James Rada, Jr.
Two hundred years ago, Western Maryland was the American frontier. With a sparse population spread throughout hills and valleys and only rarely clustered in cities, the Appalachian Mountains formed a mental, if not physical, border to the United States.
Yet, the land beyond the mountains to the Mississippi River was also part of the United States. It represented an untapped source for food, lumber, and fur, and with barely one million Americans living on the frontier, it was ripe with opportunities.
So in May 1811, construction began on America’s first federal public works project, a national road that would make it easier for settlers to move into the western United States.
The National Road began in Cumberland. The road reached Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1818 and Vandalia, Illinois, in 1839.
Robert Savitt of Myersville has written The National Road in Maryland, which is filled with information and historic photographs of the National Road.
“Ever since I moved to the area, I’ve been fascinated by the National Road,” Savitt said. “I tried to drive along the old route if I could find it. It was fun going from town to town, visiting historical societies and getting information and photos.”
Thirty-three miles of the original road is in Maryland. The original road was the first federally funded road in the country. Private and state-funded turnpikes were eventually built and connected to the National Road, extending it to Baltimore. The National Road passes through 25 towns, and along one stretch outside of Boonsboro is the first macadam road.
“Writing this book was a good excuse for me to get out and visit these interesting little towns,” Savitt said.
Various contractors built the road in small sections of a few miles, each under the supervision of David Shriver, Jr., who had experience building Maryland turnpikes. However, once built, the federal government did a poor job of maintaining the road. Control of the road was eventually turned over to the states. The states erected toll gates and collected revenue to maintain the road. One of the last remaining toll houses is located only a few miles west of Cumberland.
Turnpikes went out of fashion in the mid-19th century, but the National Road was given a second life in the early 20th century, as roads were built and improved for automobile travel.
The National Road in Maryland is Savitt’s third book and can be purchased online or in bookstores.
Savitt will be speaking about the National Road at the Middletown Valley Historical Society on May 29, 2020.
He is now working on his next book, which will be about Camp David.