One of the first toll-free highways in the United States, the Cumberland Road offered Americans overland passage and access to new markets. A stable road surface made the route attractive for entrepreneurs looking to transport people and goods to the expanding western frontier.
As early as 1802, the U.S. Congress discussed the need for a federally maintained road to connect the eastern seaboard with the expanding western territories. Existing overland routes were in need of repair and expansion, and they lacked connections to other turnpikes. The growth of population in the territories that became the states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), and Illinois (1818) further spurred the need to connect the east with the west.
With President Thomas Jefferson’s support, in 1806, Congress approved an act to construct a road from the Potomac River in Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River in Wheeling, in what later became West Virginia. The act specified that the road would measure 4 rods (about 66 feet) in width, with a raised surface of stone, earth, gravel, or sand, and with drainage ditches on either side. Congress appropriated $30,000 for the cost of construction. Jefferson appointed three commissioners to direct the project. The commissioners assembled a surveying team to plot the route of the road, and in 1808, the six-member team completed its expedition.
Part of the Cumberland Road, just east of Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1910.
Construction of the road began in 1811 near Cumberland. Two years later, the first 10-mile section opened to travelers. Road builders erected massive stone arches to traverse rivers, streams, and valleys. By 1818, the road, which stretched approximately 130 miles, reached the Ohio River in Wheeling.
The Cumberland Road provided an important overland link between the centers of commerce in the east and the expanding markets on the western frontier, long before the advent of railroads. Although the path was treacherous in places, it was not as unreliable as canal and riverboat routes, and attracted multitudes of settlers, business owners, and explorers to the western frontier.
Expansion and improvement of the Cumberland Road continued during the antebellum period. The path stretched east to Baltimore and west toward St. Louis, stopping in 1839 for lack of funds in Vandalia, Illinois. During the 1820’s, road builders improved sections of the path using the macadam paving process. The route became known as the National Pike and later as the National Road. Much of the original path of the Cumberland Road is today part of U.S. Highway 40.
Carvell, Clarence. The National Road: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore: Heritage Special Edition/American Literary Press, 2007. Day, Reed B. The Cumberland Road: A History of the National Road. Apollo, Pa.: Closson, 1996. Raitz, Karl, ed. A Guide to the National Road. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
U.S. Department of Transportation