Because reader Peggy told me she likes my bridge posts, I’m going through my photo archives to share more interesting bridges.
Built in 1834, this bridge carries the nation’s first federally funded highway, the National Road, over this creek on the west edge of Marshall, Illinois. The National Road connected Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois, via Wheeling, West Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana.
You won’t find many US bridges older than this one, especially outside the original 13 colonies. It still carries traffic every day — and unless you know it’s there, you can’t tell that such ancient infrastructure is supporting your car as you drive over it.
The historic marker says that this bridge was completed between 1834 and 1837, making it both the oldest surviving bridge, and the only stone bridge, still in use on the National Road in Illinois. You’ll find it on the National Road just west of Marshall. US 40 bypasses Marshall but rejoins the National Road’s path just west of here.
This is as elemental as it gets in the bridge-building craft. The first stone-arch bridges were built more than 3,000 years ago following this formula of stone precisely cut and fitted together without mortar. Pressure holds this bridge together – the keystone pushes the neighboring cut stones down and outward, creating rigidity and strength that lasts the centuries.
In constructing a stone-arch bridge, a falseworkis built first, a timber structure that creates the arch’s shape. The stones are laid against the falsework until the arch is complete and can stand on its own. Really, the arch is the bridge. The stones laid around the arch’s ends form retaining walls. Dirt is heaped over the arch and is held back by the walls so that a road surface can be built on top.
But enough about bridge engineering; on to bridge aesthetics. Even though this is a particularly functional stone-arch bridge, it’s still plenty charming. I’ve ranted on this blog before about how modern steel-girder bridges have all the charm of a punch in the mouth. But with either kind of bridge, you don’t know what lurks below as you drive over it. You have to follow your curiosity and make a little time to stop and check. My travel companion and I did, and spent an enjoyable half hour exploring and taking in this structure that is pushing 180 years old.
By the way, I have heard of one other stone-arch bridge on the Illinois National Road. It’s just east of Marshall and west of Livingston on an abandoned segment of the 1920s brick road. It’s deep in a wooded area, and to reach it you would need to walk a long way past a very large No Trespassing sign. The old brick road isn’t even visible in there anymore, although peering past that foreboding sign you can see the road’s pathway as trees aren’t growing through it. I’ve seen a photo of the bridge and it looks to be intact, though smaller than this one.
Other stone-arch bridges exist on the National Road in other states: here, here, here, 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.
We can drive 60 miles per hour on US 40 today. But when the National Road was new in the late 1830s, the fastest traffic might cover 60 miles in a day, and only if you traveled by stagecoach. Conestoga wagons could count on covering only about 15 miles in a day. So inns appeared every 10 to 15 miles along major 1800s roads to provide travelers with food and lodging.
Many old inns still stand along the National Road, and among them is the Archer Inn in Marshall, Illinois. William Archer, a contemporary and friend of Abraham Lincoln, not only founded Marshall but built this inn. It was completed in in 1841. Old Abe even stayed here a time or two. The building was a hotel for a very long time before becoming an elder care facility, a dinner theater, and finally a bed and breakfast. But now it’s vacant.
In 1950 and 1951, George Stewart drove US 40 across the United States and photographed scenes all along the way. He wrote a book in which he shared his photographs from the journey: US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America. One of his photos is of this row of buildings in Marshall, Illinois, on the northwest corner of 6th St, across from the Clark County courthouse. He called Marshall’s US 40 business district “an architectural gem” and recommended that these buildings be preserved. “In a hundred years, if these buildings should be preserved so long, people may be comparing them with the Grande Place in Brussels or some of the crescents in Bath.” I think he was being facetious. Or perhaps he couldn’t know that lots of small-town downtowns would endure architecturally. Here’s Stewart’s photo.
Stewart’s book inspired others to travel US 40 and photograph the same scenes. Perhaps the best known of those following Stewart’s tire tracks are Thomas and Geraldine Vale, who drove the road in 1980. They published their photographs in the book US 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America. About these buildings the Vales remarked, “In general, the solid, well-painted structures have retained their dignity… Yet there are some signs that they may eventually suffer from neglect.” They noted that where there had been tenants on these buildings’ upper floors in 1950, they all appeared to be vacant in 1980. Grabenheimer’s, which I assume was a department store, no longer operated on the corner, but Blankenship’s drug store still dispensed prescriptions next door. Unfortunately, the building at far left in Stewart’s photo has been razed and the cornice atop Grabenheimer’s has been removed.
I, too, have been bit by the bug to photograph the places Stewart visited, and have done so along the National Road portion of US 40 as much as I have been able. Here is this same row of buildings in 2014, 64 years since Stewart photographed them. They are 64 percent of the way to lasting the hundred years Stewart imagined – at least, 89 percent of these buildings are, given that one of the nine didn’t survive. And contrary to the Vales’ worries, these buildings look no more worse for wear.
Barring catastrophe, I’d say Stewart will have his wish: these buildings will still be here in 2050.