It had been seven long years since I last drove the National Road in Illinois. I was curious to see it again, so I drove it a couple Saturdays ago. The National Road was our nation’s first federally funded highway, stretching from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois and passing through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana along the way. It was authorized in 1806 and built between 1811 and 1837. You might know the road in those states better as US 40, more or less.
The last segment of the National Road was built in Illinois, from the Indiana state line west to the state capital, which was Vandalia then. It was surveyed in 1828 all the way to St. Louis, and building commenced shortly thereafter. But funds ran out at Vandalia in 1837, and that’s where the road stopped. Funds actually started to thin out when the road reached Columbus, Ohio. Until then, the road was macadam (compacted crushed stone) all the way, and that was the finest road surface available then. West of Columbus the road was macadam only here and there. By the time the road reached Illinois, money allowed only removing the trees and grading (leveling) the dirt roadway. The road would be an impassable mud bog in all but dry, sunny weather.
As railroads rose to prominence in the 1800s, the National Road became less important and was at best poorly maintained. In 1894, Thomas Searight wrote a book about the National Road in which he reported that this road, “grand and imposing” at its beginning, became so insignificant west of the Illinois state line that it simply disappeared into the prairie.
This, then, was the state of the National Road in Illinois. Towns were built along the road in hopes of a great prosperity, which never quite materialized. Some of these small towns did well enough to remain vital today, while others have long been in decay. The National Road remains their main streets.
The situation was not much improved during the first two decades of the 20th century. A road guide I’ve seen from 1916 described the National Road in Illinois as still mostly dirt and “bad in wet weather.” It urged the motorist to “make careful local inquiry regarding conditions.”
The reason there were road guides at all during these years was because of the automobile. People wanted to drive places! But it wasn’t until the 1910s that states began to form highway networks, and until 1927 that the national highway system was established. And even after those networks existed, it took years of effort to improve these roads so they were all hard surfaced.
Starting in 1920, Illinois laid brick and poured concrete to create an all-weather National Road. They finished by 1923. In 1927, the road was named US 40 and made part of the national highway system.
That road, like roads everywhere, soon became more crowded as more people bought cars. And especially after World War II, cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. So in the early 1950s Illinois determined to rebuild US 40 as a four-lane divided highway. They built straighter, flatter, and wider westbound lanes alongside the old brick and concrete road – much to drivers’ relief, I’m sure.
But by then I-70 was in the planning stages. Because it would parallel US 40, it no longer made sense to build US 40’s eastbound lanes. And so the old brick and concrete road was abandoned for miles and miles, and it remains today. It’s a treasure.
In several posts to come, I’ll share scenes from along the Illinois National Road, both this historic pavement and its towns, and some of the scenery all along the way.