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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey