As you follow the old National Road westward across Illinois, shortly before you reach Martinsville the abandoned brick highway abruptly turns into an abandoned concrete highway. Here’s an eastbound shot of it from 2007, when I first visited it.
This road’s construction is unusual in that it is three parallel strips of concrete. I couldn’t figure out then why it was made that way. But I think I know now.
Consider the map below. If you want to drive into Martinsville from the east, you have to turn off US 40 onto old US 40 and the National Road. The way is paved in asphalt, but behind it lies the abandoned three-strip concrete in my photo above. Where the asphalt road curves, a very narrow strip of concrete continues straight.
Here it is. It’s on private property today with a prominent No Trespassing sign posted, so this is as close to it as I got. (If you own this land and stumble upon this post, I’d love to have your permission to walk the old roadway!) When I saw this in 2007, I assumed this was just a private driveway and didn’t bother to stop. But since then I’ve learned from at least one commenter on this blog that this driveway was indeed once part of the highway.
After doing some research, I’ve come to believe that the Illinois Highway Commission built it sometime after 1909 but before 1916. It competes with a stretch of 1914 concrete in Ohio (see it here) for the title of the oldest surviving pavement on the National Road.
The 1909 Illinois Highway Commission annual report (see it here) shows that Illinois was building only earth, gravel, and macadam roads then. I also own Automobile Blue Books from 1912 and 1916, which are guides that give turn-by-turn directions between cities and towns and report on the quality of the roads involved. The 1912 ABB says that the road is “mostly natural dirt.” The 1916 ABB says that the road is “fair to poor dirt with short stretches of concrete.”
What would confirm my theory is to find the actual construction contracts, which would date this concrete precisely. But I’m plenty happy to have narrowed it down this far.
If you’re wondering who in their right mind would think a one-lane highway would be sufficient, I have three answers for you. First, the 1910s were a highly experimental time in road construction and everybody was just trying things and seeing how they worked. Second, concrete was expensive and they didn’t want to use more of it than was strictly necessary. Third, there was very little traffic in the 1910s. I assume the road-builders figured that when a driver encountered an oncoming car, someone would just pull off the pavement to let the other car pass.
I’m sure that when Illinois improved the entire National Road in the early 1920s, they rerouted the road here to avoid the dangerous narrow-angle railroad crossing, which left this one-lane concrete strip behind. At the same time, on the parts of the one-lane highway that would still be used, they added the strips of concrete on either side to make two travel lanes, which was an admission that the single-lane highway hadn’t worked out. This figure from a 1924 annual report of the Illinois Division of Highways (see the report here) shows the ways they were widening the one-lane concrete roads for two-lane travel. The middle diagram shows how this road was widened. The bottom diagram shows an alternate widening method.
The first photo in this post shows the middle scenario in the drawings above: the ten-foot-wide road with two four-foot-wide strips on either side, creating an 18-foot-wide road.
I love finding stuff like this and doing the research to learn its story!
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 30 April 2020 by Jim Grey