March 2007 Issue
In 1990, author and journalist Merritt Ierley wrote Traveling the National Road, consisting of first-hand accounts of journeys on the road by the generations of travelers who knew it best, ranging from those on horseback and in stagecoaches, to people
Glenn A. Harper
What attracts people to National Road?
I think it is the authentic and endearing saga of American history that unfolds as one travels east to west. Historian Thomas Searight called the National Road "the one great highway, over which passed the bulk of trade and travel, and the mails between the East and the West." I believe today's National Road traveler also longs for the spirit of adventure and the opportunity for discovery that motivated our forefathers, whether they traveled it on horseback, in a wagon, on a bicycle or behind the wheel of a Model-T. As they did, we can wonder what's around the next bend or over the next hill. Whether it's the state's oldest bridge, a piece of Ohio pottery or a slice of homemade pie, the only way to find out is to see for yourself.
Traveling the National Road today is about choices. Designated an All-American Road National Scenic Byway in 2002, the 200-plus miles crossing Ohio offer travelers an increasing number of visitor options and amenities. A handy visitors guide and attractive red, white and blue Ohio National Road signs direct you along the route. If you're in a hurry, you can visit historic sites, shop and dine in quaint "pike towns" and then hop back on Interstate 70. This fast-paced mode of travel allows you to cover a lot of ground, but you do so at the risk of missing the authentic flavor and culture of the road, including important historic, natural and recreational sites. Staying on U.S. Rte. 40 offers a more leisurely pace and panoramic views of a landscape that varies from steep, wooded hills and valleys in eastern Ohio to flat farmland in the west. But if you really want to experience the National Road, leave U.S. 40 and drive a portion of the road's old sections.
One of the best is Peacock Road in Guernsey County. You won't find any of the colorful birds, but you will get a sense of what it was like to travel the National Road during the stagecoach and early-automobile eras. Of course the pioneers did not travel on brick roads. The bricks were added during World War I in order to prepare the road for heavily loaded military trucks. However, Peacock Road still exemplifies the early National Road characteristic of following - not avoiding - the rough, hilly terrain of eastern Ohio. Here, the road crests atop a high ridge, skirts a forest, descends a steep hill to round a sharp curve and then follows a narrow valley until it ascends a hill again. What a ride!
If you're seeking a longer drive over original roadbed, head a few miles west to Four-Mile Hill or Serpentine Hill, a remnant of an even earlier road, Zane's Trace, a pioneer pathway built by Ebenezer Zane and later incorporated into the route of the National Road. Four-Mile Hill was designed in a serpentine shape to lessen the incline for animals pulling heavy loads. A coachman caught in an 1864 New Year's Day blizzard on this treacherous stretch of road nearly froze to death. He was saved only by an alert team of horses that continued on their own to New Concord.
Drive across the Salt Fork S-bridge and it feels as though you are taking a trip back in time. The rural setting of this National Historic Landmark bridge has changed little since the heyday of wagon and stagecoach travel. Yet looming in the background is U.S. 40 and I-70. Here you can experience what I call the layered history of the National Road, nearly 200 years of road- and bridge-building technology. S-bridges are a unique feature of the road in Ohio and perhaps its most iconic image. Though folklore abounds as to the reason for their shape, the truth involves simplicity and practicality: It ensured that the bridge's arch would be constructed at a structurally sound 90-degree or perpendicular angle to the water, an alternative to the more technical and expensive oblique or skewed arch. West of Cambridge are the Cassell and Fox Run S-bridges. Abandoned during a 1930s realignment of the road, both have recently undergone restoration and are now open to pedestrians.
The granddaddy of Ohio's National Road bridges and a destination for many National Road travelers is the newly restored Blaine Hill Bridge. With three arches, it is the longest stone bridge on the road, the state's oldest documented bridge and Ohio's official bicentennial bridge. In the decades after it was built, thousands of wagons, coaches and carriages, riders on horseback and immense droves of livestock crossed the bridge to start the long trek up Blaine Hill. The full potential of the Blaine Bridge as a historic site awaits the construction of parking, landscaping and interpretative signage.
The most unique and probably the most famous of all National Road bridges is Zanesville's Y-bridge, perhaps the only bridge on which you can turn left or right. Follow the directions to Putnam Overlook for a fine view of the bridge and downtown Zanesville.
The National Road was once described as the "Main Street of America." For towns and villages along the route, it truly was. St. Clairsville, the county seat of Belmont County, is a great place to experience a typical small-town main street. Though the Belmont County Courthouse stands out among St. Clairsville's historic buildings, I'm partial to the jail and sheriff's residence next door, a symbol of the power and authority of the county sheriff in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The sheriff and his family lived in the large house attached to the jail, and the sheriff's wife often cooked for inmates, bringing a small degree of domesticity and familial attitude to the otherwise Spartan lifestyle of incarceration. Like most small towns, St. Clairsville must compete with the bewildering array of big-box stores and fast-food restaurants located east of town.
One day as I stood in the middle of Morristown's Main Street to photograph the historic buildings that line the street (the sleepy nature of many pike towns allows such frivolity), I was reminded that we are the accidental beneficiaries of a decision made decades ago to bypass many National Road towns to reduce congestion. Today, time seems to have forgotten Morristown, Old Washington and Fairview, to name several of the most prominent towns. These places offer visitors time capsules of 19th-century architecture. Morristown's current tranquility belies its once bustling nature. With nearly 50 businesses, it was bigger and busier during the early decades of the 19th century than it is today. Fairview offers a bit of local culture at the restored Pennyroyal Opera House, where bluegrass concerts are held monthly. New Concord benefits from the student population of Muskingum College and is prospering. If you go there, visit the log house of William Rainey Harper (no relation), one of America's distinguished educators, or immerse yourself in 20th-century American history at the restored boyhood home of John Glenn. A little farther west is Cambridge, the county seat of Guernsey County. For decades, Cambridge's major industry was glass-making. Today that heritage is commemorated at several glass museums. A grand courthouse designed by well-known Columbus architect J.W. Yost, who also designed the Belmont County Courthouse, anchors Main Street. Information about Cambridge is easy to obtain at the Cambridge/Guernsey County Visitors and Convention Bureau on Wheeling Avenue.
I wasn't born with the shopping gene but if you were, the National Road offers ample opportunities to spend cash or exercise credit cards in shops filled with glass and ceramics, handmade crafts, antiques, seasonal fruits and vegetables and, of course, plenty of home cooking. The 1950s live on at St. Clairsville's Newellstown Diner. You can sample Italian cuisine at Earl's Top of the Shop in New Concord, eat homemade pie at Theo's in downtown Cambridge or satisfy your sweet tooth at Tom's Ice Cream Bowl in Zanesville, where they've been making the frozen stuff since the 1940s. Not to be outdone, Hebron's Main Street CafÃ© is celebrating 75 years of ice cream tradition. A great place to find the old and the new is The National Road East, a handy cluster of antiques stores, Ohio pottery outlets, specialty shops, dining establishments and accommodations located along the road east of Zanesville.
You can get an early start on your Halloween dÃ©cor at Devine Farms annual Pumpkin Festival, shop for herbs at the Herb N' Ewe, near Brownsville, fill up on hamburgers at the original Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus or "see the light" at Johnson's Lamp Shop in South Vienna. Boasting more than 1,000 lamps and 5,000 shades, this place also contains another remarkable example of the layered history of the National Road. In back of the old Buena Vista Tavern is an early-20th-century automobile cabin camp. In nearby Springfield, you'll find a different reminder of National Road aura, Joe's U.S. 40 Grille. The interior of the restaurant reflects 1950s and '60s design, and the menu features a Swiss steak recipe passed down from three previous owners.
If you still haven't gotten your fill of shopping, fear not. The Second Annual National Road Yard Sale Days will be held May 30 through June 3.
The first time I descended the hill into Norwich, I came across a poignant site: a small memorial commemorating the first documented fatal traffic accident in Ohio, in which Christopher Baldwin, librarian of the American Antiquarian Society was killed in a stagecoach accident. The site will soon be enhanced with an Ohio Historical Marker, featuring a likeness of Baldwin. Just west of Norwich is the National Road/Zane Grey Museum, the only museum along the entire National Road constructed to interpret National Road history. Owned and operated by the Ohio Historical Society, the museum features a diorama with bird's-eye views of the road's development and construction.
The West meets the Midwest in exhibits interpreting the life of writer and Zanesville native Zane Grey.
In Hebron, the road once crossed the Ohio and Erie Canal, creating a 19th-century equivalent of the intersection of two interstate highways. While crossing the bridge over the canal, try to imagine what this bustling crossroads of culture and commerce was like. In a remarkable coincidence of Ohio history, ground-breaking for these two monumental projects occurred on the same day: July 25, 1825. The road and the canal also suffered the same fate, eclipsed by the railroad as a faster and more convenient mode of travel.
It isn't easy to navigate the strip development east and west of Columbus, but if you avoid this stretch of road you'll miss the '50s motels and motor courts that serviced travelers in the days before interstate highways. One of the best-known National Road images from this era is the brightly lit neon 40 Motel sign. No trip along the National Road is complete without a stop at the Ohio Statehouse. Constructed between 1839 and 1861, the magnificently restored Statehouse is one of the country's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture.
The tragic events of the Civil War touched Ohio in very different ways, and two of them were played out along the National Road. On July 24, 1863, John Hunt Morgan and his Morgan's Raiders stopped in the village of Old Washington looking for food. Here, Union forces attacked them. Three Confederate soldiers are interred in the town cemetery. A few miles west of downtown Columbus is Camp Chase Cemetery, which contains the graves of Confederate prisoners who died at the former 165-acre Civil War camp. The peacefulness of the setting seems to deny the violence that created it.
Two Springfield museums provide visitors with strong evidence of the road's impact on this southwestern Ohio city. For a few years, while controversy about the route west delayed the road's construction and led to the building of a so-called counterfeit pike to Dayton, Springfield was known as the town at the end of the pike. Springfield prospered and eventually constructed a large new city building and public market. Today, the block-long building, known as the Clark County Heritage Center, houses the collections of the Clark County Historical Society and a large National Road exhibit. A few blocks west is the recently restored Pennsylvania House, a stagecoach inn and tavern constructed in the 1830s, owned and cared for since 1938 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Just west of the Pennsylvania House is Ohio's only Madonna of the Trail statue, one of 12 commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor pioneer motherhood.
At the road's intersection with St. Rte. 127, you'll find two icons of the post-World-War-II automobile era, the now-abandoned Hines Truck Stop and Bob's Nickel Saver, an early cabin camp. Just west of Rte. 127 is the quirky tourist attraction known as Footprint Rock. Is the unusual marking an Indian footprint or simply a glacial anomaly? The rock's mysterious past landed it on a 1930s Ohio travel map.
If you're looking for more detailed information about the National Road, pick up a free copy of A Traveler's Guide to the Historic National Road in Ohio. The guide is available at I-70 Travel Centers in Belmont and Preble counties or by contacting the Ohio Historical Society at www.ohiohistory.org or calling 614/297-2300 or 800/686-6124. Be sure to continue your travels in the other National Road states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois. Information about all six National Road states, including maps and directions, is available at www.byways.org.
You can help foster the preservation and development goals of Ohio's Historic National Road by joining the Ohio National Road Association. As a member, you'll receive the organizationâ€™s newsletter and a small membership token. Your membership also affords you an early look at new publications, travel plans and Ohio National Road events.
For a membership brochure or for additional information about the Ohio National Road Association, call 937/324-7752 or visit www.ohionationalroad.org.
Glenn A. Harper is manager of Preservation Services for the Ohio Historical Society and co-author of A Travelerâ€™s Guide to the Historic National Road in Ohio (Ohio Historical Society, 800/686-6124).