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Maryland and the National Road

The following is a brief historical sketch of Maryland's relationship to the Cumberland / National Road. The source is the book "Highway Legislation in Maryland - And Its Influence On the Economic Development of the State" (p.178) by St. George Leakin Sioussat, 1899:

The colony of Maryland formed the gateway through which the English settlers of America entered into the Ohio country before and during the French and Indian War. It was under the leadership of George Washington that the western wilderness was first really pierced and a claim for the English colonies established. It was fitting therefore that the further development of the Ohio country both economically and politically, and especially the idea of connecting it with the seaboard by improved means of transportation, should be thenceforth his constant care.

In the interval between the French and Indian War and the Revolution, Washington in various ways secured possession of large tracts of land in the Ohio country, having regard, however, for " an extensive public benefit, as well as private advantage." He began negotiations for the introduction of German settlers from the Palatinate, of whose thrift and success in the cultivation of new country the German colonizers of western Maryland had doubtless afforded him ample proof. He next turned to the consideration of a plan for opening communication between the western country and the coast.

The first means which offered itself was naturally the Potomac river, which, as far back as 1754, had attracted his attention. On July 20, 1770, he writes to Thomas Johnson, afterwards Governor of Maryland, urging that public attention be invited to a scheme for opening up the communication of the Potomac "upon a more enlarged plan, as a means of becoming the channel of conveyance of the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire,"

At the close of the Revolutionary War Washington again turned his attention to this project, and the result was the formation and incorporation of the Potomac Company in 1784. The history of this organization was unfortunate. Washington seems never to have doubted its success; and in his will he made the profits accruing from his share in it the basis of a fund for another of his favorite schemes, a National University. But the company undertook more than its finances would bear; and it was finally superseded by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

But the realization of Washington's idea was not confined to the Potomac Company, for the National Road succeeded where the other had failed. The National Road, like the present magnificent system of public education in the western states, grew out of the public lands of the American Union. Maryland's firm refusal to agree to the Articles of Confederation until the larger states had yielded their claims to the territory west of the Alleghanies won the control over that country for the Congress of the United States, and thereby exerted a powerful influence towards unity, at a time when discord ran high and the prospects of the United States becoming a nation were at the lowest ebb. For the government of the territory thus subjected to National control provision was made by the ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787. The second of these provided for the reservation to the United States of certain sections in each township for future sale.

The last, the celebrated ordinance of 1787, provided that "the navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying-places between the same, shall be common highways, and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States and those of any other states that may be admitted into the Confederacy, without any tax, impost or duty therefor." The sections of public land reserved for sale by the former of these ordinances later furnished the pecuniary basis for the National Road, while the phraseology of the latter anticipated the large national character of that highway.

Before the beginning of the present century there had been suggested plans for an improvement of the main routes of travel by the National Government. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these early schemes was that of the great financier and statesman, Alexander Hamilton, who emphasized the value and necessity of the extension and the "improvement of the great communications, as well internal as coastwise, by turnpike roads which "would be a measure universally popular. None can be more so. For this purpose," he continued, "a regular plan should be adopted, coextensive with the Union, to be successively executed, and a fund should be appropriated sufficient for the basis of a loan of a million of dollars. The revenue of the post office naturally offers itself. The future revenue from tolls would more than reimburse the expense, and public utility would be promoted in every direction.

Hamilton's suggestion and others of a like nature prepared the way for the policy later supported by Gallatin, Calhoun, and Clay. To Albert Gallatin, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson, is due the peculiar character of the "enabling act" for the admission of Ohio into the Union as a state. This act contained a provision that "one-twentieth part of the net proceeds of the lands lying within the said state sold by Congress, from and after the 30th of June next, after deducting all expenses incident to the same, shall be applied to laying out and making public roads leading from navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to the Ohio, to the state and through the same, such roads to be laid out under the authority of Congress, with the consent of the several states through which the road shall pass." An attempt to devote one-tenth, instead of one-twentieth of the proceeds of land sales to this purpose failed in the Senate.

Gallatin recommended the construction of these roads in the highest terms. They "will be," he said,"as beneficial to the parts of the Atlantic States through which they are to pass, and nearly as much to a considerable portion of the Union, as to the Northwestern Territory itself."

A year later Congress appropriated three-fifths of the one-twentieth, or five per cent. i. e., three per cent, of the whole, to "laying out and making roads from the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to the river Ohio, to the said State." In the next Congress an attempt was made to pass a law authorizing the President to provide for the exploration of suitable routes, but this was frustrated by the Senate. In 1805, however, a report was presented by Mr. Tracy of Massachusetts, showing that the net proceeds of the sales of lands in the state of Ohio from July 1, 1802, to September 30, 1805, amounted to $632,604.27, 2 per cent, of which, or $12,652, was then subject to the uses directed by the law of 1802. This report also discussed the best location for the proposed road or roads, treating especially of the relative distances of the cities of the Atlantic coast to the Ohio river.

A route was recommended as follows:
"The State of Maryland, with no less spirit and perseverance [than Pennsylvania], are engaged in making roads from Baltimore and from the western boundary of the District of Columbia, through Fredericktown to Williamsport." Were the Government of the United States to direct the expenditure of the fund in contemplation upon either of these routes, for the present, in Pennsylvania or Maryland, it would, probably, so far interfere with the operations of the respective States, as to produce mischief instead of benefit; especially as the sum to be laid out by the United States is too inconsiderable, alone, to effect objects of such magnitude. But as the State of Maryland have no particular interest to extend their road across the mountains (and if they had it would be impossible, because the State does not extend so far), the Committee have thought it expedient to recommend the laying out and making a road from Cumberland, on the northerly bank of the Potomac, and within the State of Maryland, to the river Ohio, at the most convenient place between a point on the easterly bank of said river, opposite to Steubenville, and the mouth of Grove Creek, which empties into said river Ohio, a little below 'Wheeling in Virginia. This route will meet and accommodate the roads leading from Baltimore and the District of Columbia; it will cross the Monongahela river, at or near Brownsville, sometimes called Redstone, where the advantage of boating can be taken; and from the point where it will probably intersect the river Ohio, there are now roads, or they can easily be made over feasible and proper ground, to and through the principal population of the State of Ohio.

"... To enlarge upon the highly important consideration of cementing the union of our citizens located on the "Western Waters with those of the Atlantic States, would be an indelicacy offered to the understanding of the body to whom this report is addressed, as it might seem to distrust them. But from the interesting nature of the subject the Committee are induced to ask the indulgence of a single observation. Politicians have generally agreed that rivers unite the interests and promote the friendship of those who inhabit their banks, while mountains, on the contrary, tend to the disunion and estrangement of those who are separated by their intervention. In the present case, to make the crooked ways smooth, will, in effect, remove the intervening mountains, and by facilitating the intercourse of the western brethren with those of the Atlantic, substantially unite them in interests, which the Committee believe, is the most effectual cement of union applicable to the human race."

In accordance with these recommendations, a law was finally passed by Congress in March, 1806, authorizing the President to appoint "three discreet and disinterested persons to lay out a road from Cumberland or a point on the northern bank of the river Potomac, in the State of Maryland, between Cumberland and the place where the main road leading from Gwynn's to Winchester, in Virginia, crosses the river, to the State of Ohio." They were to examine the route, and make a report to the President. Also, by this act, the first appropriation of $30,000 was made to defray the expense of laying out and making the road. The President was authorized, if he accepted the report of the Commissioners, to pursue such measures as he thought proper and to obtain the consent of the necessary states for the construction of the road through their territory.

The Commissioners appointed by President Jefferson Eli Williams, Thomas Moore, and Joseph Kerr presented one report December 30, 1806, and a second January 15, 1808. The latter was transmitted to Congress by President Jefferson with his approval on February 19, 1808.

In the meanwhile Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had by statute granted permission to the Federal Government to construct the road through their territory. In 1810 accordingly, there was begun a series of appropriations for the Cumberland Road which finally aggregated about $7,000, 000. The contract for the first ten miles was given in 1811 and the road was thrown open to the public in 1818. From that time "until the coming of the railroad west of the Alleghany Mountains, in 1852, the National Road was the one great highway over which passed the bulk of trade and travel and the mails between the East and West."

The details of the construction of the National Road and its very interesting historical associations must be omitted here, with the exception of a brief resume of the important events of its subsequent history. In 1817, John C. Calhoun introduced into the House of Representatives a bill to set aside for roads and canals the bonds and dividends received by the United States from its newly chartered National Bank. Henry Clay supported the bill; but as amended and passed, it was vetoed by President Madison upon the ground that it was beyond the constitutional powers of Congress. Five years later President Monroe vetoed another bill which, besides making a regular appropriation for the preservation and repair of the road, provided for the erection of turnpikes and the collection of tolls and for the protection of the road from malicious injuries.

Regular appropriations, however, were permitted to go on and the road was continued farther west from time to time. The eastern part fell into bad repair; and in 1831 the Legislature of Pennsylvania passed an act, appointing commissioners to build toll-houses and erect gates on so much of the road as lay within the State of Pennsylvania. The act was to be effective only upon the condition that Congress should have the road put in good repair and make an appropriation for the erection of toll-houses by the Pennsylvania Commissioners.

A similar act had been passed by the Legislature of Ohio a short time before. In 1832 Maryland proposed her acceptance of the road upon the same terms as Pennsylvania; and Virginia did likewise. Congress assented to this proposition the same year," and commissioners were appointed by the states. The road, as repaired by the Federal Government, was finally accepted by the states at slightly different times. Maryland signified her acceptance in 1834, and the next year made provision for its preservation under state control by the establishment of rates of toll and the appointment of officials.

The road then remained the subject of frequent legislation until 1878, when it was put under the control of Allegany and Garrett counties. Other roads were constructed by the Federal Government at various times and in different parts of the Union; but the road from Cumberland has borne the lasting title of "The National Road." Attempts were made to provide for the construction of other national roads passing through the state of Maryland, but they were entirely unsuccessful. The National Road, however, was a success, and for many years was, indeed, the "channel of conveyance of the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire."

The National Road was described in 1879 as follows:
"It was excellently macadamized; the rivers and creeks were spanned by stone bridges; the distances were indexed by iron mileposts, and the toll-houses supplied with strong iron gates. Its projector and chief supporter was Henry Clay, whose services in its behalf are commemorated by a monument near Wheeling. There were sometimes twenty gaily painted four-horse coaches each way daily. The cattle and sheep were never out of sight. The canvas covered wagons were drawn by six or twelve horses.

Within a mile of the road the country was a wilderness, but on the highway the traffic was as dense as in the main street of a large town. Ten miles an hour is said to have been the usual speed for coaches; but between Hagerstown and Frederick they were claimed to have made twenty-six miles in two hours. These coaches finally ceased running in 1853. There were also through freight-wagons from Baltimore to Wheeling, which carried ten tons. They were drawn by twelve horses, and their rear wheels were ten feet high.

Though its glories have long since departed, and coach and wagon no more throng its way, the National Road, rich in its associations of historic interest, still constitutes one of the most enduring monuments of Maryland's past, while the idea to which it owes its existence the welding of the West and the East in commercial and national unity has found other and more lasting expression.

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  Last Update: Nov. 23, 2009