The Beginning of the Interstate Highway System

The Eisenhower Administration is credited with creating the U.S. Interstate Highway System in 1956, but the concept of building and maintaining roads by the Federal Government has its roots in the years before the American Revolution. It started in the 1740s when a group of speculators known as the Ohio Company of Virginia received a grant for a tract of land in Ohio.

To sell the land to settlers, they needed a road so the families could reach their new property. In 1741, the Ohio Company of Virginia began surveying a road from Fort Cumberland, the northernmost navigable point of the Potomac, to the French trading post at Fort Duquesne, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet. That land is now known as Pittsburgh.

After the Seven Years’ War, which we call the French and Indian War, broke out in 1756, the British launched an expedition under General Edward Braddock to build a road from Fort Cumberland to Fort Duquesne.

Members of the Virginia militia did most of the engineering, surveying, and construction work on this ill-fated expedition. Besides George Washington, many of the leaders of the Continental Army – Charles Lee, Horatio Gates – distinguished themselves in the battle that ended in Braddock’s defeat and retreat.

On March 29th, 1806, Congress passed the Cumberland Road Act, which authorized the Federal government to turn the path and wagon tract known as the Braddock Road into a real road. The road, now known as the Cumberland Road, was supposed to go from Fort Cumberland to the Mississippi River.

Construction began in 1811 and ultimately reached Vandalia, Illinois, when construction stopped due to a lack of funds caused by the Financial Panic of 1837. At the time, Vandalia was the capital of Illinois!

The Cumberland Road is significant because it is the first road project funded by the Federal government and provided a road from the East Coast of the U.S. well into the interior. In 1835, the cost of maintaining the two-lane gravel road was transferred to the states through which it passed – Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

By passing this act in 1806, Congress established a precedent for a series of bills that would lead the U.S. to create a network of highways that connected the coasts to inland cities not on navigable rivers.

The original Cumberland Road was renamed the National Road by the bill and still exists today as U.S. 40. In 1976, the National Road was designated as a National Civil Engineering Landmark, and in 2002, it was named The Historic National Road. All along the road, there are historic markers, bridges and other landmarks.

Image is a map of the planned route of the National Road as envisioned in 1806.

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