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.

IL-NR-brick-construction

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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History, Road Trips

Improving the rutted National Road in Ohio

Imagining what a road was like in years gone by draws me out to find the old alignments and the old pavement. This is why I’ve recently shared photos of left-behind brick and concrete segments of Ohio’s National Road with you – photos, I’m sure, that were interesting only to readers with a healthy inner roadgeek.

I stumbled upon the Ohio Department of Transportation’s photo archive (which has since gone offline), a great cache of historic road images that includes an extensive set of early-1900s National Road photos. I killed most of a morning studying every image. I was in roadgeek heaven! Some of the images show things I have been writing about in these posts, and I want to share them with you.

This first image is from 1906, somewhere in Licking County along the National Road. Ohio’s Department of Highways hadn’t yet been formed; the National Road belonged to the counties through which it passed. The road was unimproved and maintenance varied. Imagine trying to drive this rutted road on a rainy day. More to the point, imagine needing help pulling your car out of a mud bog.

Compacting a dirt road by dragging a super-heavy roller across it helps avoid the ruts for a while. This 1905 photo from Muskingum County shows the road after what appears to be a good compacting.

Crushed stone and gravel were popular choices when the National Road began to be improved across Ohio, as this photo from Franklin County shows. ODOT dates the photo to 1917, but I think it might be even older.

This photo, which ODOT dates to 1912, shows a crew laying brick on the National Road in Franklin County. Laying a brick road is all manual labor.

This 1917 photo from Guernsey County shows more bricks being laid. Imagine how long the road had to be closed to get this job done. We wouldn’t put up with it today.

I really hoped to find construction photos from the concrete highway poured between 1914 and 1916 between Zanesville and Hebron. I didn’t have any luck, but at least I found this 1933 photo of the concrete highway in use in Licking County, in which Hebron is located.

If you like historic photos like these, check out these 1920s National Road postcard images and these 1910s-1920s photos from Indiana’s Michigan Road.

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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
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History, Road Trips

When someone tells me to hit the bricks, I take it literally (on the National Road in Ohio)

As the automobile age dawned at the turn of the 20th century, the nation’s network of mostly dirt roads was passable only in good weather. The clamor for “good roads” paved in hard surfaces for all-weather travel led to the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which created state highway departments and provided money to them for road improvements. Additionally, the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 highlighted the need to be able to quickly move military equipment and troops across the nation.

Peacock Road
Peacock Road

And so Ohio began to improve much of its National Road, by now also known as State Route 1, in the mid-1910s. Military needs during World War I caused it to lay bricks on much of the road between the Ohio River and Zanesville.

I’m always excited to find an intact road surface from this era; few are left anywhere. Along the National Road, I’ve seen one brief brick segment in Indiana (see it here) and a long one in Illinois (see it here), plus two still driveable concrete segments in Indiana (see the first; see the second), all laid in the 1920s. But I was especially excited to make my Ohio trip because I knew I’d encounter a few segments of pavement that were even older.

The first brick segment was at Blaine (see it here). I expected the second to be just west of Old Washington, as it was clearly an old alignment and Google Maps labeled it Brick Road.

Apparently the evil asphalters got to it before I did. Indeed, Ohio covered most of its brick National Road with asphalt in 1932. But check out the difference between the old alignment on the left with its narrow roadway and blind hill, and the flat, wide current alignment on the right. Highways continued to be improved during the 20th century for greater safety.

Brick Road isn't brick anymore

I knew the next old alignment would still be brick because fellow National Road fan Christopher Busta-Peck tipped me off about it on his blog. It lies a bit west of the previous alignment but east of Cambridge, the next town.

It starts off as gravel, but bricks emerge west of Steele Lane. (I’ll bet that if you dig down in the gravel a little bit you’ll find brick in bad shape, hence the gravel.) Though busy US 40 is 100 yards away, Peacock Road has a remote, secluded feel. I had an strong urge to go to a hardware store, buy an edger, a weedwhacker, and some Roundup, and come back here to clean up the overgrowth so the road would be visible edge to edge.

Peacock Road

Peacock Road emerges from the woods just before it ends.

Peacock Road

I encountered another brick segment as the old road headed west out of Cambridge. The road’s original route (labeled Co Hwy 430 on the map below) crosses US 40; where it does, the road is paved in brick for a short distance.

It is good, rumbly brick.

Brick segment of old US 40/NR

This road’s center stripe means that it is still considered important. If you squint, you can see the seam where the brick ends and asphalt begins.

Brick segment of old US 40/NR

The road next passes through New Concord, and then an old alignment splits off on its way to Norwich. Just past Norwich, an older alignment splits off the old alignment. It is labeled Brick Road.

Fortunately, this Brick Road is really still brick!

Brick Rd.

It cuts across a lovely country scene.

Brick Rd.

The concrete curbs made me wonder if this road is built the same as the abandoned brick segments in Illinois – a concrete pad topped with bricks. But I learned from the Ohio National Road Association’s wonderful Traveler’s Guide that these are simply concrete strips alongside the brick road.

Brick Rd.

This was the last brick segment I encountered on the trip. Zanesville is the next big town to the west, and the segment between there and Hebron was famously laid in concrete from 1914 to 1916. Brief segments of that concrete remain, and I’ll share those I found in an upcoming post.

I also encountered some old pavement on the National Road in Maryland. Check it out.

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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

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