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Cumberland Road

(aka National Road) the first federally funded interstate highway in the United States

map of the Cumberland Road

The Northwest Territory was opened to settlement in the late 1700's, but movement into the region was slow due to the lack of easy routes from the east. By 1803 enough people had finally made it into Ohio for that state to gain admission, but the Allegheny Mountains kept much of Ohio's population separated from the rest of the country. On March 29, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson pushed signed "An Act to regulate the laying out and making of a road from Cumberland in the State of Maryland to the State of Ohio." The first construction contract was awarded to Henry McKinley on May 8, 1811, and the original Cumberland Road reached Wheeling, West Virginia, on August 1, 1818.

building the Cumberland Road

Funded by the sales of public lands in Ohio, the first Cumberland Road was constructed using a method pioneered by Scottish highway engineer John Loudon McAdam. First, a 66-foot right-of-way was cleared. Then, a 20-foot-wide roadbed was excavated. After laying down 12-18 inches of compacted crushed stones, the entire road was covered with paving stones. The layer of crushed stone helped the paving stones better support heavy loads. The road was also crowned so that water ran off to the sides into ditches. Travelers on the road could keep track of their progress by watching for stone markers placed at one-mile intervals.

one of the original Dumberland Road stone mile markers

Continuation of the road west from Wheeling was delayed by politics until 1824, when Congress passed the General Survey Act, which authorized the surveying of routes requiring roads and canals "of national importance, in a commercial or military point of view, or necessary for the transportation of public mail." The responsibility for conducting the surveys was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, which was also tasked with improving and extending the Cumberland Road. A bridge was subsequently built at Wheeling to carry the road over the Ohio River, but westward progress was constantly thwarted by political and economic issues. Springfield, Ohio, was finally reached in 1838, and Vandalia, Illinois, became the new western terminus in 1841.

By the time the Cumberland Road reached Vandalia the project had cost the government $6,821,246. Plans to extend the road on west to St. Louis, Missouri, were shelved at that time, and maintenance became the financial responsibility of the states through which it ran. Although the states began charging tolls in order to cover maintenance costs, the Cumberland Road remained one of the most important routes into the West until being supplanted by railroads in the 1870's. Although most of the original Cumberland Road has long been lost to the elements, the route it followed is now closely paralleled by U.S. Highway 40.

World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

History Magazine

President Thomas Jefferson
John Loudon McAdam

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This page was last updated on March 29, 2018.