History, Road Trips

The abandoned brick National Road in Illinois

Illinois has something that no other National Road state can touch: abandoned historic pavement segments visible from the modern highway for about 50 miles. In the 1950s, the Illinois Department of Highways built a new US 40 alongside the old, and left the old road to rot.

West from the Indiana state line, the road is paved in bricks. This eastbound shot shows the first brick segment visible after you cross into Illinois.

Abandoned brick road

It’s hard to imagine it now, but a hundred years ago most roads were of dirt and thus impassable in bad weather. The maintenance state of the art was to drag a wide, flat, heavy weight across them from time to time to smooth them out.

But then in about 1920 Illinois went on a three-year jag of laying brick and pouring concrete to create a statewide network of all-weather highways. By about 1923 the entirety of Illinois’s National Road had been hard surfaced, in brick for about 17 miles from the Indiana state line through Marshall almost to Martinsville, and in concrete the remaining 76 miles or so to Vandalia. These bricks you see here were part of that push. This is a westbound shot from the same place I took the previous photo.

Abandoned brick road

A segment that still serves as an access road to one property is in pretty good condition, and shows how this road was constructed. Notice the concrete strips on either side of the brick road.

Abandoned brick road

Those concrete strips are the edges of a U-shaped concrete pad into which the bricks were laid. This diagram from a 1923 report of the Illinois Department of Highways shows this construction. I wonder why Illinois bothered with the bricks; why not just pour a concrete slab and be done with it? But these were experimental days in highway construction, and highway engineers were figuring out what worked best. It didn’t take long for road-builders to give up on brick. I’d say that after about 1925, nobody was building brick highways anymore.


Here’s an actual photo of these bricks being laid, from a set of photos I bought on eBay a couple years ago. I shared the entire set here. In that post I guessed that these photos were from about 1925. But after looking at those Illinois highway reports from 1921-23, I think they may be a few years older.

Building the Illinois National Road

This road is 18 feet wide, which was an Illinois standard then. That’s mighty narrow compared to modern roads. Notice how much of this road my little Ford Focus consumes. Imagine driving a road this narrow and encountering an oncoming truck or Greyhound bus!

Abandoned brick road

This brick road stretched for about 17 miles from the Indiana state line. Lots of little segments of it remain. Most of it is south of the modern highway, but little stretches like this one are north of it. The old road was curvier than the current road.

Abandoned brick road

All of the bridges were removed from the old road after current US 40 was completed. I’m sure Illinois didn’t want the liability of a bunch of no-longer-maintained bridges, but I’d surely love to know what kinds of bridges they were. This road segment just east of Marshall lies just beyond a creek. There is still some bridge rubble here.

Illinois National Road

This segment provides access to some sort of facility just out of the photo to the right. Several segments of this old brick road serve some sort of access purpose, but much of it just lies there, waiting for you to visit.

It was on this abandoned road that I learned an important lesson about nostalgia. Read about it here.

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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21 thoughts on “The abandoned brick National Road in Illinois

  1. I can see why they gave up on brick for highways, but I’m glad some of these roads still exist. They’re so charming and timeless and have character that asphalt will never have. In a city near us, there are several streets that are still brick and I enjoy driving over them just to listen to how the tires hum differently. Great post!

    • My hometown still has a few brick streets that are probably 100 years old. They’re extra rumbly to drive on! Sometimes you’ll see a modern brick street, such as the main street of nearby Zionsville. It was installed primarily for aesthetic reasons.

  2. Lone Primate says:

    Whoa, baby, the motherlode. :)

    Imagine bricking a highway. What a fantastically labourious task that must have been. I don’t doubt the men did well by it financial… a lot of work there… but it must have taken ages. I’m astonished how quickly they lay down resurfacing blacktop on, say, the 401 overnight. Half a kilometer at a go. Little wonder they put brick aside.

    What a wonder that 50 miles of the National Road remains, even while abandoned, in the vicinity of its replacement. It had me wondering if it might be possible to have Illinois institute some kind of summer project paying history students to restore the road over ten summers or so. But it sounds like a good deal of it is now on private property, so I suppose that’s effectively a non-starter. Kind of a shame. I guess the idea is enjoy it while it lasts.

    About the bridges… this is strictly a guess, but based on what I’ve seen around southern Ontario—and conditions can’t be that different in the upper Midwest—I think you’d find they were simple iron truss bridges. They’re cheap and easy to put up and maintain; there were hundreds of them in southern Ontario from right around that period for those reasons. But it also meant they wore out quicker (painted at best, they were more generally exposed) and when the time came, they could be hauled down in a day or two and shovelled off for scrap. If those bridges are uniformly missing, my guess is that’s what they were. Elegant-looking bow arch bridges were also popular in North America around that time… they were more expensive but wore better. Pony truss bridges are getting scarce as hen’s teeth around here but there are still lots of bow arch bridges from the early 20 century still around, and a lot of them are still in service. They tend to simply be abandoned rather than actually hauled out, because it’s an expensive pain in the wallet to demolish them. And, they’re fairly scenic, so they tend to have fans that homely pony trusses don’t (with some occasional exceptions: http://www.historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=ontario/sneathbridge/). If Illinois had used arch bridges of one sort or another on the National Road, I imagine you’d still see them.

    • You’re probably right about the bridges having been iron or steel trusses. A secret: I know of two small bridges still intact on the abandoned road. One is a concrete bridge probably supported by girders. The other is a stone-arch bridge. I’ve seen the former, but have only seen photos of the latter. Both of these would probably have been built as culverts today.

      I’m not so sure the road is on private property. If it were, I would think the farmers would have ripped out the road and planted corn or soybeans on it; that’s valuable property. And in two places the state has placed signs: one saying “don’t remove the bricks, state property” and the other “no trespassing.” I’d lay money on all of the abandoned road still being state ROW.

      Yes, asphalt can be laid speedily. You have to do it more often than you do brick or concrete, but I’m sure the accountants have worked out all the cost angles and made asphalt the king of the road, so to speak.

  3. Ward Fogelsanger says:

    Have met Greyhound busses and trucks on the old stretch between Casey and Martinsville… You hold your breath. Could not imagine today’s double trailered 18 wheelers on that road. The Illinois Rt 66 souvenir map says that by 1939 or 1940 they had settled on a standard with of two 12 foot lanes or 24 ft wide which is today’s standard. I believe that the state started improving the road going east from St. Louis just prior to WW2. The easternmost counties Clark and Cumberland were always the last to get improvements since they had the least population and all political power resides in Chicago..in fact the stretch of I 70 from Montrose to Marshall was the last finished between Denver and Baltimore. My house growing up was on the north edge of Casey and our access was off of “new 40”. In fact my dad didn’t build on his property on the northwest corner of the town golf course till it was completed. There was a box culvert on the creek that bisected our property and it was really long, enough for four lanes and we would go through it to go to the woods on the north side of the road. There was a sign on the edge of the right of way that said it was built under authority of the state freeway act of 1943. On your wonderings so you should stop by Richards Farm restaurant..Diane Richards is my high school classmate.

  4. Some years ago, I drove a little east of Flagstaff, Arizona on I-40 and got off the freeway to explore a long abandoned stretch of old US 66. I parked and walked a half a mile or so down the road, along what I imagined to be the centerline of the old highway. I thought about all of the people who motored west on that road, looking for a better life. Old roads are cool. It’s nice that you’ve shared this one with us.

    • If you liked this post, get ready, because it’s about to become all old-road-palooza up in here.

      Plus some Nikon F2 shots from the trip!

      I have a photo somewhere around this blog of me kneeling on what was the centerline of old 66 in Oklahoma. It was on a concrete section that has been just a county road for a few decades now.

  5. Mike Fortney says:

    Among many states during the Hard Road era, IL poured many county and township roads with one 8″ or 10′-wide lane of concrete in the middle and 4′-wide gravel shoulders on each side. A vehicle could drive on the hard surface until meeting another vehicle, which required pulling the right side of the auto onto the gravel to pass. This is why the power-driven wheel on a two-wheel drive vehicle has always been the right rear to provide traction on the gravel or whatever the off-road surface was. The one-lane roads were common in East-Central IL/ Danville area and were widened to standard in the 1960s/’70s.

    • A fellow who reads this blog and lives near Champaign says that some of the one lane concrete rural roads in his area were covered in asphalt only lately. Wonder if anyone thought to photograph them.

  6. Ward Fogelsanger says:

    There was some one lane concrete paving going straight north from Casey on an extension of Central avenue west of Illinois 49 but I don’t know if it’s been paved over.

  7. John A. Beasley says:

    Murphysboro Illinois has several brick roads. First 9 ft wide brick road going out of town and up New Hill was by the Texas junction in Murphysboro.

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