By Victor Block
This is a story about a road less traveled because progress, in the form of major interstate highways, passed it by. That’s a good thing, because it is not just a road, it’s a destination in itself — a landmark that travels with you, and recalls the early history of our country.
The Historic National Road is the name of a thoroughfare that has had different designations through time. Today, most of it is identified as Maryland Route 40 or Alternate 40.
The Maryland portion of the Historic National Road begins in Baltimore, but its personality isn’t fleshed out until you reach Frederick. That’s a good place to begin a sightseeing drive.
Nicknamed “the road that made the nation,” the highway was the first transportation link from the East to what then was the western frontier. It also was the first mammoth public works program undertaken by our fledgling nation, and the only highway to be built entirely by the federal government.
The route had its origins in the early 1800s as a rough stone pathway stretching from Baltimore to Cumberland. By 1818, it had inched its way westward to Wheeling, which then was in Virginia, crept across Ohio and Indiana and ended near the Mississippi River. The goal was to build a highway to link cities, markets and seaports along the eastern seaboard with the agricultural “West,” which then meant the area between the Allegheny Mountains and Ohio River.
As quickly as stretches of the road were completed, they became the route for wagon trains and stagecoaches, drovers and sheep herders, and others seeking to get from here to there before a convenient way to do so existed. As traffic increased, tiny roadside settlements grew into villages, then towns. Blacksmith shops, livery stables, inns and taverns sprang up to provide services and basic overnight accommodations.
Much has changed since then, but a drive along the stretch between Frederick and Maryland’s western border is filled with history and nostalgia. Scattered artifacts of the original road — mile markers, abandoned homesteads, bridges and converted taverns — continue to speak of the past.
Frederick itself is worth exploring. It was founded in 1745 as a frontier community where hardy souls preparing to head further west rested and bought provisions. The restored Historic District and other relics of early Americana are worth a stopover today. About a half-hour drive further west through ear-popping hill country, Hagerstown was named for Jonathan Hager, a German immigrant who arrived in 1739 in what then was a sparsely settled wilderness area. He built a solid stone house over two springs in order to have a supply of water in case of an Indian attack. The house and a small adjacent museum are open to the public.
Past Hagerstown, the road straightens, perhaps reflecting the builders’ intention to reach the West as quickly as possible. Signs that designate the area as a scenic route reconfirm the obvious. Fields where farmers plow and reap crops give way to multi-hued mountain terrain. Sweeping vistas over valleys demand greater attention as the elevation increases and you are immersed in a picture of Americana not usually visible from crowded interstates.
A congregation of church spires welcomes travelers to Cumberland, a town that marked the termination point for the first leg of the Historic National Road. Its history dates back to the French and Indian War and much of its early flavor remains.
On the site of what once was Fort Cumberland stands a tiny one-room cabin, built in 1755. It served as George Washington’s headquarters during the French and Indian War, and later when he was president and commander in chief. In this tiny log cottage, Washington learned the military strategy that was to lead the Colonial Army to victory over the British.
Also of interest is Cumberland’s Washington Street Historic District. It boasts more than 100 homes built throughout the 19th century by leading citizens of the town, who clearly were vying to outdo each other. Stolid Doric columns line wraparound porches, ornate Palladian windows compete in beauty with stained glass, Mansard roofs are pierced by jaunty cupolas.
Leaving Cumberland puts you on the road toward another part of transportation history —- a giant slash in the Allegheny Mountains that opened the way to the West even before construction of the Historic National Road. The Cumberland Narrows cuts between two mountains, exposing craggy stone cliffs that rise 1000 feet on either side of the pass. First used by Indians, explorers and early traders, “the Gap,” as it came to be known, provided a logical pathway for the Historic National Road.
The route next leads to La Vale, the name reminiscent of the terrain. Winding through a gentle valley, the road resorts back to strip mall mania for the first time since Frederick. It soon reconnects with history at La Vale Tollgate House, a miniscule seven-sided building erected in 1836 as the first tollhouse along the National Historic Road.
A plaque listing toll charges carries viewers back — way back — in time. The charge for a horseback rider was 4 cents; a “score of sheep” (20 animals), 6 cents.
The next sightseeing stop is at Grantsville, home to the Penn Alps complex which includes a restaurant and craft shop. Three of the six dining rooms once were part of a stagecoach stop that was built in 1818.
The adjacent Spruce Forest Artisan Village includes about a dozen log structures, two of which date to the Revolutionary War period. Most of the potters, weavers, basket-makers, bird carvers and other craftspeople demonstrate their skills and sell their wares from spring to fall, but several hardy ones toil there all year long.
New and old converge at ambitiously named Casselman River Bridge State Park. Located just east of Grantsville, this four-acre plot contains little more than its namesake bridge and a couple of picnic tables. When it was built in 1813 as part of the original National Road, the sturdy 80-foot-long stone structure was the largest single span arch bridge in the young nation.
From this vantage point, a progression of transportation history is in clear view. A lattice-work steel bridge majestically extends Alternate Route 40 across the rock-strewn Casselman River. Just beyond it, an ungainly modern concrete slab carries Interstate 68, which ultimately supplanted both earlier roads, across the valley.
Within a short distance are the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders, marking the end of the line for Maryland’s portion of the Historic National Road.
In 2002, the route received the respect it deserves, when the U.S. Department of Transportation designated it an “All-American Road.” The citation said that “the road’s scenery, culture and history are nationally and internationally significant.” Those attributes await travelers who make the short trip to Maryland.
For more information, contact the Maryland Office of Tourism at 866-639-3526 or [email protected].