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.
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.
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%).
- 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.
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.)
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 surrounding it will contribute to the preservation and conservation of green space as well as essential woodlands that support the area’s wildlife. The trail will also serve as a significant greenway in our region, linking the Youghiogheny, Monongahela, and Cheat River watersheds.
- Heritage, History, and Culture: The development of the trail will reveal many of the rich historical and environmental assets of Southwestern Pennsylvania. This will convey the value of these resources, encouraging their preservation and conservation.
- Economic Impact: In 2008, after the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, trail users contributed $40,677,299 to the businesses operating on or around the trail. The Sheepskin Trail has the potential to open to door for similar positive economic impacts by attracting new residents and businesses who want to live, work, play and prosper in this region.
The National Road Heritage Corridor is committed to connecting communities and supporting economic development in Southwestern Pennsylvania. By unlocking this vital community resource, we open the door for endless opportunities for residents and visitors to connect with nature and history and to reap the vast economic benefits the trail will offer. To help make this dream a reality, see how you can become a Friend of the Road.
- River Towns: How the Three Rivers Transformed Western Pennsylvania
Rivers have always been the lifeblood of civilization. The three rivers in western Pennsylvania are no different. These rivers are the reason the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding towns exist as they do today and are vital natural and economic resources for people and businesses in our region. Through the centuries, the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers have served very different purposes and have even been the sites of many important events in American history. From the Native American tribes to revolutionary battles to giant floating ducks, these waterways have seen it all.
Humans have inhabited western Pennsylvania for at least 16,000 years. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the oldest site of human habitation in North America, is located in Avella, Washington County along a tributary of the Ohio River. Around 800 B.C., the Adena culture created ancient burial mounds in the McKees Rocks region, just 5 miles from the Ohio River. By the time Europeans arrived in the “New World,” Native American cultures including Iroquois, Lenape, Seneca and Shawnee were well established in this part of the state.
The first Europeans to settle in western Pennsylvania were the French. They saw the confluence of the Allegheny as prime real estate because they provided easy transportation and potential trade routes. Concerned that the French were getting a foothold in the region, the British sent George Washington to warn the French to give up the land. This land near the rivers became the focus of the French & Indian War, a clash of French, Native American, and British cultures that resulted in the establishment of Fort Pitt. You can learn more about this time period and the battles that took place by visiting the Fort Necessity National Battlefield along the National Road – the site of the first battle of that 7 year war, which took place on July 3, 1754.
The Port of Pittsburgh
In the decades following the revolution, western Pennsylvania earned the nickname “The Gateway to the West.” As a west-flowing river, the Ohio River became an incredible asset to pioneers traveling to the frontier and subsequently, boat-building became a huge industry in the region. Brownsville, a town along the National Road that sits on the Monongahela River became a leader in the steamboat building industry, which helped transform the U.S. economy. This along with the region’s abundant natural resources, like steel and coal, led to the industrial powerhouse that it became in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today, the three rivers still play a key role for business and transportation of materials in the region. In recent years, legislators, federal and state agencies, and non profit conservation organizations have begun concentrated efforts to improve the condition of these waterways with clean ups and enforcement. At the local level municipalities have recognized the value of the riverfront and have undertaken beautification projects to enhance the recreational appeal. The results – the rivers are now popular places for canoes, kayaks, motor boats, and jet skis. Many of the region’s tributaries, while too shallow for motorized boats, also provide tranquil opportunities for paddling.
Celebrate the beautiful history of western Pennsylvania’s river towns this spring at Come Down to the River and Play, an upcoming event along the Monongahela River sponsored by the National Road Heritage Corridor and our partner, the River Town Program. You can also sign up for the Mon River Spring Paddle, which will include paddling safety instructions, interpretation of historic sites and industrial artifacts seen on and near the river, a side trip on Ten Mile Creek, and lunch.
- 4 Places to Visit in PA This Spring Along the National Road
Spring is the perfect season to explore the magnificent beauty of the great outdoors. The rolling hills and mountains in southwestern Pennsylvania create some of the most picturesque views this time of year. Combined with the historical and cultural resources found along the Historic National Road, the landscapes of the keystone state make this region ideal for exploration during the warm months ahead.
Discover the history, natural beauty, and culture of Southwestern Pennsylvania while enjoying the sunshine this season by visiting these incredible sites along the Historic National Road:
- Youghiogheny River Lake
Whether you are seeking and area for a family camping trip or a lake for boating and fishing, the Youghiogheny River Lake will serve as a perfect destination. In the heart of the Laurel Highlands, this beautiful body of water is a 16-mile flood control reservoir often considered the best powerboat and water-skiing lake in southwestern Pennsylvania. The tail waters of the nearby Youghiogheny Dam are ideal for trout fishing because they are are stocked by the Fish and Boat Commission frequently throughout the spring and summer.
- Fort Necessity National Battlefield
In the summer of 1754, the Battle of Fort Necessity sparked the French & Indian War. Fort Necessity National Battlefield commemorates this opening battle, in which Colonel George Washington surrendered to the French. This site is a National Park and arguably one of the most important historical areas in western Pennsylvania, making it a fantastic destination to explore the history of this region. Nearby, you can also visit Braddock’s Grave and Jumonville Glen for added outdoor sightseeing.
The main unit contains the battlefield with the reconstructed fort, the Mount Washington Tavern, and the Fort Necessity and National Road Interpretive and Education Center, featuring history detailing history from Washington’s first trip over the Alleghenies to the creation of the National Road itself.
Fayette County features the stunning Ohiopyle State Park, one of the largest state parks in Pennsylvania. Its beautiful scenery and multitude of outdoor activities make it one of the most popular state parks in America. The site spans over 19,000 acres and features outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and fishing. Surrounded by historical sites along the National Road, this park makes the ideal location for a family vacation with options for lodging and camping.
After many years of planning and hard work, the new Ohiopyle State Park Office/ Laurel Highlands Falls Area Visitor Center will have its grand opening this June. The Center provides visitors a window into the history, heritage and geology that further defines the importance of the region. Spectacularly designed interpretive elements by the 106 Group and built by Blue Rhino Studios, will provide an interesting and immersive experience!
- Laurel Caverns Park
On those warmer spring days, you can enjoy the beauty of nature under the cool shelter of the brilliantly beautiful Laurel Caverns. This geological park features the largest natural cave in Pennsylvania. The ceilings in the three mile labyrinth are between ten and fifty feet in height. It is also the largest natural bat hibernaculum in the state. To preserve the habitat, the site is closed November through April, so spring is its opening season.
The park hosts guided tours of the caverns, but for the more adventurous, spelunking and cave rappelling are also available.
Use this spring season to take advantage of everything that southwestern Pennsylvania has to offer and don’t stop after these locations. Click here to plan a more in depth tour of the incredible destinations along our state’s Historic National Road.
- America’s Road to Revolution: The Jumonville Affair, Part 2
Tensions were high in the spring of 1754. Rival claims to the vast territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi approached a climax between the British and the French. After being asked to help defend the English fort on the Ohio River, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington had finally reached western Pennsylvania:
By late May of 1754, Washington and his troops had at last reached a large, natural clearing known as the Great Meadows, which eventually became Fort Necessity National Battlefield. There, they made their base camp. Soon after their arrival, Washington received the news that a party of French soldiers was camped quite close to their position. Not knowing what the their intentions were, Washington decided to lead a contact mission himself.
On the night of May 27th, 1754, Washington and about forty of his men began their march to confront the French. All night, they marched, travelling through woods so dark that the men could hardly see the trail. Around dawn, Lieutenant Colonel Washington met with the Seneca chief, named Tanacharison, or Half King. Together, they made plans to contact the French. Because the French commander had not posted sentries, Washington and his men easily surrounded the unsuspecting French.
Then suddenly, a shot was fired. To this day, it isn’t certain who fired that first shot, but soon the glen was filled with the crash of musketry. The small skirmish lasted about 15 minutes, but by the time it ended, only one of Washington’s men was killed and two others wounded, but thirteen of the Frenchmen were dead and twenty-one had been captured. One Frenchman did escape and eventually found his way back to Fort Duquesne to inform others of the affair.
The skirmish became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen or the Jumonville Affair, and the area was named after Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the leader of the French detachment who was killed during the battle. The French survivors claimed they had been attacked without cause by Washington. Following the battle, Washington returned to the Great Meadows and pushed onward the construction of a fort, which they called Fort Necessity.
The conflict soon led to the rest of the Fort Necessity campaign, including the Battle of Fort Necessity, and ultimately to the French & Indian War as well as the Revolutionary War.
You can learn more about this Battle and the entire campaign by visiting Fort Necessity National Battlefield, which is now a National Park. Explore their website to learn more and start planning your visit today!