National Road: a route to history

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 Photo courtesy of Glenn Harper & Doug Smith
 The booklet "A Traveler’s Guide to The Historic National Road in Ohio: The Road That Helped Build America," by Glenn Harper and Doug Smith, will be available free to the public at a presentation about the National Road’s history at Groveport Town Hall on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.

It cuts a path about 228 miles long across Ohio’s mid-section and it helped open the state’s frontier to settlement as well as giving a boost to commerce.

It is the National Road. Its construction began in 1806 in Cumberland, Md. and from there it headed westward passing through Ohio from Bridgeport to Cambridge to Zanesville to Columbus to Springfield, eventually extending to the western border of Illinois.

Ohioans are celebrating the National Road’s two centuries of history with a photographic exhibit on display through September in the art gallery at Groveport Town Hall, 648 Main St. The Town Hall exhibit is a collaboration with the Ohio National Road Association and the Ohio Historical Society.

The exhibit discusses the road’s origins, its construction, its boom times, and its decline when the railroad began to dominate the state in the mid-19th century.

"The exhibit touches on so many aspects of life in what was initially wilderness territory," said Groveport Community Affairs Director Linda Haley. "The development of towns and then centers of commerce in Ohio can be directly traced to the creation of this remarkable transportation concept."

There is also a companion exhibit by Donald "Pop" Porter features National Road photos and memorabilia from his extensive collection.

A free presentation on the history of the National Road will be given by Glenn Harper of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at Groveport Town Hall. For information call (614) 836-3333.

History and significance of the road

"The National Road was the first actual road in what was then the Northwest Territory," said Harper in a Sept. 18 interview. "It’s the first federally funded interstate highway, which is notable because there was little federal funding of infrastructure improvements in the 19th century – including the canal system, which was funded primarily by the states."

According to Harper, the road provided access to the west for people living in the east and likewise opened up eastern markets for those living in the west.

Harper said the road thrived from the 1820s to the 1850s before it began to decline after being supplanted by the railroad.

"But the road was revitalized in the late 19th and early 20th century by bicyclists who were looking for a place to ride," said Harper. "Then in the 20th century the coming of the automobile really turned the road around and in the mid-1920s the road became U.S. Route 40."

Harper said the road provides a linear, layered history of Ohio.

"The buildings along the road represent periods in Ohio’s history. There are the hotels from the stagecoach era and then there are the service stations, drive-ins, diners and restaurants from the automobile era," said Harper. "The road is an important chapter in American history. Plus it’s three dimensional. You can read about in books and look at photos, but you can also travel the road and we encourage people to travel it."

The booklet, "A Traveler’s Guide to The Historic National Road in Ohio: The Road That Helped Build America," by Harper and Doug Smith, provides a written and pictorial history of the road, but it also helps tourists find original portions of the road that they can travel upon, particularly in eastern Ohio where sections have been bypassed by more modern roadways.

Harper’s presentation on Sept. 25 will touch on many of the sites and history of the National Road. But the way to really to experience the road is to hop in your car and wheel your way along its route through history.

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