History, Road Trips

Then and now on the National Road

Vintage postcards can be a great way to see the sights as they used to be. I went on an old-postcard jag several years ago, looking for ones showing scenes from the roads I was exploring then. I bought several, but kind of lost interest in owning the cards when I realized that I could troll eBay for old cards and just save the scans posted to those auctions. I want the images much more than I want the cards themselves.

I looked specifically for images of places I visited or planned to visit. Here are some of those from along the National Road, the nation’s first interstate highway.

This interesting bridge used to carry the National Road near its historic end at Vandalia, Illinois. My notes say that this bridge is from 1909.

IL NR Vandalia 1909 brodge over Okaw R proc

It should not surprise you that this bridge is long gone. A modern bridge stands just to the south of it on a new alignment; it’s on the left in the photo below. The old alignment dead ends where the older bridge once stood.

Bypassed National Road and US 40

This road’s narrow width suggests that it is from the improvements Illinois made to the road in the 1920s. Those improvements were alternately of brick and of concrete. This postcard shows the concrete road near Vandalia.

IL NR Vandalia RPPC proc

The 1811 stone bridge that crosses the Casselman River near Grantsville, Maryland, still stands. The bridge was already a century or so old when this image was made. It carried traffic until 1933.

MD NR Casselman Bridge ca 1915 proc

I visited this large, imposing bridge in 2009. Its arch is especially tall because at the time it was thought that the Casselman would remain an important waterway carrying large boats, which would have to pass underneath.

Casselman River bridge

This bridge was built for the high-clearance vehicles of the day. If it weren’t blocked at its ends and I had tried to drive over it, I’m pretty sure my car would have bottomed out and become stuck on that peak.

Casselman River bridge

Postcards showing a long and winding National Road are plentiful. This one and the next one show pavement the state of Maryland laid along the National Road in the 1930s, by which time the road was US 40.

MD NR Frostburg postcard 1930s proc

If I recall correctly, US 40 had been dirt and gravel across Maryland before this pavement was laid. It is asphalt with concrete borders. This road is probably 16 feet wide, which is narrow by modern standards.

MD NR-TownHillGreenRidgeMD proc

I found a short segment of it west of Hagerstown, Maryland. Especially when compared to modern US 40 is on the left, it looks like two oncoming cars would barely have room to pass each other.

Abandoned alignment

Western Maryland is mighty hilly. My poor little car struggled up Polish Mountain on the oldest available alignment of the road. Some of the curves up the mountain have been smoothed out a little. This image shows the road’s state in the 1920s.

MD NR Polish Mountain 1920s maybe proc

But the view from up there is spectacular. Below, you can see the next two alignments of US 40. The first is now Maryland Route 144, and the next is I-68.

The view from Gilpin Road

Meanwhile, in Ohio, the great 1826 stone S bridge near Blaine still stands. This image is probably from the early 1920s.

OH NR 1923 Stone Bridge Blaine proc

You can’t take a clean shot of the bridge from that angle anymore, because a new elevated bridge was built on that spot in the 1930s. But here’s a 2011 photo from the other side, showing the newer bridge too.

The S Bridge at Blaine

One S bridge still stands in Pennsylvania, west of Washington. It was built in 1818. This image is probably from the 1920s.

PA NR S Bridge 1 proc

I visited in 2009. The bridge was closed, of course; modern US 40 passes by immediately to the south. Here are those twin arches that lurk on the left side of the image above.

S bridge

The deck was covered with grass when I visited in 2009. It cracks me up to think that someone has to mow this bridge.

S bridge

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The National Road is a favorite subject.
Read everything I’ve written about it here.

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10 thoughts on “Then and now on the National Road

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    What can I say but “Wow!”? Thank you for the incredible trip into the past.

    I’ve driven along I-68 many times but never knew about the old road hidden off to its side.

    Like

  2. I’ve found some good images on Ebay too. And like you I’m more interested in the images than having the postcard. I especially like the one of the road by Vandalia. It gives me a feel for what driving down the road would have been like.

    Like

    • That is a particularly good image. I’d like to find more like it, but so many of the postcards are of hotels and restaurants. That makes sense, because those end up being advertisements – and there is a place for that in my history research. But I love photos of the old infrastructure so much more.

      Like

  3. Robert says:

    The Vandalia bridge postcard is the Bowstring bridge that was built in 1878, it replaced the National Road covered bridge that was built in 1840.
    A 2-span Parker through truss bridge built in 1921 replaced the Bowstring bridge and the Parker truss was replaced by the current eyesore in 1962.

    Like

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