A brief history of the National Road in Illinois

Abandoned brick road
Abandoned brick National Road east of Marshall, IL

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.

From the state line to Effingham, from a 1925 road guide

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.

Effingham to Vandalia and beyond, from a 1925 road guide

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.

From a 1912 road guide – the National Road is dirt, and “usually good” but only in the summer

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.”

From a 1916 road guide – “fair to poor” and just avoid it altogether in some areas

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.

From a 1924 road guide - at last, hard-surfaced all the way!
From a 1924 road guide – hard-surfaced “practically” all the way!

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.

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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13 responses to “A brief history of the National Road in Illinois”

  1. Carole Grey Avatar
    Carole Grey

    The growth of areas is so interesting and via road is a new prospective. I’m looking forward to your follow up articles.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! I have a couple posts already queued up and several more to write.

  2. Nancy (Roe) Stewart Avatar
    Nancy (Roe) Stewart

    You are now talking about my neck of the woods Jim. My dad was from that part of the country and so we spent many hot steamy summer vacation in southern Illinois. They all lived in the Centralia – Irvington area so I have been to Vandalia and Effingham many times. Of course I was too young back then to think about the roads!! We would like to head that way in the next year or two to see what family is still left and go to Springfield to see the Abraham Lincoln Museum. Maybe I will pay a little more attention to the road this time. Looking forward to more more posts.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy you’ll be along for the (virtual) ride, Nancy! You might know Carlyle, which isn’t far from Centralia. The town has a neat old suspension bridge that used to be part of what became US 50 but is used today only for foot traffic. I’ve visited it and wrote about it here a long time ago.

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    I can’t get enough of this stuff. :) I read about the National Road in a single school book on US history in high school and the idea fascinated me… but it was next to impossible to find out anything else about it, or even mentions of it. Now here you are making it so real, far beyond the power of books back in the 80s. It’s terrific that you’re doing this and making the knowledge available to people down the road (no pun intended) who will come looking for history. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I always hope you’ll come around when I write posts like this because I enjoy sharing this mutual interest with you. I can’t remember whether I learned about the National Road in school history classes. Maybe. But I hated history class. My love of history didn’t switch on until I could meet it on my own terms.

  4. pesoto74 Avatar

    Look forward to reading more of your posts on this subject. I have often wondered why more attention isn’t paid to subjects like transportation and communication in the teaching of history.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s kind of a niche interest, I think. Not unimportant, just not as popular as people and events.

  5. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    Thanks for sharing all this wonderful history Jim !!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Bernie!

  6. cozyteacup Avatar

    I like the post… but like the car better :) yey for Ford! I like this one. Is it a Ford Focus?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yep. It’s a very fun car to drive. I think it’s a little frumpy looking though, especially in that paint color. But the price was right and when I bought it I still had a dog that sometimes needed to ride in the wayback, so it was the right car for me at the time.

      1. cozyteacup Avatar

        yeah, that color is boring true lol! Mine is blue :) but I want to get the light green they have..so nice! and yep the price is perfect, plus it saves me on gas.

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