The National Road - Page 2

by Robert Bruce

In the fall of 1914, Robert Bruce travelled the National Road and recorded his experiences in a work published by the National Highways Association in 1916. The portion of his "travel" log covering Allegany County will be presented here.


At Cumberland the tourist is about at the beginning of the second half of the Baltimore-Wheeling trip; and in leaving that city for the West, enters upon that part of the Old Pike constructed entirely at the expense of the national government. But no one can afford to pass through this "Key City of the Mountains" without spending at least a few minutes looking around it and learning something of its extraordinary history. Here, at the head of navigation on the Potomac, the travel of the olden days that had come so far by water had to transfer to the land, making its site the most strategic of all between the East and the West. It is situated at the foot of the eastern slope of the Alleghanies, the front door to the famous "Narrows" and the easiest passage of these mountains between New York State and Alabama.

Nowhere else in the entire country can the influence of topography upon the course of history be so clearly traced; and the interest of the trip is much increased by some knowledge of the part this locality has played, especially in the exploration and settlement of the West. By crossing the several ridges between Hancock and Cumberland, the tourist leaves behind the scenes and memories of the war between the States, and enters one of the most important sections traveled and fought over during the French and Indian War, the last between the English and French for supremacy on this continent and, at least in some measure, the forerunner of the Revolution.

We also come into the section-half eastern, half western-traveled and studied most carefully by George Washington throughout the greater part of his life, finding not only evidences of his great faith in the future of the West, but various examples of distinct efforts on his part to develop travel and facilitate the means of transportation across the Alleghanies. In his youth, as surveyor of the lands of Lord Fairfax in the upper Shenandoah, he became personally acquainted with the region beyond the Potomac; this served him well in the subsequent overland trips to Fort Duquesne, while these experiences made him not only the efficient aide of Braddock, but the logical successor to the responsibilities of command when the first campaign against the French at the "Forks of the Ohio" ended in a rout of the English and Colonial forces.

Washington not only traveled the route from Fort Cumberland to the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers, along the general line of the present National Turnpike, but always encouraged, for both commercial and political reasons, every project for connecting the eastern rivers with those of the interior by "portages," predecessors of the highways of a later date. It is a part of the charm of this trip to feel one's self literally following in the footsteps of the "Father of his Country," though his path was often beset with difficulties and dangers; farther along we shall come to the spot where he made his first and only surrender, as a result of the failure of the Virginia expedition of 1754, the year before the defeat of Braddock. It is even a tradition that in the darkest days of the Revolution, more than twenty years afterward, his thoughts were often turned toward the West, as a possible future home for himself and some of his followers in case the Colonies should fail in their struggle for independence.

Further investigation will reveal the fact that Washington suggested the survey of these "western" lands by the Federal Government, which though long under way, is not even yet complete; and had figured with surprising accuracy the saving of distance by this route from tidewater to the Monongahela and Ohio, Fort Duquesne, Presque Isle (Erie, Pa.), Fort Detroit and even to the then little known rivers of the Central West. His interest in the Potomac Co., genesis of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, is mentioned elsewhere in this series; in fact, he seems to have anticipated in some degree all that has since been realized in travel and transportation across this section, excepting only the modern developments in steam and electricity.


The outline map on pages 38 and 39 will assist the tourist making the usual quick trip over this route not only to understand the main points about present-day Cumberland, but also to appreciate the strategic advantage of its predecessor, the old fort after which the city was named. In connection with this local diagram, reference should be made to the topographic detail maps pages 29 and 48, showing graphically the succession of ridges, which literally shut in Cumberland from both the East and West. The fairly level spot on which the city is situated was made possible by a sharp bend of the Potomac, which from this point takes a southwesterly course, and is not seen again on this route.

On the West Virginia side, less than two miles away, Knobly Mountain reaches an elevation of 1,115 feet, with higher peaks in the background; and to the north and west, the upper and lower sections of Wills Mountain, almost equally near, rise to heights of from 1,600 to 1,800. After the long descents into the city from the summit of Martin Mountain (1,720 feet), only a few miles east, one may be surprised to learn that Cumberland is itself at an elevation of about 640. The Potomac makes that descent on its way to the sea not only the natural slope but through a series of falls, which the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal overcomes by an elaborate system of locks and dams. This strategic location made Cumberland in the early days the, most important point between the Atlantic seaboard and the Ohio River; and as long as the Potomac was used as part of the overland route to Pittsburgh, it was equally important to and through that city to Lake Erie, though the building of the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh road by Forbes' army in 1759 made a shorter way than the older one through Cumberland.

Here also the two main stems of the Baltimore & Ohio system from the West converge to make one greater line to Washington and Baltimore. Cumberland is a division point for all through business; both passenger and freight traffic are heavy, and practically all the locomotives used are the largest of their respective types. Within the limits of the "Key City of the Mountains," the tracks of this great pioneer railway diverge, as shown by the map page 10 in the opening chapter; no more is seen of the lower one until we reach Wheeling, though we do come into the line of the upper one near Washington, Pa., and follow it the last few miles to the Ohio River. The Western Maryland, a newer railroad, of which the most is seen on this trip in the vicinity of Hancock, parallels the old pike through the Narrows; but at Frostburg it takes the northern course to Connellsville, Pa., and does not again touch our route.

It is worth while before leaving Cumberland to stop a few minutes at the foot of Baltimore Street, near the iron bridge over Wills Creek, and walk along the Western Maryland R. R. tracks to a point a trifle beyond the depot. From there one may see the first dam of the Potomac, near the junction of that river with Wills Creek; the dam is quite unpretentious, but it marks the westerly point of navigation from tidewater, at the very edge of the main Alleghany ridges.

Nearby, also, is the first lock of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, now used as a canal feeder only, the boats--still in considerable numbers--being loaded a short distance below, principally with coal from the mines at and around Frostburg. Looking across from the vicinity of the Western Maryland depot, one can see the old part of the city, through which the original line of the pike ran from near the site of Fort Cumberland by the present Green Street to and over Wills Mountain.

Before the railroads came, overland transportation was a serious problem; and water seemed to be the best available and cheapest means. The Potomac was the first thoroughfare of exploration, travel and transportation to the West; but the fact that it could not be used beyond Cumberland added greatly to the amount of traffic over the National Road. At the very first it was proposed merely to make the river navigable; but on account of its many windings, which would make too long a route, a complete canal was found necessary. This then great work was begun in 1828 by Virginia and Maryland, and completed front Georgetown, D. C., to Cumberland, a distance of 184 miles, in 1850, at a cost of about $1 1,000,000. Though once a vital factor in the nation's life, the canal is principally interesting to the tourist of today as a picturesque link with the past. It is now "quiet along the Potomac," except for the whistles of locomotives, the echo of automobile engines, and the subdued bum of industry within the city limits of Cumberland.

Eastern Part of Detail Map


Western Part of Detail Map


Christopher Gist, probably the greatest of the early explorers through this section, George Washington on his first trip to the "Forks of the Ohio," and Braddock on the unsuccessful attempt to drive the French from Fort Duquesne, had already become familiar with the site of Cumberland, opposite which (on the Virginia side), the Ohio Company had erected a store as early as 1750, on lands purchased from Lord Fairfax. But the fort was not erected until 1754-55 when, after Braddock's defeat, which greatly weakened the military prestige of the Colonies, a stronghold was seen to be necessary, not only as a resting place for expeditions to and from the Ohio River, but to guard against the frequent bands of Indians crossing the hills and passing through the forests on sanguinary errands. That fort occupied a bluff on the west side of the city at the junction of the Potomac River and Wills Creek, where the Episcopal Church, a picturesque ivy-covered Gothic structure of brown sandstone, now stands.

It was the real outpost of the Colonies, separated from eastern Maryland by the great barriers of mountains; and almost completely isolated, having no means of communication with the outside world except by primitive roads and the unimproved Potomac River-which gives some idea of the difficulty of long-distance travel a hundred or more years ago. Being on the frontier, never well defined in those days, the ground on which it stood was for a long time claimed by both Virginia and Maryland; but in the end Virginia gave up its claim and the old fort was garrisoned by Maryland troops, though the settlements in both states, as well as those in nearby Pennsylvania, were protected by it.

While the second-and successful-attempt to take Fort Duquesne from the French (1758), was chiefly from Carlisle, through Chambersburg, Bedford and Ligonier, over much of the present Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Pike, Fort Cumberland was again the rendezvous of the Virginia and Maryland forces, which cut a road from here to Raystown (now Bedford) in order to join Forbes' main army, though against the advice of Washington, who preferred to follow the old Braddock Road, with the idea of combining with Forbes much nearer the present site of Pittsburgh. Soon after Fort Duquesne was abandoned, the French power was broken, and the English Colonies opened wide the door into the West; travel and emigration increased rapidly, and Cumberland became, more in peace than in war, an important point in transportation and trade.

The settlement was originally on the west side of Wills Creek, the principal houses being along the present Green Street, which helps to account for the first line of the old pike being laid out that way instead of through the "Narrows." In 1787, when there were only 35 families in the place, the settlers around what had been Fort Cumberland petitioned the legislature to establish a town to be named after the fort, which was done. The first post office was established in an old log cabin on North Mechanic Street in 1795; three years later Allegany County was created and Cumberland made the county seat. It was incorporated in 1815; and grew slowly but surely in population and influence.


The legislation creating the National Pike was very specific in its mention of Cumberland; and this great thoroughfare to the West came to be equally well known as the "Cumberland Road"; this is perhaps the only city in the United States today having an important through highway named for it. On the other hand, the city and section were proud of the road, western Maryland usually sending to Congress men pledged in favor of maintaining it, even after the building of the railroad lessened its relative importance. In the busy days of the pike, Cumberland was naturally the residence of many stage coach and freight wagon drivers, among them Samuel Luman, Ashael Willison, Hanson Willison and Robert Hall, substantial men in the community and honored by those who knew them. While the old drivers and innkeepers have about all passed away, quite a number of people in and about Cumberland remember them very well. Ashael Willison died only about three years ago, though the majority of those who drove on the old road, or kept taverns along it, have been gone much longer.

How great the travel over the National Pike before the building of the B. & 0. R. R. may be estimated from the fact that during the first twenty days of March, 1848, 2,586 passengers were carried through Cumberland in stage coaches. One old-time resident claims to have counted fifty-two six-horse wagons in sight on the road at one time, and to have seen at least 4,000 head of western cattle quartered at a single place. Then came the decline, which carried it to so low a valuation that both Maryland and Pennsylvania took their part of it as a gift, only after large additional sums had been spent by the government in its improvement.

Today Cumberland is the second city in Maryland, and the largest one on our route in the Allegheny Mountains, with a population of about 23,000. It is an important industrial and commercial center, within twelve or fifteen miles of vast coal measures, with inexhaustible supplies of rock and fire clay of excellent quality at its doors. Brick and steel, for which the raw materials are at hand or easily brought by rail, are produced in large quantities. Scientific road building, both by the state and Allegany County, have resulted in fine roads within twelve or fifteen miles of Cumberland, toward Bedford and east and west on the pike, as well as good shale and dirt roads on the West Virginia side of the Potomac, great improvements having been made within the past five years. The city looks prosperous and has a number of substantial buildings, especially banks.

The original ford from South Mechanic Street (a short distance below Baltimore Street) to the west side of Wills Creek passed over a spot subsequently "filled in" to make what is now Riverside Park. While of comparatively recent origin, and of no practical use to the tourist today, a glance at the photograph on page 37, and the easterly part of the local map page 39, may be of interest as helping to identify the original route of the National Road as specified by the United States Commissioners in their Report of December 30, 1806, on the basis of which Congress authorized the beginning of the work. This was "from a stone at the corner of Lot No. 1, near the confluence of Wills Creek and the north branch of the Potomac River"; or, about as closely as the spot can be identified by modern landmarks, at the northwestern corner of the park, about opposite the curve of the trolley tracks.

Actual construction began at this point in May, 1811, proceeding westward along the alignment of the present Green Street to the eastern slope of Wills Mountain, the first ten miles-over the mountain and into the present line of the road past the Six-Mile House (see detail map, page 39)-being completed in September, 1812. It was not until 1833, after the shorter but steeper way had been used for over twenty years, that the start of the National Pike out of Cumberland was re-located to use North Mechanic Street and the longer but much easier route through the "Narrows." Only the latter is known by most present-day travelers, though the former is a vital part of the old re-ad's history.


The usual route west of Cumberland is from Baltimore Street, the basic thoroughfare, out either North Mechanic Street (the actual Pike) or North Center Street, next parallel on the right; both are used extensively and shown in equal detail on the local map, page 39. Near the western edge of the city, North Center makes a short deflection into North Mechanic, the latter crossing at once the Wharf Branch of the Cumberland & Pennsylvania R. R. tracks, at grade, into the famous "Narrows," perhaps the one most interesting topographical feature between Baltimore and Wheeling. Here is found a practically level road along the floor of the gap or gorge, whose average width from the towering heights of the two sections of Wills Mountain is about a half-mile, at the top, sloping to 125 yards at the bottom, and 900 feet deep.

Wills Creek, flowing through the center, is crossed at the eastern end of the narrows by the picturesque and historic stone bridge, of which the photograph on page 36 is a close view of the general structure and solid arches, though the smaller one on this page gives a better idea of the long, sweeping approaches without grades, and the great hills on either side, as well as showing higher water in the Creek. This gorge, which will be quickly identified by anyone who has traveled through it by rail in daylight, provided the National Turnpike with a nearly level entrance into the Alleghanies, and opened the easiest way to and over the main ridges beyond. On the right are the tracks of the B. & O., the building of which did more than anything else to take travel off the old road, and on the left the Western Maryland, the newest transportation line between Cumberland and Pittsburgh.

It is a matter of passing interest that the bridges on the National Road in Maryland, including the one shown in these pictures, were more than once the subject of controversy between that state and the Federal government. When assenting to the change in location from the original line over Wills Mountain to the present one through the Narrows, Maryland made a condition that the part of the road embraced in the change should be constructed of the best materials, upon the macadam plan; that a good, substantial bridge should be built over Wills Creek at the place of crossing, and that stone bridges and culverts should be constructed wherever the same might respectively be necessary along the line of the road.

This was a wise enactment, and as a result, many of these bridges are still as strong and as substantial as the day they were built. Years later, after the road had deteriorated, and Congress had decided to let it lapse back into the control of the several states traversed, Maryland and Pennsylvania accepted their parts only with the provision that the government should put it in good condition within their boundaries. The War Department, of which Lewis Cass was then Secretary, appealed to Congress for an appropriation of $600,000 to make the necessary repairs between Cumberland and Wheeling. Congress cut this down to $300,000, which led the engineers of the War Department to plan a reduction in cost by making some understructures of stone and the superstructures of wood. But this change was refused outright by Maryland, and the government had to yield; so, in the end, the stone bridges were built, after which Maryland took over and has since controlled its portion of this road.

The Old Pike-which, of course, had the first choice for right-of-way--is now, as in the days of the stage coach and freight wagon, the principal gateway to the West, with no alternate passage for many miles above or below. As the view shows, its roadbed is about as substantial as either of the two railways alongside. Years ago the George's Creek & Cumberland R. R. was built as a short road to connect the mines of the American Coal Co., in the George's Creek district, and certain allied interests, with the main line of the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Pennsylvania R. R. in Maryland (short connecting link from Cumberland to the main line of the Pennsylvania system at Huntington and Altoona, Pa.); and being comparatively early in the field, was able to pick out and utilize part of this favorable route through the Narrows, on the opposite side of the Pike from the B. & 0. In the course of time this right-of-way became exceedingly valuable, and when the Western Maryland R. R. desired to head off from Cumberland toward Connellsville and Pittsburgh, the strategic location of the George's Creek & Cumberland led to its purchase at a substantial figure, to become almost a necessary part of the new trunk line.

On the right, almost opposite the old stone building now used as a storehouse by the Standard Oil Co., is a prominent escarpment about 1,000 feet high, known as "Lover's Leap," from which an Indian, disappointed in love, is said to have thrown himself to the bottom of the gorge. It is not recorded that this helped him to any great extent; if he had pushed the other fellow over this cliff it might have been more practical, and incidentally, more Indian. The view of the Narrows (almost a mile long) and the surrounding country from this eminence is one of the finest in Western Maryland. The great, narrow defile, or "canyon," as it would be called in the Far West, now cuts the upper and lower sections of Wills Mountain in two, and the old Pike continues through the Gap with scarcely a change in grade, past large sandstone boulders on either side, apparently threatening those who pass beneath, but in reality solid from one century to another.


At the western edge of the Narrows, the old Pike passes first under the Pennsylvania R. R. in Maryland and then under the Western Maryland R. R.; immediately beyond the latter, it makes a decided left turn-away from Wills Creek and alongside Braddock Run (southwest fork of the Creek)-following same past Narrows Park and Lavale to Allegany Grove Camp Meeting Ground, the site of Braddock's first encampment, situated in a narrow valley between the lower section of Wills Mountain (on the left) and Piney Mountain (on the right). From this point the tourist may with advantage glance back toward Cumberland, and with the aid of the map, pages 38 and 39, secure a better idea of the past and present road situation over these few miles than is possible elsewhere.

At a date not entirely clear, Col. Thomas Cresap, the first permanent settler in Western Maryland, advance agent of and member of the Ohio Co. hired a friendly and honest Delaware Indian, Nemacolin, to make a way for foot travelers and pack-horses across the mountains and through the forests from Cumberland to the first point on the Monongahela, from whence navigation, impossible beyond the Potomac, could be resumed for Pittsburgh, Wheeling and the West. The dotted line across Wills Mountain on the map, pages 38 and 39, represents the route probably traveled by Nemacolin, and not long afterward by Christopher Gist, a pathfinder and explorer for the Ohio Co., in 1751-52. In his Journals, Gist mentions a gap (probably between Dan's and Piney Mountains) "between high mountains about 6 miles out" and "directly on the way to the Monongahela"; he also speaks of the roundabout trading path, which at that time he considered an inferior way. After Gist's return from his two trips of exploration, he and Col. Cresap employed Indians to open a primitive road over Nemacolin's trail; and this might be called the actual beginning of the present National Pike.

On November 14, 1753, George Washington, then a young Virginia lieutenant, reached the present site of Cumberland with a message from Governor Dinwiddie of that colony to the French who had come down from Quebec by the St. Lawrence River and Lake Erie to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio, where Pittsburgh now stands. Washington went immediately to Gist's house and fortunately secured that veteran woodsman as companion on the perilous journey, which was undoubtedly made over Wills Mountain instead of through the Narrows; a few weeks later they returned with an unsatisfactory reply from the commander at Fort Duquesne, and the French and Indian War followed. This added new importance to the route, for at least during 1755 it was more a military highway than one of trade and peaceful expansion toward the West.

Braddock's army, in which were both Washington and Gist, started west over Wills Mountain, but so great difficulties were encountered that the general reconnoitered the locality, and in Three days opened the easier way through the Narrows of Wills Creek, by which troops and supplies were afterwards transported. It is somewhat curious that after Braddock's experience, the government engineers should in 1811 have first laid out the National Turnpike over the mountain at a low point known as Sandy Gap, instead of through the Narrows, as was done in the re-location of the first six miles in 1833. These two routes once forked a few rods west of the Six-Mile House, but traces of the older one have now nearly disappeared.

The old tavern known as the Six-Mile House ("Gwynne's" in pioneer days) was burned down several years ago, and the building erected in its stead is an unpretentious private house; its site can be identified by, the mileage, and also by the good road branching left nearly opposite (toward the village of Cresaptown, Md.) This is known locally as the "Winchester Road," running through Cresaptown to a connection with the road south from Cumberland on the east side of Knobly Mountain. It is a very old route, known as early as Braddock's expedition, and is considerably used nowadays by motorists traveling from Frostburg and vicinity through Alaska (Frankfort) to the South Branch of the Potomac, without going through Cumberland.

South Branch is very popular with campers and fishermen during the warm weather, its many cottages and bungalows being occupied by people from Western Maryland and elsewhere. The South Branch of the Potomac is a very beautiful river; many fine black bass are caught there, and a great many innocent angle worms meet a watery grave. It must also have been a popular resort with the Indians, for arrowheads and spears are still found in the surrounding fields.

Beyond the branching off of the "Winchester Road" one looks up the gorge of the Braddock Run straight ahead into the mountain, and there is a renewed consciousness of speeding toward the West. On the left, a short distance beyond, is the old toll-house, location shown on the map on page 39, the only one of its type now standing on this route in Maryland. The old posts, once a part of this toll-gate, were removed from their original places and can now be seen in the low retaining wall at the back basement entrance to the Court House in Cumberland, about 20 feet from the building. They are four-sided iron posts about nine or ten feet high; both are in a good state of preservation, rather imposing, and interesting relics of former days.

Toll House, between 6 & 7 miles west of Cumberland
and Mr. Cady the last keeper to collect tolls


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