National Road History: The Vagabond Camping Trips

The National Road has served as the site of countless important historical events. Some of the most unique were what are referred to as the “Vagabond” camping trips of the early 20th century.

Between the years 1915 and 1924, a team of prominent historical figures embarked on a series of summer camping trips. The “Four Vagabonds” as they called themselves were none other than Henry Ford, American industrialist and the founder of the Ford Motor Company; Thomas Edison, the famous inventor and businessman; Harvey Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company; and John Burroughs, American naturalist and nature essayist.

The original idea for these adventures was initiated in 1914, when Ford and Burroughs visited Edison in Florida to tour the Everglades together. The following year when Ford, Edison and Firestone were in California for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, this idea began to take shape.

In 1916, Edison asked Ford, Burroughs and Firestone to accompany him through the New England Adirondacks and Green Mountains. Ford was unable to join the group, but in 1918, Ford, Edison, Firestone and his son Harvey, Burroughs, and Robert DeLoach of the Armour Company, traveled through the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

The Vagabond camping trips were a wonderful success for all of the men involved. Subsequent trips were made over the nine years they travelled together, including the journey during the summer of 1921 where Edison, Ford, and Firestone camped out at multiple locations along the National Road, traveling from one campsite to the other, east to west along the Road.

All of the trips were very well organized and equipped, including several large passenger cars along with vans to carry the travelers, household staff, and equipment. But, after 1924, the trips attracted so much public attention that they were discontinued. Though these adventures lasted less than a decade, all of the men involved were undoubtedly changed by the experience.

Learn more about the history of the National Road by checking out our timeline! Help continue the preservation and research of historical events by becoming a Friend of the Road to show your support.

A Historical Road Trip Along Pennsylvania’s National Road

It’s a traveling shame to equate the notion of travel to the act of visiting far off places alone and neglecting the opportunities on home territory. Pennsylvania’s National Road has an abundance of historical sites to broaden our perspectives and enlighten our souls. Here’s a list of our favorite historical sites that are 100% road trip worthy:

1. Addison Toll House

Stop #1 on Pennsylvania’s National Road is the Addison Toll House, formerly called the Old Petersburg Toll House. Located in the Allegheny Mountains in Addison about 30 miles east of Uniontown, it’s one of two remaining toll houses in Pennsylvania that served the National Road in the 1800’s. It’s the only hand-cut native stone toll in PA that remains an authentic reflection of the structure as it existed back in 1835, when toll collection began. Just left of the toll house’s door is a handmade sign of the toll fees for traveling the Road back in 1830’s. Curious of the cost? We’ll save the answer for when you make a personal visit!

2. Fallingwater

Who wouldn’t want to visit a house built atop a 30’ waterfall in Pennsylvania? Located in the Laurel Highlands, Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most widely recognized works, was built in 1936 for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann. The home was used as a mountain retreat by the family and was deeded to The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in October 1963. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, more than 150,000 visitors tour the building each year, and more than 4 million have visited since 1964 when the iconic house was opened to the public. We recommend taking the in-depth tour to get a strong sense of what the house and its surroundings are all about.

3. Fort Necessity National Battlefield

As Uncovering PA so wonderfully put it, “Of all the locations associated with George Washington in Pennsylvania, it’s likely that none changed the course of history and Washington’s life as much as Fort Necessity.”

Fort Necessity National Battlefield gives visitors a chance to learn more about the history and impact of the opening battle on July 3, 1754 and the entire French and Indian War, in which Colonel George Washington surrendered to the French. The perfect sequence to your visit starts at the park’s visitor center with a 20-minute video overviewing the war and PA’s National Road, which runs alongside the park. From there, time spent at the battlefield’s museum is a must-do, following a visit outside to view the reconstructed Fort Necessity.

4. David Bradford House

The David Bradford House was built in 1788 and was home to the Whiskey Rebellion, the first domestic challenge to the new American government. Bradford and his family occupied the house only for 6 years, until 1794, when he fled under threat of arrest. The opening day of the house is on April 6th and will be available for drop-in visitors every Wednesday from 11am-3pm. Scheduled, customized tours can also be made for larger parties. The two-story Georgian style house, considered a mansion back in the day, is an enchanting one not to be missed.
There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it – Pennsylvania is full of rich historical sites waiting for your arrival. Follow the historic open road this spring or summer and you’ll be in for an eye-opening experience.

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