Stories from PA History
Crossing the Alleghenies
Crossing the Alleghenies
Chapter Two: Toward a National Road

Oil on canvas, head and shoulders of Albert Gallatin.
Albert Gallatin, by Rembrandt Peale, from life, 1805.
In 1808, Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin, pointed out that the most efficient route for transporting materials from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia was a 3,000 mile sea voyage, down the Mississippi River, through the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Atlantic coast. This was particularly remarkable because less than 300 miles separated the two communities over land. Gallatin proposed an ambitious scheme for uniting various local, state, and federal efforts to create the first markerNational Road, the only highway of its kind wholly constructed by the United States Government.
An aerial view of a small brick tollhouse situated next to a long, two-lane highway that stretches off into the distance.
Searight's Tollhouse, US Route 40, Fayette County, Pennsylvania.

Although Congress authorized the building of a National Road, Gallatin's vision was not fully realized. Most presidents and national leaders of the New Republic, from Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, were skeptical of the idea of funding road projects with federal money. Still, the need for better roads was obvious. Gallatin was instrumental in orchestrating at least marker tentative commitment from Congress by which the money for the creation of a limited National Road to the Ohio Valley would come from the sale of public lands in the new state of Ohio. Later, powerful political figures such as Henry Clay from Kentucky would attempt to expand upon Gallatin's ideal, promoting what Clay (a Speaker of the House, senator, and three-time presidential candidate) eventually labeled the "American system" of internal improvements. The National Road or Cumberland Road, as it was also known, stretched from Cumberland, Maryland to the state of Ohio.

A major portion of the road passed through the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, following the route of an Indian path, the Nemacolin Trail. Construction began in 1808, but it wasn't until 1817 that the road had managed to cross the Alleghenies. From the time it was completed to Wheeling, West Virginia in 1818, and on into Ohio by the 1830s, until the coming of the railroads west of the Alleghenies, the National Road was the highway over which passed the bulk of travel and trade, and the mail between the east and the west. A major gateway to the west, scores of marker early traders and settlers passed along the route during the nineteenth century.
Map of the National Road from Baltimore, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois.
Map of the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois.

One of the better known figures along the National Road in Pennsylvania was William Searight of Fayette County. A wealthy, politically active businessman of his day, Searight used his connections to gain the appointment as the Pennsylvania Commissioner for the National Road shortly after individual states became responsible for its operation inside of their own borders. In 1835, the state of Pennsylvania took control of its portion of the National Road and constructed a series of tollhouses about every fifteen miles, including one in Fayette County. The building eventually became known as markerSearight's Tollhouse and still stands as a national historic site.
A short metal bridge connects two sides of a small town. One side shows mainly residential buildings while on the other several storefronts are visible.
Dunlap's Creek Bridge, Brownsville, PA, circa 1890.

The National Road in Pennsylvania was home to many unique structures such as Searight's Tollhouse and various roadside inns and bridges. There were reportedly 300 inns along the road between Baltimore and Wheeling. Two of the most important bridges were the marker"S" Bridge located in Washington County and markerDunlap's Creek Bridge, the first all-metal arch bridge built in the United States, located in Fayette County. These bridges served as important spans across otherwise impassible streams and rivers.

Engineers for the National Road built one of their most impressive bridges in western Pennsylvania at the site of an ancient crossing point on the Youghiogheny River. At markerGreat Crossings, many early pioneers, traders, and advancing armies had previously forded the river. In 1818, President James Monroe helped celebrate the opening of a Great Crossings bridge.

The early nineteenth century was a period of intense turnpike road building. By 1831, an estimated 2,500 miles of turnpike roads were in use, with the state contributing about $2,000,000 for their construction. In 1835, the state of Pennsylvania took over its section of the National Road and maintained the road through collection of tolls. Even with state support, many turnpikes were hastily constructed and poorly maintained. As travelers increasingly turned to other forms of transportation, many turnpike roads were abandoned due to lack of income.

By 1905, when the State Highway Department was created, only 1,100 miles of toll roads were in use. The development of automobiles in the early 1900s led to many roads' revitalization, including the National Road in the 1920s. After World War II, the National Road was incorporated into U.S. Route 40, falling once again under the supervision of the federal government.

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