THE HISTORIC NATIONAL ROAD
Trails of Days Long Past
The Historic National Road was America's first interstate highway established by an act of Congress in 1806. The Indiana portion was built between 1829 and 1834, linking the eastern seashore with the western interior. In 1996, the Historic National Road was designated as a state scenic route. And in 2002, The Historic National Road from Maryland to St. Louis was designated as an All-American Road. Driving the route evokes a sense of traveling through the passageways of history from historic architecture and early 19th century farms to nostalgic gas stations, historic monuments and genuine Midwestern scenic beauty.
History of the National Road
The construction of the nation's first highway, built with federal funds in the early nineteenth century, was not without government mandates. For citizens' own protection, legislators prohibited any tree stump in the National Road to exceed 15 " in height.
Carved through dense forest, the National Road preceded most Indiana cities, and was, literally, the road to civilization. Before the National Road made its way westward from Maryland in 1811, Centerville was the only town besides Indianapolis between Richmond and Terre Haute. The crude highway completed its journey in 1832, with its last stop in western Illinois. As many as 200 wagons a day passed through towns along the route.
The nickname "Main Street of America" was honestly earned as towns such as Centerville sprang up from enterprising pioneers who recognized the need for inns, blacksmith shops and grocers. In fact, settlers keen on cashing in on National Road traffic often offered their land to the government for free.
To maximize National Road frontage, Centerville folks, whose homes or businesses lined the 100' Main Street, narrowed the road to its present 65' by building onto the fronts of their buildings. Archways between Federal style rowhouses allowed access to the rear of buildings and backyards. New homes were built almost flush with the sidewalk, and porches were built on the side of homes instead of in front so that residents could sit out without being smothered in dust (the first section of Indiana's National Road to be paved, however, was Centerville's Main Street). Today, more than 100 buildings in Centerville's Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Madonna of the Trail
The Madonna of the Trail is a monument to Americans who traveled the bitter road. One of only 12 statues marking the pioneers' trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Richmond's Madonna of the Trail was dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution October 28. 1928. The featured speaker was a little known Missouri judge, Harry S. Truman.
A "Memorial to the Pioneer Mothers of the Covered Wagon Days," the motto ascribed to the Madonna of the Trail could also salute all who made their way westward along the National Road: "the autograph of a nation written across the face of a continent."
The figure of the mother is of heroic proportions, 10 feet high with a weight of 5 tons. The base on which the figure sands is 6 feet high and weights 12 tons. This base rests on a foundation which stands 2 feet above the ground level which makes the monument 18 feet tall. The Madonna is located in Glen Miller Park at the corner of 22nd and National Road.
Visit all the Madonnas
Location and dedication dates:
Maryland, Bethesda Week of April 19, 1929
West Virginia, Wheeling July 7, 1928
Pennsylvania, Washington December 8, 1928
Ohio, Springfield July 4, 1928
Indiana, Richmond October 28, 1928
Illinois, Vandalia October 26, 1928
Missouri, Lexington September 17, 1928
Kansas, Council Grove September 7, 1928
Colorado, Lamar September 24, 1928
New Mexico, Albuquerque September 27, 1928
Arizona, Springerville September 29, 1928
California, Upland February 1, 1929
Historic Huddleston Farmhouse Inn Museum
Travelers along the National Road stopped for the night at the farm where they were, for a fee, permitted to set up camp and rent a fireplace to cook meals. If the weather was nasty John Huddleston would allow "guests" to sleep on the floor, where the first to arrive could be nearest the fire. Technically, John Huddleston's home was not an inn: to be an inn, it would have had to have two extra beds and three people to sign an affidavit to the owner's moral and righteous standing. During inspection time, John borrowed beds from neighbors. As for the affidavit validity, John had been "disowned" by the Quaker meeting because of low attendance and asked to leave the denomination.
The history of the National Road can also be found at the Wayne County Historical Museum. Established in 1930 by Quaker Julia Meek Gaar, the museum first housed her substantial personal collection. Heir to an industrial fortune (she was, in 1882, one of Richmond's 47 millionaires), Gaar traveled extensively and amassed, according to a Smithsonian director, "the largest and most valuable historical collection of any woman in America." Today, the museum boasts a turn-of-the-century general store, a fully operational 1880's blacksmith shop, an Egyptian mummy, and displays many of the 13 automobiles manufactured in Richmond. The Wayne County Historical Museum hosts Pioneer Days every fall.
Indiana's National Road designated as a National Scenic Byway
The Historic National Road through Indiana has been named a National Scenic Byway, one of the nation's most prestigious highway designations. This honor recognizes the Road's historic significance as America's first and most important national highway. For more than 150 years, the National Road, which stretches from Cumberland, MD to Vandalia, IL, provided the east-west pathway for the expansion of America.
The idea for the National Road originated with George Washington. Funded by Congress under the Jefferson administration in 1806, the Road was the nation's first federal highway project. Construction of the Road, driven by pioneer spirit, economic development needs and national security interests, took place in sections over several decades. In the 1920's, the Road became U.S. Highway 40 and became the premier transcontinental highway.
A traveler along Indiana's National Road will find echoes of the past from historic pike towns with traditional main streets, single pump gas stations, to American architecture spanning fifteen decades, historic landmarks, and tranquil, rural countryside. The national Road is focused on telling a story. It is our nation's first highway! It is a story of westward migration and settlement in six states. It is a story of one of our first automobile routes west. We invite you to drive Indiana's National Road, the Road that helped shape lives.
Stories about the Old National Road
What's in a Name?
Names of Wayne County towns along the National Road are richly historical in themselves. In Western Wayne County travelers pass through East Germantown/Pershing. Some folks, it seems, preferred patriotism to heritage when they chose to honor John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. Then, again, Irish heritage has nothing to do with the town of Dublin. That name comes from a hill in the National Road that was difficult to climb, especially in mud. Doublin' up of horses was sometimes required.
Just as it created or enhanced opportunities, the National Road led to obscurity for some towns. The first courthouse was located in the now non-existent town of Salisbury in southern Wayne County. When Centerville began to thrive, community leaders felt the seat should be relocated. It was agreed that Centerville could be county seat if it built a courthouse as "good" as the one in Salisbury. But, the folks in that town refused to let Centerville officials inside to inspect the courthouse. The committee stood outside and counted bricks to estimate its size. They guessed correctly and the seat was moved in 1818. (In a bit of irony, the first Salisbury log cabin to serve as courthouse has also been moved to Centerville and is the only original log courthouse still standing in the Northwest Territory.)
Centerville's glorious reign was short-lived, however. In 1873, Richmond vied for the county seat in what was to become the famous Courthouse Fight. Reluctant to give up their holding, Centerville officials barricaded themselves inside the courthouse. A group of angry Centerville citizens, in an attempt to block Richmond's efforts in taking county records, fired a cannon at their eastern neighbors standing at the courthouse door. In a figurative backfire, the cannon blast blew the door from its hinges and the records were seized. Today, the former courthouse is the site of Centerville's Library and the hole made by "Black Betty" is clearly visible above the doorway.
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