The view from Gilpin Road

The view from Gilpin Road
Kodak EasyShare Z730
2009

My sons and I were driving the National Road across Maryland. As we ascended Polish Mountain, the view of modern US 40 and I-68 below was arresting.

Photography, Road Trips

Photo: The view from Gilpin Road, part of the National Road in Maryland

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Road Trips

Three National Road/US 40 bridges over Maryland’s Casselman River

Casselman River bridge

I didn’t plan for our trip across Maryland to become the Grey Family Old Bridge Tour, but that’s how it turned out. I enjoyed it, of course, but I worried that my sons’ enthusiasm would quickly wane. How many old bridges can 10- and 12-year-old boys stand to see in one day? But somehow they didn’t run out of “Wow!” and “Cool!” and they never tired of running along every old bridge we stopped to explore.

One stop was left before we crossed into Pennsylvania. My youngest son was stoked because we had just come from photographing him next to a sign welcoming us to a county with which he shares a name. He was more than ready to see the 1813 Casselman River Bridge.

Do just a little research into the National Road and you’ll soon find photos of this bridge. It seems to be the best-known bridge on the National Road. At 80 feet long it was the longest stone arch bridge ever built in the United States. I had trouble backing up far enough to get the whole bridge into a frame.

Casselman River bridge

Photos hardly do justice to how tall this bridge is. The top of the arch is 30 feet above the waterline! It creates quite a peak on the road’s surface. Some modern sporty cars might scrape their undercarriages when they crest it.

Casselman River bridge

Early automobiles had enough ground clearance that this was not a problem, as this 1916 photo shows.

CasselmanBridge1916

No cars travel this bridge today. While it became a part of US 40 in 1926, it was left behind when a new bridge was built nearby in 1933. Today, the old bridge is part of a state park, and the approaching road has been removed on each side.

Casselman River bridge

The 1933 bridge built to carry US 40 has become historic, too. Many steel bridges like this one (a Pratt through truss design, in case you’re curious) have been demolished in favor of more modern bridges.

Casselman River bridge

Even this bridge has been bypassed. US 40 (and I-68) now use the bridge in the background, a plain “slab and pier” design that bridge fans call a UCEB – an Ugly Concrete Eyesore Bridge. The 1933 bridge has to be content to carry Alternate US 40.

Casselman River bridge

Okay, bridges can’t feel contentment. At least I was content as we drove over this bridge that it still carries traffic. Check out its skew!

Casselman River bridge

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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Road Trips

The National Road view from Maryland’s Polish Mountain

This map shows three alignments of US 40 about 15 miles east of Cumberland, Maryland. The newest dates to 1991, when I-68 was completed and US 40 was moved to it. The next, which dates to 1958, is now Maryland Route 144. The oldest, now called Gilpin Road, is actually the National Road.

My flatland Hoosier sons and I were very surprised to turn onto Gilpin Road and find ourselves going sharply uphill. My little car struggled all the way, never besting 45 miles per hour. That’s probably just as well, not just because the road is also winding and very narrow, but also because we wanted to enjoy the breathtaking view as long as we could. Check this out:

The view from Gilpin Road

Clearly, the map doesn’t show the differences in elevation among the three roads! We found one spot along Gilpin Road wide enough for us to pull over and looked over the landscape, agog. We said “Wow!” over and over for several minutes before we realized we should get out our cameras. A bit of Maryland Route 144 is visible in the lower third of the photo, and beyond it I-68 stretches across the Maryland countryside on its way to West Virginia. I took several photos from here which Photoshop linked together into this panorama.

The view from Gilpin Road

Extending the National Road east from Cumberland to Baltimore required building over and around this rugged terrain, creating the steep climbs and hairpin turns of Gilpin Road. Some of those turns were made slightly less harrowing in the 1920s and 1930s; Christopher Busta-Peck shares some vintage photos of that reconstruction in his excellent National Road blog. Those realignments were minor compared to the cuts and fills in the 1958 alignment, which have been called the meanest feats of road engineering in Maryland to that time.

I-68 soundly trumps both roads, cutting deeply through the hills. Notice the deep cut on the panorama’s right side. I-68’s most amazing cut into the terrain is a bit east of here at Sideling Hill, from which a 340-foot-deep wedge was removed. This page shows the hill shortly after the road was completed, before the rock’s colors darkened to shades of brown.

I actually haven’t seen the Sideling Hill cut in person. Maybe one day. Given the short time I had to drive through Maryland, I chose the National Road all the way. Given another opportunity for a short trip through Maryland, I’d choose the National Road and Polish Mountain again.

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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