadelphia. Philadelphia was to feel increasingly pressed by its competitors, for in 1817, the state of New York authorized the construction of the Erie Canal Erie Canal . Thus, both Baltimore and New York City would be directly linked to the West. To maintain its commercial position, Philadelphia, with the aid of Pennsylvania, launched its own system of internal transportation improvements in the direction of Pittsburgh.

Albert Gallatin.

(Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, enormous quantities of goods and large numbers of people passed over the National Road. Cattle Cattle;and National Road[National Road] from the Ohio Valley Ohio Valley;and National Road[National Road] , Monongahela flour, and spiritous liquors passed over the road to market. Taverns and grazing stations sprang up along the road to serve the wagoners, drovers, and immigrants who moved along the route. Wheeling boomed, as did many towns located along the National Road. Supporters of the road wanted to extend it across Ohio, but the Panic of 1819 Panic of 1819;and National Road[National Road] brought construction to a halt for seven years while Congress Congress, U.S.;and National Road[National Road] debated funding. Critics of federal involvement in internal improvements believed that the road had already served its purpose, and that any additional improvements should be left to the states or private enterprise.

In 1825, Congress finally voted to allocate additional funds, and construction of the road proceeded across Ohio into Illinois. The new road first followed and improved upon a crude public road developed by an Ohio pioneer, Ebenezer Zane Zane, Ebenezer , and then cleared a new path as it stretched toward the Mississippi River. It appeared to be a successful first step in federal efforts to link sections of the nation together.

Two specific actions, one occurring during the presidency of James Madison Madison, James
[p]Madison, James;and transportation[Transportation] and the other during that of James Monroe, contributed to the federal government’s assuming a passive and nondirective role in meeting the nation’s transportation requirements. Both involved presidential vetoes.

The logistic problems of the War of 1812 War of 1812 (1812-1814);and National Road[National Road] and the rapid movement of population into the West aroused considerable support for federal activity in internal improvements. To meet the demand both of citizens and of national security, John C. Calhoun, Calhoun, John C.
[p]Calhoun, John C.;and Bonus Bill[Bonus Bill] a representative from South Carolina, introduced the Bonus Bill Bonus Bill (1817) into Congress in 1817. This bill was designed to provide a permanent fund for the construction of internal improvements, and it passed both houses of Congress.

Although President James Madison had publicly called for such a system, he vetoed the bill on strict constructionist grounds. He argued that the Constitution was made up of enumerated powers, that federal activity in internal improvements was not one of those powers, and that to justify such activity under the “general welfare” clause was to make the government the judge of its own powers. Madison maintained that a constitutional amendment was required before the government could operate in the area of internal improvements. Five years later, President James Monroe vetoed a bill authorizing repair of the National Road to be financed by the collection of tolls. The general tenor of his veto message was similar to that of Madison. These vetoes, coupled with the rising sectional antagonisms that eventually culminated in the Civil War (1861-1865), put an end to the hopes that the federal government would provide leadership and support in transportation.


The National Road was the last federal highway project for almost a century, as many Americans believed that the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to finance and build internal improvements. The constitutional barrier proved to be an obstacle that could not be overcome. Supporters of the National Road eventually were able to extend it a total of six hundred miles to a terminus at Vandalia, Illinois, but no other roads were funded. The states were thrown back on their own resources, as the federal government relinquished its responsibilities in this critical area.

In 1824, Congress passed the General Survey Act General Survey Act of 1824 , which enabled the president to plot out a comprehensive system of roads and canals, but the battle was already lost. Nothing came of this legislation. The federal government thereafter confined itself to the granting of alternate sections of public lands along the route of intended canals and railroads. New York, as early as 1817, had anticipated this outcome and proceeded to construct the Erie Canal with state funds. State funds and private capital, both domestic and foreign, provided the financial support required to construct the canals and railroads that eventually bound the nation together. The National Road faded into obscurity, until the rise of bicycles Bicycles and automobiles Automobiles;and National Road[National Road] revived its usage. In 1926, the National Road became part of the U.S. Highway 40 and served as a major east-west artery until construction of Interstate 70.

Further Reading

  • Aitken, Thomas. Albert Gallatin: Early America’s Swiss-Born Statesman. New York: Vantage Press, 1985. Biography of the secretary of the Treasury whose report on the transportation needs of the nation proved pivotal in planning the National Road.
  • Ierley, Merritt. Traveling the National Road: Across the Centuries on America’s First Highway. Reprint. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993. Interesting general history of the National Road.
  • Raitz, Karl B. A Guide to the National Road. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Modern travel guide to each segment of the National Road. Lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs.
  • Schneider, Norris F. The National Road: Main Street of America. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1975. History of the National Road, emphasizing the role the highway played in Ohio’s development.
  • Searight, Thomas B. The Old Pike: A History of the National Road. Berryville, Va.: Prince Maccus, 1983. Colorful history of the National Road with an emphasis on its early years.
  • Smith, Barry. Cumberland Road. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. History of U.S. Highway 40, with an emphasis on the portion of the highway that passed through Maryland and Virginia to the Ohio River.
  • Vivian, Cassandra. The National Road in Pennsylvania. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003. Illustrated guide to sites along the stretch of the National Road that went through Pennsylvania.

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