Improving the rutted National Road in Ohio

Imagining what a road was like in years gone by draws me out to find the old alignments and the old pavement. This is why I’ve recently shared photos of left-behind brick and concrete segments of Ohio’s National Road with you – photos, I’m sure, that were interesting only to readers with a healthy inner roadgeek.

I stumbled upon the Ohio Department of Transportation’s photo archive (which has since gone offline), a great cache of historic road images that includes an extensive set of early-1900s National Road photos. I killed most of a morning studying every image. I was in roadgeek heaven! Some of the images show things I have been writing about in these posts, and I want to share them with you.

This first image is from 1906, somewhere in Licking County along the National Road. Ohio’s Department of Highways hadn’t yet been formed; the National Road belonged to the counties through which it passed. The road was unimproved and maintenance varied. Imagine trying to drive this rutted road on a rainy day. More to the point, imagine needing help pulling your car out of a mud bog.

Compacting a dirt road by dragging a super-heavy roller across it helps avoid the ruts for a while. This 1905 photo from Muskingum County shows the road after what appears to be a good compacting.

Crushed stone and gravel were popular choices when the National Road began to be improved across Ohio, as this photo from Franklin County shows. ODOT dates the photo to 1917, but I think it might be even older.

This photo, which ODOT dates to 1912, shows a crew laying brick on the National Road in Franklin County. Laying a brick road is all manual labor.

This 1917 photo from Guernsey County shows more bricks being laid. Imagine how long the road had to be closed to get this job done. We wouldn’t put up with it today.

I really hoped to find construction photos from the concrete highway poured between 1914 and 1916 between Zanesville and Hebron. I didn’t have any luck, but at least I found this 1933 photo of the concrete highway in use in Licking County, in which Hebron is located.

If you like historic photos like these, check out these 1920s National Road postcard images and these 1910s-1920s photos from Indiana’s Michigan Road.

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.

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14 responses to “Improving the rutted National Road in Ohio”

  1. Lynn Avatar

    These are lovely.

    1. Jim Avatar

      There are a whole bunch more at the ODOT site to which I linked.

  2. Kurt Garner Avatar
    Kurt Garner

    Great pics Jim. I think I’m going to have to go looking through those archives for a few other routes.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I didn’t know you had Ohio interests!

  3. vanilla Avatar

    Great tour through the past. Thanks for sharing these. I note that the ratio of “watchers” to “workers” was about the same on a road crew a hundred years ago as it is today!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Yes, roads are the most heavily supervised of construction projects.

  4. Jim's Brother Avatar
    Jim’s Brother

    We’ve made laying brick roads a bit easier and faster in just the last couple of years (see, but it’s still slow, hard work. Funny how things of value often are…

    1. Jim Avatar

      How cool is that!

      I remember when Dad would drive down one of South Bend’s brick streets how much I didn’t like how rumbly they were. I wished the city would pave over them all for smoother, quieter travel! Clearly I feel differently about it today.

      But I’ve also learned that brick roads don’t have to be as rumbly as the ones in South Bend. I drove over some of the abandoned brick National Road in Illinois and, while it was a little noisier than driving on concrete, as long as the bricks were all intact it was pretty smooth.

      I’ve since learned that, apart from the labor it takes to lay a brick road, they fell out of favor because they are hard to plow (apparently plows can pull up bricks somehow) and are slicker than asphalt or concrete when wet or icy.

  5. Michael Avatar

    That one in Muskingum County looks as wide as a modern 2-lane highway.

    Oh, and you drove pretty slow on those IL bricks. I bet it would have been louder if you were cruising!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Hm, yes, it does look pretty wide.

      South Bend’s brick streets are all side streets; the fastest we ever drove on them was probably 30 mph, and they still rumbled the car!

  6. Dave Avatar

    I love the last photo with the old-style U.S. 40 sign!

    1. Jim Avatar

      It almost looks superimposed on the photo!

      1. Dave Avatar

        Jim, I forgot to ask you where exactly was that photo taken and is that section of road still in use today?

        1. Jim Avatar

          I got this photo from the ODOT archives. Given that it’s on the concrete road, it has to be from somewhere between Zanesville and Hebron. I can’t locate it any more accurately than that.

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