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.

The Steamboats of Brownsville

The Monongahela River has served as a gateway to the west in the United States since the dawn of the New World. This river is the reason many of the surrounding towns exist as they do today. Nowadays, the Monongahela continues to provide vital natural and economic resources for people and businesses in our region, but in Brownsville back in the late 1700s, use of the Monongahela played an even bigger role in the development of our Nation.

History of Brownsville

Brownsville, founded in 1785 on the banks of the Monongahela River, played an important role in the settlement of America’s frontier and in the industrial development of the Nation. The 128-mile-long river begins near Fairmont, West Virginia, and winds its way north to Pittsburgh, where it merges with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio at what is referred to as the “Point”. In the 1700s, the Monongahela was the easiest and cheapest mode of transportation to the Ohio Valley and beyond.

In 1758, Colonel James Burd erected a fort on top of an older Native American encampment overlooking the river. It became known as Redstone Old Fort.

Boat Building Begins

Over the next 20 years, this area became a leading boat-building town. In 1785, the Redstone area was renamed Brownsville. Then in the 1790s, keelboats became the best way to travel up and downstream. These narrow, wooden boats were constructed with long strips of wood along the bottom and down the middle, to prevent flipping. By rowing or using poles, men would to guide the boats upriver.

Though the Monongahela River remained a popular route for westward transportation, many of these boats eventually met both natural and manmade obstacles along the rivers. After a river improvement program was implemented in 1790, a 50-foot-wide channel was cleared in the Monongahela to boost river navigation; the government completed the project in 1805. This action set the course for the launch of the steamboat industry.

Steamboats Arrive

In the 1800s, steam power revolutionized travel in the United States and along the Monongahela. Brownsville eventually became the early center of construction for these boats.

In 1811, Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steam engine and Nicholas Roosevelt built the first steamboat.  Later that year, Captain Henry Shreve came to western Pennsylvania to begin work on keelboats. He and his partners then bought a shipyard in Brownsville, where they developed and built the “Enterprise,” the first steamboat to make the journey down to New Orleans and back under its own power. From 1811 to 1888, workers in this area along the National Road produced more than 3,000 steamboats!

Today, Brownsville remains a wonderful historic landmark and an important economic resource for western Pennsylvania.

Spectacular Lodging along PA’s National Road

There is only one true way to travel the Historic National Road in Pennsylvania — and that is with ease. With over 90 miles to explore and ample amounts of sights, attractions, and activities weaved into the significant path, it’s important to keep the road trip pace comfortable and enjoyable. One very meaningful way to do this is by staying at some of the spectacular lodging along the route.

Here are a collection of our absolute favorite lodges that capture the essence of what make the National Road so uniquely special:

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort:

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is a truly exceptional 2,000 acre resort located in the Laurel Highlands in Farmington, Pennsylvania. The upscale lodging features 318 luxurious suites, guestrooms, townhomes, and private homes, making it possible to accommodate any family or party size.  The spa, golf course, wildlife academy, pool, and ski facilities are some of the many highlights to make your stay a fulfilling yet relaxing one.

Here’s a wonderful review from a recent guest: “Possibly the best short vacation ever! We spent 3 nights there for our anniversary. It was perfect. You can quickly become immersed into the feel of the resort and it makes you think you think you are much further away from home than you actually are. One of the quotes given about the nearby Falling Water house by Frank Lloyd Wright was that the family ‘was living inside a work of art’. Nemacolin is also like that. The museum quality artwork is everywhere. The spa, the animals, the restaurants were all great – and the rooms in the chateau are palatial.”

Historical Summit Inn Resport:

The name says it all. The Historic Summit Inn Resort, also located in the Laurel Highlands, is a slice of paradise that was first opened to the public in 1907. Rich with history, the resort prides itself on preserving tradition and artifacts, with one of the last remaining grand porch hotels in America and the keepsake of the original hotel register that dates back to 1917, when Henry Ford and Thomas Edison brought the American Science Wizards to race down the mountain. The resort closes for the winter season, but this is one to add to the list when it reopens in April 2016.

Tara who visited in August 2015 had this to say about her hotel experience: “Turn back the hands of time. This wonderful resort made the entire family forget about technology and interact with nature. It is set on top of a lovely mountain and you see a perfect sunset. The food in the restaurant was fabulous. They even have a “Tree House Masters” tree house on the grounds you are allowed to visit. We had a wonderful visit and I felt like a kid again. Our family wants to go back again and again. I highly recommend this inn for a family or romantic destination.”

Century Inn:

The classic Century Inn was built in 1974 and is the oldest continuously operating inn on the National Road. The humble bed and breakfast located in Scenery Hill, Washington County has hosted many prominent figures in American history, including Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and James Polk. Unfortunately the inn suffered from a devastating fire on August 18th, 2015 and will be closed for the holiday season.

Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, had this to say about iconic inn“When you walked into it, you got the entire history of the National Road, as it went through the middle of Washington County. It was kind of a timeline. It has seen the history of Washington County from the beginning.”

Though it will remained closed for the season, the owners, locals, and history buffs alike look forward to its future reopening. Until then, the owners invite all those who have visited this beautiful historic landmark to share memories and photos of the Inn on their Facebook page.

There are so many lodgings to enjoy along the National Road in Pennsylvania! Which is your favorite?

Chasing Waterfalls at Ohiopyle with Photographer Rusty Glessner

Whoever said don’t go chasing waterfalls must not have seen Rusty Glessner’s photography. He’s a Pennsylvania native who’s grown a supportive following through his nature photography, namely his knack for capturing waterfalls. As you can imagine, this makes him no stranger to PA’s state parks, and so we jumped at the opportunity to chat with him about one in particular; Ohiopyle.  

Before we turn green with travel envy, let’s meet photographer Rusty Glessner and hear about his Ohiopyle State Park adventures, along Pennsylvania’s cherished National Road:

Q1. How long have you been in the photography industry and what do you enjoy most about it?

I’ve been interested in photography my entire life, but I’ve only been selling my landscape prints for the past three years. The thing I enjoy most about landscape photography it is that it satisfies my wanderlust. I love to travel and explore new areas. The further off the beaten path the better.

Q2. Ohiopyle seems to be one of your go-to photography destinations. What keeps you coming back to photograph and experience the wonders of Ohiopyle State Park time after time?

At 20,000 plus acres, Ohiopyle State Park offers an incredibly diverse palate of options to see and photograph, from mountain vistas like Baughman Rock to all the waterfalls in the valleys below. And the same subjects change so much from season to season, no two trips to the park are ever the same.

Q3. For the past year, you’ve been chasing Pennsylvania’s waterfalls beautifully through your camera lense. Can you share your 3 favorite photographs of Ohiopyle waterfalls with us?

Certainly. One of my favorite images from Ohiopyle would be this shot from Ohiopyle Falls, taken November 1 of 2014, because it was my first magazine cover (Pennsylvania Magazine, September/October 2015).

Another would be this shot from June 2015 of Upper Jonathan Run Falls. I loved the way the early morning sunlight illuminated all the green foliage along the stream.

A third would be this shot from the Cascades along Meadow Run, shot during the spring thaw in mid-March 2015. The contrast of the rushing white water against the dark shadows of the hemlocks and laurel along the stream made for a very compelling image.

Q4. A 12 month waterfall chase seems like an awesome photography assignment. What attracts you the most to these natural phenomena?

Waterfalls are a fascinating subject to me for several reasons. By their very nature, they generally occur in rugged terrain where you have dramatic changes in elevation. So tracking them down takes me on road trips to some of the most scenic parts of America. There are also many ways to photograph each waterfall, from fast stop-motion shots, to the longer exposures that give the water a “silky” appearance. So trying to figure out the best way to frame up and capture the character of each individual waterfall is both technically challenging and exciting from an artistic standpoint.

Q5. For those who have never been to Ohiopyle, can you share 3 things every traveler must do during their visit?

Ohiopyle Falls are certainly a must-see when visiting the park. They can be viewed most easily from the observation decks located next to the Visitors Center, or from the Ferncliff Trail on the opposite shore of the Yough.

Nearby Cucumber Falls is also a required stop, arguably the most “classical” of all the waterfalls in the park.

The Baughman Rock Overlook would be my third recommended stop. If you’re an early riser it’s an especially great vantage point to catch a sunrise.

Q6. There is something so special about photographs, whether its competition worthy or taken with a dusty polaroid. What do you hope to achieve through nature photography in 2016?

My goal is to visit at least 50 new-to-me waterfalls in 2016. Which is the same goal I’ve had (and met) for each of the past several years. There are still large areas of Pennsylvania where I’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of waterfalls.  I’ve also started venturing south of the border into Maryland and West Virginia towards the end of 2015. I’m always looking forward to new road trips and new adventures.

Q7. Do you have a trip planned to return back to Ohiopyle? If so, what can we expect from your adventure?

My next trip back to Ohiopyle State Park will probably be in February, once the deep freeze of winter has taken hold. Frozen Cucumber Falls and some of the tall ice formations along the Great Allegheny Passage bike path are always a sight to behold and photograph.

Our short Q&A style interview with Rusty Glessner is a testament to the wonderment that awaits at Ohiopyle. We always say our Road has a story to tell and this is surely one of them. It’s now your turn to experience this waterfall-filled park and create your own!

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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