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February, 2006

Of the forty-plus named auto trails that appeared on the maps of Ohio during the 1910s and 1920s, only one was more steeped in history than the Lincoln Highway. The boosters of the National Old Trails Road, which connected several historic paths across the country, had the good fortune of being able to trace much of their highway along the historic path of the famous National Road as it neatly crossed Ohio and Indiana before terminating at Vandalia, Illinois. The National Road dated back to the early 1800s—predating the railroads and canals—and opened up these western states to settlement and commerce. Although its traffic included carriages and wagons, and not automobiles and trucks, it was by definition the nation's first federal highway.

(Click to enlarge)  The Red Brick Tavern is located about 20 miles west of Columbus in the crossroads community of Lafayette. Built in 1837 and said to be the second oldest in the state, the tavern "enjoyed prosperity during the heyday of travel on the National Road." Six presidents dined here, including five who served in the early 1800s, a period during which the National Road was the chosen path across Ohio. The tavern closed during the railroad era but reopened to welcome automobile travelers. One of the oldest National Road mileposts stands in the yard—one of only three between Columbus and Springfield.  Source: The National Road, by Karl Raitz

The National Old Trails Road was the end result of a grassroots Good Roads movement in Missouri which was formally organized as the Old Trails Association in 1911. An improved road which crossed the state was dedicated in October of that year. Also in 1911, the Missouri Daughters of the American Revolution initiated a movement which resulted in plans for a national memorial road between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This road was actually an end-to-end combination of existing trails, following historic paths such as the National Road in the East and the Santa Fe Trail in the West. Thus, the "National" element in the name of the National Old Trails Road likely refers to its scope as a memorial road that would cross the country, with the original National Road—also known as the National Pike and Cumberland Road—being a coincident part of that idea.

Two eras of highway architecture are evident in this picture:  homes having roof lines parallel with the road date back to the National Road; the gas station turned 45 degrees at the main intersection dates back to US 40.

The first convention of the National Old Trails Road was held in Kansas City on April 17 and 18, 1912. By the end of that year, a definite route had been put on paper. Like the Lincoln Highway Association, the Old Trails group had a goal of a marked road that would reach the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco by 1915. However, unlike the Lincoln Highway Association—in which founder Carl G. Fisher had enlisted the financial support of many of his friends in the automobile industry—it appears that the Old Trails association was relying on the federal government to build the road. Perhaps this is why Fisher—who made his home in Indianapolis, on the route of the National Old Trails Road—pursued a separate dream for an improved road that would cross the country. Had Fisher relied on the government to build the road he so much desired, it likely would have happened more later than sooner. This passion for a paved coast-to-coast highway may in fact have been the ultimate inspiration for his "Let's build it...before we are too old to enjoy it" quote.

The Pennsylvania House is now a small museum operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and is open for tours on most Saturdays and Sundays.  It is located in Springfield where the popular road to Dayton diverged from the National Road.

In its original form, the National Old Trails Road followed the historic National Road all across Ohio, with one notable exception. West of Springfield, the auto trail dropped about ten miles south to pass through Dayton and Eaton before rejoining the old National Road alignment just inside the state line near Richmond, Indiana. This variation had a colorful history of its own, because it was the route of the notorious Dayton Cutoff—a popular diversion from the National Road that actually became the route of choice for the earliest travelers on the historic pike. According to Frank X. Brusca, perhaps the leading authority on the National Road (see, interests in Dayton "erected milestones along its road that were nearly exact copies of the milestones found along the National Road." Moreover, "at the fork in the road, the cutoff's proponents had a sign erected telling emigrants that the fork to the left was the National Road, when in fact it wasn't."

As indicated by the numbers, the National Road milepost on the far left is 193 miles [west] from the road's terminus at Cumberland, Maryland and eleven miles [east] from Zanesville. Over a dozen mileposts can be found on the north side of the historic road between Columbus and Cambridge (by comparison, only three can be found between Columbus and Springfield). Most of the posts now along the road appear to be reproductions from various eras. The best original posts are now preserved at the National Road/Zane Grey Museum near Norwich, at Exit 164 of Interstate 70.

The milepost second from left is located near Lafayette, Ohio.  The milepost in the third photo is near Summerford, Ohio, and the fourth near West Jefferson, Ohio.

The milestones of the old National Road, and their reproductions, are just one of the historic elements that make the National Old Trails Road an absolute treasure to retrace. Brusca has documented each surviving milepost, and laments that too many of these artifacts have ended up in museums. He would like to see many of the milestones returned to the roadside. An impressive string of ten milestones in a row survives along the north side of the road in Licking County, in the area of Kirkersville and Hebron. Oddly, in several places, milestones have been moved to places along U.S. Route 40 which are actually bypasses of both the National Road and the National Old Trails Road.

Also specific to the National Old Trails Road is the "Madonna of the Trail" monument at the west edge of Springfield. This is one of twelve monuments placed in each of the twelve states through which the highway passed. The idea for these monuments came from the same group of Missouri women who became so actively involved in the Good Roads movement that their dream for a national memorial highway was taken to the national level. As a result, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned the design of the monument, which "commemorates the spirit of the woman pioneer." The statue features a pioneer woman clutching two small children and a rifle, and sits on a five-foot square pedestal that itself is six feet high.

Ohio's Madonna of the Trail statue is on the west side of Springfield.

Unfortunately, the Ohio memorial is difficult to access. To take adequate pictures, I usually leave my car in a city park east of the site, then scramble across the busy U.S. 40 bridge (no sidewalk; no shoulder) to reach the monument site. Brusca accordingly writes that "it is too bad that the monument wasn't relocated to a safer and more convenient location [such as] the DAR's Pennsylvania House just a few blocks away on the original path of the National Road." The monument could have been moved to such a location while being relocated from its original location within the present U.S. 68 interchange.

Peacock Road, East of Cambridge, Ohio.

Along with the multiple milestones and the solitary statue, plenty of old road remnants survive along this route, almost all of which are in the eastern counties. Like Cindell Street and Baywood Street along the Lincoln Highway, there are wonderfully photogenic brick remnants that were part of the National Old Trails Road. There are just as many snippets of old road—some brick; some concrete—hidden and forgotten in the trees. Just as new routings of U.S. 30 would pierce new paths into the rolling lands of Stark County and Columbiana County, so would relocations of U.S. 40 carve into the Appalachian Foothills east of Zanesville. The wide paths of a new U.S. 40 also allowed more places for the many old-fashioned motels to blossom and flourish in their day, and much of this type of roadside architecture survives today.

This wonderful sign along the contemporary National Road is in the neighborhood of West Columbus, about one mile east of the Interstate 270 bypass. The motel itself appears to date from that era of highway architecture that immediately precedes the original Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons of the 1950s. From this point west, the National Road runs straight toward the setting sun to Indianapolis, before veering slightly south of west toward its terminus at the original Illinois capital in Vandalia. Thus, the National Road at one time connected three Midwestern capitals. In Columbus, the historic route followed what is now Main Street into town from the east, jogged north toward the State House on High Street, and turned west onto Broad Street.

Not to be forgotten along the old trail are the unique S-bridges which can be found only in the eastern part of the state. The Ohio Historical Society has wonderfully restored an old National Road bridge on the west edge of New Concord, and has also supervised similar work at a failing S-bridge which is in the shadows of the impressive Blaine Hill Viaduct east of St. Clairsville. Two other S-bridges survive in Guernsey County, and like the others, both can be found not far from the modernized U.S. 40, a federal highway which has survived almost in its entirety, despite the presence of nearby Interstate 70.

S-bridges on the National Old Trails Road in Eastern Ohio (click)

S-bridge west of New Concord, Ohio. Funded with ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) money through ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) this 1830 S-bridge has been wonderfully restored. Other preservation activities are certain to take place as the Ohio Historic Preservation Office completes surveys of historic properties and inventories of significant landmarks.

East of Cambridge, Ohio.


S-bridge in the shadows of Blaine Hill Viaduct east of St. Clairsville, Ohio. S-bridge four miles west of downtown Cambridge, at the settlement of Cassell. This structure crosses Peters Creek with geometry and materials very much like the S-bridge at New Concord (far right).

Although colorful legends abound which attempt to explain the unique S-bridges, there is little question that the structures simply provided the shortest path across the stream, thus requiring the least amount of materials. Only the middle portion of the bridge is actually arching over the creek, with the end portions serving as walls holding the fill for the approaches.  Sources: The National Road, by Karl Raitz U.S. 40 Today, by Thomas R. Vale and Geraldine R. Vale.

Immediately after the National Old Trails Road had established a presence in Ohio, the people and leaders of the state looked to improving the route. In 1914, Ohio furnished 22% of the two-million dollars expended for improvements to the entire route. Then in 1915, Ohio reportedly supplied an astounding 52% of a similar amount. Using moneys appropriated for an experimental post road improvement program, a continuous stretch of twenty-four miles of concrete highway was constructed west of Zanesville, which one highway director said would be "the model concrete road of the world."

According to an impressively researched web site article by Richard F. Weingroff (see, the old road was to be regraded to a width of thirty-four feet, with concrete pavement sixteen feet in width—eight inches thick at the center and six inches thick at the sides to provide for drainage. Vertical grades were to be reduced to a maximum of seven per cent, and superelevation was introduced for perhaps the first time in the state. Although much of this original concrete has been destroyed by improvements to U.S. Route 40, several remnants are there for rediscovery if one knows where to look.

To retrace the final route of the National Old Trails Road in Ohio, it is most simply put that one should follow the federal shields of U.S. Route 40, except through the area of the Dayton Cutoff. The cutoff road between Springfield and Dayton appears to have been an early version of State Route 4, much of which has been returned to local jurisdictions—although State Route 444 seems to have been designated for one remaining section. One good chunk of the original cutoff road appears to have been obliterated by the construction of the large Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Maps of the middle 1920s show a different route for this part of the National Old Trails Road. Instead of diverging at Springfield, the route continued another twelve miles westerly to the crossroads community of Brandt. It was there that the highway turned south into Dayton, on a route similar to State Route 201 on the map of today. Between Dayton and Richmond, the cutoff road is more easily discerned as the route of U.S. 35, which was originally State Route 11 until superseded by the federal number.

Appropriately, when the first inter-county highway numbers were assigned to Ohio roadways in 1912, the route of the old National Road was designated as Inter-County Highway #1 clear across the state. This was unusual because most numerical designations were for routes that connected a small set of county seats. Also rare is the fact that when a new numbering system of state routes was drawn up on the 1923 map, the historic route kept its rightly place as State Route 1.  Unfortunately, this was a short-lived designation that ended with the designation of U.S. Route 40 in 1926.

Although historically imperfect, this assembly of signs at the National Road/Zane Grey Museum near Norwich is nonetheless an excellent example of Ohio's earliest highway markings for named and numbered highways. The National Road was actually State Route 1 from 1923 to 1926, then became U.S. Route 40 when the federal routes were first marked. It was never designated as State Route 40, which was instead a nearby route from Zanesville to Washington Court House that became U.S. Route 22. The R at the bottom of the sign assembly would have indicated that the route turned right not far ahead.

With the posting of the new federal shields, the symbol signs of the National Old Trails Road began to come down. Interestingly, they must have looked a lot like the signs of the Lincoln Highway—red over white over blue, but without the L, of course. In many places across Ohio, it is the 1800s heritage of the road that is recalled, with official local names such as Cumberland Street, Old Pike, Old National Road, and so forth. Presently, the old National Road has been designated as a National Scenic Byway and also as an All-American Road.

Fairdale Road, west of Cambridge, Ohio.

Since virtually exhausting himself with studies on the Lincoln Highway, this writer has several times explored the route of the National Road/National Old Trails Road, and can truthfully say that no other route in Ohio offers a better overall roadfan experience. Highlighted by bridges now approaching 200 years of age, plus mileposts and memorials, there is rarely a dull moment, especially in the drive east of the Columbus metroplex. The inherent history and architecture of the old National Road—which predates auto travel by several decades—provides a unique and interesting bonus to the eventually monotonous search for old motels and gas stations on most numbered highways.

In 2005, the Ohio Historical Society published a long-awaited comprehensive guide to the National Road. Entitled A Traveler's Guide to the Historic National Road in Ohio, and authored by Glenn Harper and Doug Smith, the booklet was available at no change from the society "while supplies last." It is extremely well-done, and is a colorfully slick forty-six pages of text, photographs, and maps that makes me proud to be an O.H.S. member. See for more information.