How Industry, taverns, blacksmiths, commerce, Teamsters, and drovers pushed Westward paving the way for the National Road
A mid-1800s journey on the National Road must have filled the senses: wagons rumbling and creaking, the lowing and snorting and jostling of livestock, travelers greeting each other, laughing, sometimes arguing. When the road opened in 1818 from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, Virginia, a steady flow of adventurers and families headed west to the rich lands of the Ohio River valley. Taverns, inns, and livery stables sprang up all along the way, and villages formed with blacksmith shops and other services. As western settlements grew, stage lines and mail coaches plied the road on regular schedules. Drovers herded cattle, sheep, and hogs to market. Conestoga wagons hauled manufactured and imported products west and returned to urban centers with produce and other frontier farm goods.
The thoroughfare was soon extended through Ohio and Indiana, reaching Vandalia, Illinois, by 1838. States adopted responsibility for maintenance and established toll gates and tollhouses, a few of which can still be visited today.
The National Road enjoyed a heyday through the 1850s. When the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad opened to Wheeling in 1853 and then beyond, it quickly became the favored mode of transport. But the road had played a crucial and colorful role in the settlement of the lands west of the Mississippi River. Its early decades coincided with the beginnings of U.S. industrialization, and towns along the road’s earliest phase grew into centers of commerce and industry. Cumberland served as an outfitting and staging center for journeys west, and canal and rail transport came to intersect there. Uniontown in Pennsylvania was a stagecoach hub and later became a steelmaking center; Brownsville, on the Monongahela River, manufactured steamboats, and Washington made glass. Wheeling, on the Ohio River, became a major market center and supported multiple industries. All of this was made possible in part by the National Road.