A drive across Indiana on the National Road is a trip back in time. This was the route taken in the 19th century by pioneers hauling household goods west in Conestoga wagons, by stagecoaches carrying mail and by farmers moving crops to markets.
Today it’s paved and known as Highway 40 or U.S. 40. Though it looks nothing like the primitive roadway it replaced, relics are everywhere. In Centerville, two original mile markers still stand. In Cambridge City, tourists can visit the Huddleston Farmhouse that served as a rest stop for weary travelers. In Stilesville, unmarked graves remember 12 who died of food poisoning en route from Ohio to California gold fields.
The National Road is called “the road that built the nation,” and in many ways it built central Indiana.
“Really, the road was designed for economic development at a time that term hadn’t been coined yet,” says Joe Frost, Indiana Landmarks community preservation specialist and Indiana National Road Association executive director.
The National Road was the country’s first federal highway, authorized by Congress in 1806 and designed to facilitate westward migration. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1811.
Laborers wielding axes, hoes and shovels cleared the path. They cut trees, removed stumps, leveled hills and broke rocks. They laid surface materials. The most advanced was macadam, a blend of pebbles and crushed stone; more typical were wood planks and packed dirt.
Work on the Indiana section began in 1827 at Richmond and ended 156 miles later at Terre Haute in 1834. The cost was half a million dollars.
As the road moved west, settlers followed, crossing the Allegheny Mountains to settle the rich farmland of the Ohio River Valley. Towns popped up along the way; taverns, inns and stagecoach businesses flourished. Indiana’s population more than quadrupled between 1820 and 1840, and many arrived via the National Road.