I like to fill my spare spring and summer Saturdays taking road trips. And I don’t mean “let’s drive to Chicago for the weekend” – I mean exploring the old two-lane highways, just taking in the countryside and enjoying the small towns along the way. The journey is the destination! Also, as these old roads were straightened, widened, and sometimes even moved over the years to allow for swifter travel, bits of their original alignments were sometimes left behind. I loves me some old alignments!
One of my favorite old alignments is in Illinois on the National Road, which was the nation’s first federally funded highway. It was built in the 1820s and 1830s to connect the east (Baltimore, MD) to what at the time was considered the west (Vandalia, IL). US 40 more or less follows its path today. A remarkable series of events left several miles of the National Road abandoned in Illinois starting at the Indiana border. Basically, in the early 1950s Illinois intended to convert the road into a 4-lane expressway, and built new westbound lanes next to the old highway. By the time those lanes were laid down, the Interstate system was on the drawing board and it became clear that I-70 would be built parallel to US 40 across the state. It suddenly made no sense to improve the old road into eastbound lanes, so the state just abandoned the road.
As I-70 heads west out of Indiana, it does so in part over the National Road’s original path. Just inside Illinois, I-70 curves south a bit, leaving the old National Road behind. Deep inside a wooded area, you can still find remains of the old road buried a few inches down. These bricks were laid in the 1920s.
As you exit the woods, the overgrown brick road extends out into the open.
There are a few places where the old brick road is in very rough shape, such as this spot where most of the bricks have been removed. (That’s my friend Michael, contemplating the destruction.)
But much of it is intact. I even drove on a little bit of it.
Actually, this wasn’t the first time I’d driven on the old road. On an earlier trip, I managed to embarrass myself by accidentally backing my car off a service road that bisected the National Road, effectively beaching my car. Two good Samaritans helped me push the car off the edge and onto the old brick road. I backed it way up and then built up enough speed to sail up and over the ridge. Oops!
I’ve driven the National Road across Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois. Ohio is conspicuously absent from the list because the last time I tried it, I wrecked my car as I entered from West Virginia. (My sons and I walked away, but the car was done for. Here’s the story.) This year, I intend to finally conquer the National Road across Ohio. Many great old alignments remain there, some of them brick, and I intend to see them all! I also hope to see more of the Dixie Highway in Indiana this year.
The whole point of telling you all this is that writing about my road trips consumes this blog during the warm months every year. My longtime readers know that I’ll share the most interesting sights with you – historic architecture, charming downtowns, country views, and especially old alignments.
I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.
To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!
Last updated on 20 March 2020 by Jim Grey