As travelers drive along our nation’s highways, their eyes are literally assaulted by a never-ending stream of billboards and towering signs advertising fast food restaurants, shopping centers and gas stations. Useful information for the traveler to be sure, as are the green reflective signs that display the distance to cities and towns farther along the road. What a different experience we would have had as a traveler in the 19th century. Simple marker posts crafted of carved stone were the norm two centuries ago, providing travelers with directional and mileage information.
This gray limestone marker once stood in Maryland along the Old National Pike, which stretched from Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland. Maryland holds the distinction of being the first Mid-Atlantic state to finance and maintain its road with a tolled turnpike system. Funded by a group of Baltimore banks, the road was built by several turnpike companies, including the Baltimore-Fredericktown Turnpike Company, beginning in the first decade of the 19th century. Stone markers were spaced at mile intervals along the road, which joined the National Road at Cumberland.
Mile marker 119 arrived at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in 2018 for cleaning prior to its upcoming installation at the National Road Museum in Boonsboro, Maryland. It is believed to have been removed from the road right-of-way in the Flintstone area around 1987, when Interstate 68 was constructed.
As the U. S. population began moving west of the Allegheny Mountains into the Ohio River Valley in the late 18th century, the need for easy and reliable overland travel became more pressing. In 1806, the U. S. Congress authorized the Thomas Jefferson administration toconstruct another transportation first. The National Road was the first federally funded infrastructure project of our new nation (Longfellow 2017). The government used part of the proceeds of land sales in Ohio to fund the project. The National Road eventually extended all the way from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois.
The road itself had its origins in a military road constructed in 1754 and 1755 by General Edward Braddock’s troops during the French and Indian War (NPS 2015). The twelve-foot wide road extended from Fort Cumberland to Fort Duquesne, in what is now Pittsburgh. Construction actually began on the National Road in 1811 (Jensen 2019), first with improvements to Braddock’s Road, followed by extending the highway from Pittsburgh to Wheeling, West Virginia.
The construction suffered a series of stops and starts over the following decades, but the road had reached Vandalia by 1839, an ultimate distance of 620 miles (Jensen 2019). The twenty-foot wide road made possible travel to the Midwest for stagecoaches carrying people and mail, and Conestoga wagons carrying freight. Towns offering services like taverns, blacksmith shops and livery stables sprang up and thrived along the length of the road.
The development of the railroad spelled a temporary death knell for the National Road, but it saw a resurgence after the invention of the automobile and the rise in popularity of motor touring (NPS 2015). In 1926, the National Road was designated as U. S. Route 40 and served as a major east-west artery until the interstate system was established in the 1950s with the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Today there are websites and blogs devoted to driving the length of Route 40, with a focus on the highway’s historical context and attractions (Brusca 2019; Srinivasan 2019).
Stone mileage markers began to disappear early in the 20th century, with the introduction of standardized highway signage. Today, 69 stone mile markers are still standing along the route of the Old National Pike in Maryland and they have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places (MHT 2019). The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highways Administration’s Cultural Resources Section has created an inventory of historic mile markers throughout the state using ArcGIS, a geographic information system. The inventory contains description, location, and condition information for each marker, as well as photographs. Interested readers can find out more at https://maryland.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=374856d5ea864183847d22b158af102a.
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief of the Cultural Resources Division at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration and Terry Maxwell, Public Involvement Coordinator at the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration for their assistance with this post.
Jensen, Rich. 2019 National Road: America’s First Interstate. Website accessed November 10, 2019 at http://www.historynet.com/national-road-americas-first-highway.htm.
Longfellow, Rickie. 2017 Back in Time; the National Road. U. S. Department of Transportation. Federal Highway Administration. Website accessed November 10, 2019 at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/back0103.cfm
Maryland Historical Trust (MHT). 2019 Old National Pike. Maryland Historical Trust MEDUSA. https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/Medusa/PDF/Allegany/AL-I-B-077.pdf.
National Park Service (NPS). 2015 The National Road. The National Park Service. Website accessed November 10, 2019 at https://www.nps.gov/fone/learn/historyculture/nationalroad.htm
Srinivasan, Sriram. 2019 Driving the Historic National Road, from Start to Finish. Travel Codex. Website accessed November 20, 2019 at https://www.travelcodex.com/driving-the-historic-national-road-from-almost-start-to-almost-finish/.