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Building the Sheepskin Trail

The National Road Heritage Corridor’s work includes efforts to develop a rich tourism infrastructure that will support the growth and sustainability of that industry, a strong economic driver in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Since beginning operations in 1995, the NRHC has delivered over $13 million in state, federal and private grant funds as well as additional leveraged investments in the region. One of our current projects is the development of the Sheepskin Trail, a 34-mile recreational amenity in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.


As you can see from the map above, the Sheepskin Trail extends from Dunbar Borough down to Point Marion Borough, serving as the missing link that will connect the Great Allegheny Passage, and the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail with the WV Mon River Rail-Trail System. The completed trail will offer alternative transportation options for community residents, allowing them to enjoy safe walking and biking paths to school, work, shopping and community parks. It will also allow visitors and residents to experience the outdoor recreation, including fishing and cross country skiing.
About the Trail

The Sheepskin Trail is known as a “rail-trail.” According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “Rail-trails are multi-purpose public paths created from abandoned railroad corridors. Flat or following a gentle grade, they traverse urban, suburban and rural America.” Today, this network consists of more than 10,000 miles of rail-trails across the country. By converting these abandoned industrial rail lines into walk-able, bike-able, and equestrian-oriented trails, we can help link people to parks and the countryside from where they live and work.


This particular rail and future rail-trail was built in the 1890s and served as the Pittsburgh branch of the B&O Railroad. It got its nickname from the older railroaders, who called it the “Sheepskin Line,” because when it first opened the sound of the trains would scatter sheep for miles. The disgruntled herders would then exclaim, “Darn Sheepskinners!” and the name stuck.


The lines were built to meet the needs of the region’s once booming coal and coke industry. In fact, the rail service opened the southern end of the Connellsville Coke Region. Along the proposed trail, travelers will be able to see the remnants of the coke ovens along the route including: Cheat River Coke Works, Ada’s Bottom Coke Works, Atchison Coke Works, and Shoaf.


Community Benefits

This completed trail system is the key to unlock an abundance of recreational, cultural, and heritage opportunities. Travelers will have the opportunity to hike, bike, fish, and paddle, while discovering the rich industrial and historic heritage of Southwestern, Pennsylvania. Below are some of the community benefits and positive effects that the Sheepskin Trail will have on the region:

  • Livability: Residents will have alternate transportation options to travel to work or school. They will also have access to more outdoor activities through safe and enjoyable access to the walking and biking paths and waterways.
  • Community Development: The trail will connect small “patch towns” and suburbs to the outdoors, connecting the community as a whole and building pride within the region.
  • Land Conservation: The Sheepskin Trail and the lands

1950 – 2015

1950 – Current

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 creates the limited-access interstate system. Interstate Highways 70 and 68 are constructed, and supercede U.S. Route 40 as the primary transportation routes through the region. U.S. Route 40 is bypassed and becomes a local, secondary, alternate, or, a scenic road. The National Road was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1976 and a State Heritage Park in 1994. Along the 90 miles of road in Pennsylvania, 79 sites have been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Of those, many have already been nominated.

1940 – 1949


The National Road now overlaid by US Route 40, is the busiest it has been since its heyday during the 1840’s. Instead of Conestoga wagons, there are tractor-trailer trucks, stages are replaced by buses and horses are retired to pasture in lieu of the automobile. Inns and taverns are updated as restaurants, motels and hotels. The hustle and bustle of travel has returned to the Road.


After AASHO approved the U.S. numbered highways in 1926, the new U.S. shields began to appear around the country.

Federal Highway Administration by Carl Rakeman

1920 – 1929


The Federal Highway Act of 1921 provides federal aid for the construction of interstate highways. The National Road is realigned and incorporated as part of one of the first new interstate highways, U.S. Route 40.


Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone travel the National Road on one of their famous “Vagabond” camping trips

1910 – 1919


The Post Office Appropriation Act of 1912 and the Rural Road Act of 1916 make available federal funding for rebuilding the National Road. World War I, an overburdened railroad system, and expanding numbers of motorists make a federally funded national highway system a top priority.

1880 – 1889


A new, cheap, and reliable form of transportation is invented in the mid-1880’s… the “safety” bicycle. Due to deplorable road conditions, cyclists begin the Good Roads Movement and the League of America Wheelmen. The movement gains the support of farmers and the railroads. The National Road is on the verge of being rediscovered.

1870 – 1879


The states traversed by the National Road no longer want the responsibility of maintaining the obsolete and unprofitable roadway. Instead, responsibility is relegated to the counties, which, for the most part, provide little or no maintenance. The historic road is simply neglected or abandoned. Working inns, taverns and stage lines are few and far between. The once busy National Road is a transportation “has been.”

1860 – 1869


The dearth of traffic along the National Road is so severe that stage coach lines go out of business, inns and taverns are converted into private homes, commercial businesses disappear, and industrial activity declines. The National Road loses its “national” significance and becomes part of local road networks.

1850 – 1859


A new form of transportation, the railroad, overshadows the National Road. In 1853 the first locomotive reaches the Ohio River. The prominence and prosperity of the National Road is overtaken by the “iron horse”.

1840 – 1849


These are the peak years for travel along the National Road. Taverns and inns such as Tomlinson’s, Searights, the White Swan, the Red Eagle, the Black Horse, Hill’s and Washington’s, enjoy a brisk business. Stage lines such as the National Road Stage Company, also referred to as the Stockton Line, the Good Intent Line, the People’s Line, the June Bug Line, and the Oyster Line transport many famous persons along the Nation’s “Main Street” including Presidents and future Presidents, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Taylor, Harrison, Fillmore, Van Buren, Buchanan and Lincoln as well as notables such as LaFayette, Albert Gallatin, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Daniel Webster, Davy Crockett, Chief Blackhawk, Jenny Lind, and P.T. Barnum.

Federal Highway Administration by Carl Rakeman. Public domain.


Mail delivery to the “west” is reduced from weeks and months to days.

Federal Highway Administration by Carl Rakeman. Public domain.


Cast Iron Obelisk Markers

The stone markers are replaced with cast iron obelisk mile markers. The iron markers are cast in Brownsville at the Snowden Foundry and in Connellsville by Major James Francis. The Connellsville-produced markers are located along the North side of the National Road between Cumberland, Maryland and Brownsville, Pennsylvania . The markers fabricated in Brownsville are located on the North side of the National Road that town and Wheeling, (West) Virginia . The new mile markers are placed at one mile intervals and total 133 between Cumberland and Wheeling. Each marks the distances to Cumberland and to Wheeling as well as to the closest town. Construction of the National Road continues through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois during the 1830’s, 1840’s, and even into the 1850’s.

1835 – 1836

Pony Express

The United States Postmaster General Amos Kendall begins using the Pony Express on the National Road. Boys on horseback are used to deliver light mail in leather pouches. Each horse covers a distance of six miles average.

Library of Congress LC-USZC4-3266

1830 – 1839


The Federal Government transfers ownership of the National Road to the states through which it passes. The National Road becomes known as the National Pike, as some of the states erect toll houses to collect fees from those using the Pike. In order to create a revenue stream for maintenance purposes , the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania constructs toll houses along its 90-mile segment. Six toll houses (15-mile intervals) in all were built, two of which are still standing today: Petersburg Toll House – Gate #1, in Addison, Somerset County and Searight Toll House, in Fayette County. The toll houses were in operation from 1835 to the turn of the 20th century.


The last of the Lenape, Shawnee and Mingo tribes leave Pennsylvania


Congress authorizes additional funds for second phase of the National Road

Construction of the NATIONAL ROAD is completed to Wheeling, (West) Virginia. Congress appropriates funds to survey west of Wheeling with instructions that the road between that Ohio River port and St. Louis be as straight as possible.


Traveling the new National Road

Uria Brown, upon traveling the new National Road writes, “The great Turnpike road is far superior to any of the Turnpike roads in Baltimore County for masterly workmanship, the bridges and culverts actually do credit to the executors to the same.” (These structures include the Casselman River Bridge, Youghiogheny River Bridge, Turkey’s Nest Bridge, and the S-Bridge.)

1811 – 1830

Construction of the National Road 1811 – 1830’s

Road construction begins at Cumberland, Maryland. The base of the road is constructed of stone, with a gravel/sand surface. The road’s surface measures 32 feet in width of which the center 20 feet is comprised of broken stones placed to a depth of 18 inches at the middle and 12 inches at the sides. The base’s lower layer consists of broken stones passed through a seven inch ring. The upper layer is also broken stone passed through a three inch ring. The surface composition is gravel or sand compacted with a three ton roller.

1811 – 1818

Mile Markers

Stone mile markers are erected on the south side of the National Road at 5 mile intervals.


Construction begins on the National Road


President Thomas Jefferson signs legislation establishing a national highway

The Congress passes and President Thomas Jefferson signs enabling legislation to construct the nation’s first multi-state, federally funded highway – the Cumberland Road (National Road). The legislation is nothing short of “revolutionary”, in that it sets the precedent for all future, federal, public works projects.

Over 130 miles of wilderness is surveyed for the construction of the National Road, which is to have a right-of-way, 66 feet in width, and a maximum grade of five degrees (8.75%).


The Louisiana Purchase adds impetus to the call for transportation improvements.


U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin succeeds in having inserted into the Ohio statehood bill a provision for the construction of a road from the eastern seaboard across the new state. Congress establishes a “2 percent fund” derived from the sale of public lands for the construction of roads through and to Ohio.


The Whiskey Rebellion is the first test of federal authority in the United States.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1963


The Treaty of Paris is signed, ending the American Revolutionary War


George Washington inaugurated as the first President of the United States.
The construction of a national road was George Washington’s vision.


On July 4th, the Declaration of Independence is ratified by the Second Continental Congress.


France and England rival claims to Ohio Territory reach a climax.


Thomas Cresap and Delaware Indian Chief Nemacolin lay out trail over Allegheny Mountains to Ohio Territory.


John Fraser becomes first white settler west of Alleghenies.


The antecedents to the National Road included buffalo trails, Native American foot paths, Washington’s Road and Braddock’s Road. The latter two were developed over a part of Nemacolin Trail, an Indian pathway, as part of the British campaigns to evict the French from the forks of the Ohio River. Visitors to the National Road can learn about this time period by visiting Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Fort Necessity is the site of the first battle of the French and Indian War (July 3, 1754) and the early military events that helped shape George Washington’s character and abilities as a military leader. Not far from the fort, visitors can see Braddock’s Grave and Jumonville Glen, site of the first conflict in the Fort Necessity campaign.