By American standards, the National Road in eastern Ohio is pretty darned old. It was extended west from Wheeling starting in the late 1820s, largely routed over the 1796-97 Zane’s Trace, which was based on even older American Indian trails. None of those trailblazers and roadbuilders had the equipment and technology to do anything but follow the path of least resistance, and so the National Road makes several twists and turns as it heads west from the Ohio River. In contrast, nearby I-70 is a smooth and level ride. It was built in about the early 1970s, when roadbuilders could cut through the hills and fill in the valleys.
Even then, the National Road saw plenty of improvements in its lifetime, especially after the US highway system was founded in 1926 and US 40 was routed over it. One such improvement happened where the road crossed Wheeling Creek at the town of Blaine. The road originally followed what is now Pasko Road, but was straightened in 1933.
Of course, that meant building a new bridge. Fortunately, they left the old one behind, a sandstone three-span S bridge built in 1828. Aren’t they a spectacular pair? (That’s my old buddy Jeff there, unwittingly providing a sense of these bridges’ scale.)
As winding roads were a concession in the old days, so were S bridges. Bridges that crossed a river or stream at right angles were stronger and considerably less expensive to build and maintain than bridges that crossed at an angle. Roads don’t always approach rivers squarely, of course. In Ohio, the solution was to build bridges square to the river and curve the road to meet its ends. This gave these bridges their distinctive S shape and, therefore, their name. A few smaller, single-span S bridges remain on the road in eastern Ohio; I’ll write about them in future posts.
This solution worked very well for traffic in 1830 when an average traveler covered maybe ten miles per day. But as the automobile rose to prominence in the 20th century, drivers needed to slow down to negotiate these bridges. Drivers were just as impatient then as now, and so improvements to US 40 eliminated these S bridges, either bypassing them or demolishing them, but always replacing them with direct crossings that did not impede the traveler. In this case, the new bridge also made what had been a very steep ascent west of the S bridge into a more gradual climb, which drivers also appreciated.
Despite being bypassed, this bridge and road were used for local access through 1994. The old bridge had deteriorated badly and was in danger of being demolished. Local preservationists persevered, however, leading to its restoration and conversion into a park. (Check out this page at the Federal Highway Administration that tells this story.)
Of course, the National Road was not originally paved in brick. The “brick era” for American roads generally began in the 1910s. My 1916 Automobile Blue Book, a thick guide of turn-by-turn directions between cities and towns, says that the National Road was “good brick, concrete, and macadam all the way” between Wheeling and Columbus. I’d say these bricks were laid not long before then. Weeds poke out from between the bricks west of the bridge where cars are no longer allowed to go.
I saw several old brick alignments on this trip about which I’ll certainly write in posts to come. This was the only one where any of the bricks were marked.
The old road extends beyond the park, where it becomes heavily overgrown. I counted two houses back here with useless driveways to the road. I have to assume that those homeowners now have some sort of access to US 40, which runs behind their houses.
Soon the old road ends, and abruptly. US 40 is high above us.
I left this spot with a strong wish to know how the road used to go west from this point. But then I found this photo at the Historic American Engineering Record at the Library of Congress. The photo is really of the milestone (which has since been moved), but check out the road’s path.
On the National Road in Illinois, lots of old brick road was left behind too. Check it out.