By Larry Messing
The National Road played an iconic role in the westward expansion of the United States. Starting from its origin in Cumberland, MD (Hence, it’s alternative name of the Cumberland Road.) and blasting toward the west coast, the road’s construction ended in Vandalia, IL where it succumbed to the growing popularity of rail travel (which made the road’s construction not worth the cost).
The National Road began as the historic Braddock Road in the mid 1700’s, where it was built by the Ohio Company, a land speculation company of the day. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson authorized further expansion of what became the Cumberland Road, which would replace the old wagon trails and foot paths of the old Braddock Road.
Construction of the National Road in Indiana began in Indianapolis in 1828 and expanded east and west simultaneously toward Richmond and Terre Haute, respectively. Because federal funding was never allotted to fully grade and gravel, the road could often become a sloppy mess causing stuck cars on rainy muddy days.
Some of that began to be addressed in 1917, when a three-mile section running east from what was then the city limits was made into a hard-surfaced road. This section was the first segment of the National Road that was surfaced as such and was celebrated with a huge ceremony in September of that year.
According to an Indianapolis Star article, “The eyes of Indiana and the nation were upon Marion County yesterday afternoon, when three miles of the National Old Trails Road, east from the city limits to the county line, were formally given to the city.”
Dignitaries from the day included Lt. Governor Edgar D. Bush, Judge J. M. Lowe (President of the National Old Trails Association) and Indianapolis Mayor Joseph E. Bell.
The event marked a momentous occasion in the modernization of the country. As noted by Lowe, “Indiana has struck fire here and the sparks have fallen into other states and fired the hearts of the population to good roads.”
During the ceremony, a banner, which was labeled “Bad Roads”, was stretched across the road and cut to symbolize the end of bad roads in Marion county.
Preceding the dedication ceremony was a parade starting from the Capitol, which included streamers and cars draped with American flag.
The National Road still plays a large role in the history of Indianapolis. These days, the segment in the city is known as Washington St and serves as one of the main east-west arteries in Indianapolis.