The Historic National Road Less Taken


In August of 2006, a friend and I met up in Chicago and decided to drive back to New York along the old two-lane highways.  We thought we’d avoid the nerve-jangling traffic of the interstate, and maybe score a few antiques at pre-eBay prices.

From Terre Haute, Indiana, through Ohio, a snippet of West Virginia, and into western Pennsylvania, we took what’s now called the Historic National Road, a Federal designation for the ribbon of highway originally masterminded by Thomas Jefferson as a way to open up the west.

Construction of the road — at first a log-reinforced trail for pioneers’ covered wagons — began in Maryland in 1811 and reached Illinois in the late 1830s, just in time to be made obsolete by rail travel.  Later, it was used by early automobiles and bicycles, and reinforced with brick to bear the weight of Army trucks in WWI; in the 1920s, it was straightened out, paved with asphalt, and named Route 40. In the 1960s, mighty I-70, which runs roughly parallel, superceded it again.

Today, there is plenty of ugly modern commerce along Route 40, but there are also, if you slow down enough to look, remnants of 19th and early 20th century history and architecture, including about a dozen pre-Civil War inns and taverns (some now antique shops or B&Bs; one, the Huddleston Farm in Cambridge City, Indiana, is a museum).

Then there’s the road itself. In places, you can veer off the modern-day thoroughfare and suddenly find yourself on a quiet, older brick-paved section that feels like the back of beyond.








About cara

I blog (for fun) here at casaCARA, and write (for money) about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites.
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6 Responses to The Historic National Road Less Taken

  1. JC says:

    Looks like a fabulous trip! Surely you passed some worthy thrift stores out there?

  2. cara says:

    Loads of glass in Indiana and pottery in Ohio, but prices no better than elsewhere, to our disappointment. eBay is the great leveler.

  3. Bill Harris says:

    A bouquet of thanks to you Cara for your delicious pix of national Route 40
    —the “National Road”—which I (at 72) remember hazily but with fondness as passenger with my 1 year old brother and dachshund with Mother at the wheel of our ’37 Ford tudor heading for Kansas City in 1942. The devastated coal towns and general poverty resounded even to one so young. Nothing can match 1,600 miles of 2 lane roads–your lovely photos helps bring them back.

  4. Tom Dolle says:

    Hi Cara! Great shots of my old home state, Ohio, with one of Zanesville’s many pottery antique malls. Sad to see so many great old American downtowns sit idle and empty—Zanesville’s is right out of 1945. Not sure if the brick road is Bremen Ohio, but that area was known for its brick industry, along with the pottery (that area produced Roseville, McCoy, Burley Winter, Robinson Ransbottom, Hull, Shawnee and other icons of mid-century populist culture). We brought many Bremen bricks back to Brooklyn (along with carloads of McCoy after Pottery Festival in July, when you needed oven mitts to check out the pottery on roadside tables in 96 degree July heat), and they really are unique and wonderful with their incised makers’ names and rich deep color. Not sure when McCoy will be popular again (New Depression look?), but so glad to see your blog, you’re the best!

  5. cara says:

    hey Tom, thanks for commenting! Glad you liked the National Road post. I was thinking of you guys in connection with our new “Brownstone Voyeur” feature on Thursdays – i have a feeling your place could be blog fodder!

  6. Really loved these photos–especially the old Texaco station (haven’t seen one like that in years) and the tollhouse (they sure don’t build toll booths like they used to, huh?). I’ve driven through Terre Haute a million times but never got far off the highway. Maybe I need to take some back roads now and then!

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