The National Road, known by most as US 40 or Washington St. in Indianapolis, is one of Indiana’s most historic transportation routes. The National Road was first commissioned by Thomas Jefferson’s administration in 1806 as the first federally funded interstate highway. The goal of the road was to connect the eastern ports to the western territories. As a major east to west route it saw heavy traffic, and was influential in the development of states it passed through. The road was intended to stretch from Cumberland, Maryland to the Mississippi River, but the route terminated at Vandalia, Illinois when Federal funding ceased in 1838.
Despite difficulties and slow construction the road had a major impact on the development of Indiana. In 1827 the National Road was surveyed across the state of Indiana by Jonathon Knight. The following year construction started in Indianapolis and would expand both east and west simultaneously. At the time the road was finished it stretched from Richmond in the east to Terre Haute in the west, passing right through the young state capital of Indianapolis. The road not only brought settlers into Indiana but it was a major trade route. Towns were founded along the road because of the commerce and opportunity it provided. A good example is Knightstown, named after Jonathon Knight and platted in 1827 along the route of the National Road.
Despite heavy traffic seen in the 1830s and 1840s, the road would enter a period of decline. Railroads took the majority of the travel by the 1850s. Without federal funding the road was also never fully graded and graveled in areas leading to muddy paths with large wagon ruts. Counties, towns, and even private companies were charged with the maintenance of the road. They often did not have funds or policies in place for proper road maintenance. It was not until the mass production of automobiles in the early 20th century that much needed improvements were made to our nation’s roads.
The National Old Trails Association was formed in 1912 to support the creation of an “ocean-to-ocean” highway. The route ran from New York to Los Angeles, and much of the eastern portion followed the path of the Historic National Road. Elizabeth Gentry, a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) and Missouri Good Roads Committee, was influential in the creation of the National Old Trails Association. Gentry inspired local and state NSDAR chapters to support the highway. Many chapters of the NSDAR supported the creation of the Old Trails Highway and the historic significance of the National Road. “Markers” or monuments were erected by various NSDAR chapters in many places along the National Road.
Two prominent National Road monuments exist in Indianapolis dedicated in 1916. The Caroline Scott Harrison chapter of Indianapolis dedicated a memorial on the lawn south of the Statehouse. The location was chosen to honor the original alignment of the National Road which ran through the Statehouse's current location. Interestingly enough the memorial originally functioned as a drinking fountain. This memorial recognizes the significance of the National Road, Indiana's Centennial, and the impact the NSDAR has had on preserving our state's great history.
A second Indianapolis monument is located at the intersection of Washington St. and South Eastern Ave. The Cornelia Cole Fairbanks chapters of the NSDAR dedicated an obelisk to honor Indiana's Centennial, the Historic Michigan Road, and Cornelia Cole Fairbanks, a prominent NSDAR member. Cornelia Cole Fairbanks campaigned for women's rights, education, and worker's rights in Indiana. The Historic Michigan Road is one of Indiana's earliest state highways. The monument also marks the crossing of the Michigan Road and the National Road.
The NSDAR is also famous for the creation of the Madonna of the Trail statues. These statues honor the pioneer women that traveled our nation's historic routes. The state chapters of the NSDAR funded the statutes and are responsible for their maintenance. 12 Madonna statues were dedicated in total. There is one for each of the 12 states that the National Old Trails Road ran through. Indiana’s is located in Richmond at Glen Miller Park.
Indiana’s centennial also proved to be a historic year for our nation’s roads. Congress passed the 1916 Federal Aid Highway Act due to the efforts of the Good Roads Movement, the DAR, the American Automobile Association, and various trails associations. The act gave federal matching funds to the states for road improvements. The National Road received needed repairs and improvements as a result. The National Road’s role as a major east to west route was acknowledged further in 1926 when the historic route was included in the designation of US 40.
Today the National Road is one of seven State Scenic Byways in Indiana, a National Scenic Byway and designated an All-American Road. These designations honor the significance that the National Road played in our national and state history. The Indiana National Road Association promotes travel, tourism, and communities along the byway. The NSDAR also continues to support the historic significance of the National Road through the restoration and care of their monuments.