Farm Market · Food · Indiana Bicentennial · Urban Farm

The Historic National Road, U.S. 40 and the Historic Indianapolis City Market

Follow the food highway from Richmond, through Indianapolis to Terre Haute  and celebrate at the Bicentennial Bazaar at the Indianapolis City Market

Excerpts authored by

By 1824 there were four delivery wagons that ran from Indianapolis and Corydon.  These wagons carried products and supplies between the two cities.  There was also a passenger stagecoach that carried people to the new state capital.   In 1829 the National Road reached Indiana.  

No road in American history has played a greater role in opening up the country than what’s known today as The Historic National Road. The National Road or Cumberland Road was one of the first major improved highways in the United States, built by the federal government. Construction began in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River.  The National Road was later named U.S. Highway 40 when it was made a U.S. highway in 1926-27.

City Market Postcard Backside CMYK

Due to the perceived superiority of water travel, the proposed road was seen primarily as a portage between waterways.  A major technological advantage of the National Road was that it was covered with a thick layer of gravel.  The National Road was able to be used all year, regardless of the weather. 

February 2, 1802 letter, known as the “Origin of the National Road,” Gallatin proposed that states exempt federal land sales from taxation and earmark a percentage of the proceeds for roadbuilding “first from the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to the Ohio, and afterwards continued through the new states”

It reported to the senate that a road was feasible and would “…. make the crooked ways straight, and the rough ways smooth, …. will, in effect, remove the intervening mountains; and, by facilitating the intercourse of our western brethren with those on the Atlantic, substantially unite them in interest…. .” The road, they said, would be the “cement of the union.”

There were sound principles underlaying the building of the National Road.

Specification for the road were conceived. They called for slopes no steeper than 5% of the horizon, a 66 foot, cleared right of way, and a roadway twenty feet wide and covered with “stone, earth, or gravel, or a combination of some or all of them.” How closely these specifications were met depended upon the locality and officials involved.

The method called for the building of the road with layers of stone. The lowest layer was 12-18 inches deep and consisted of base stones approximately 7 inches (they had to pass through a ring of that size) in diameter.

The road was then graded up with smaller stones (which had to pass through a 3 inch ring) and gravel. The smaller surface stone was mixed with soil and rounded off to allow for drainage. Drainage ditches were dug along side.

A design devised by the brainchild of Scottish engineer John Macadam therefore calling the procedure Macadamization. 

Macadamization was the near ideal surface for the time, but due to the expense and rather sophisticated techniques involved it was not adopted everywhere. The traveler might encounter several surfaces during a journey. Along any one stretch the sojourner might travel over, macadam, corduroy or plank, or rutted, washed out roads.

J. Gould, who traveled the entire length of the road in 1839, noted the National Road was for the most part “Macadamized and finished in the most desirable manner as far as Columbus in Ohio” In Indiana, he continued, “…. about four miles at Richmond…., a short piece at Centerville, about six miles at Indianapolis, and three miles at Terre haute, together with a few bridges, are completed in the same substantial manner.” However in some areas of the Hoosier state the “road bed had been formed with earth…. and in wet weather holes wash out and logs must be thrown in, often by travelers themselves.”

The National Road went through Richmond, Indiana through Indianapolis and on to Terre Haute.  Indiana was now connected to states in the East and West. 

People from all walks, from all trades, of all religions, from every social stratum stepped or rode along its route. Eager travelers often literally waited in line for sections to open. Hordes of people, animals, and wagons toed the line waiting for the word that travel was allowed and immediately upon getting the signal they filled the road.

One of the most important “official” uses of the road was mail delivery and its opening greatly speeded the process. By 1837 the mail could flash from Washington, D.C. to Indianapolis in 65 hours and on to St. Louis in an additional 29 hours. The arrival of the mail coach usually caused quite a stir. The driver would sound forth with a blast from his bugle as he approached the inn or stopping place to prepare the postmaster for the quick exchange of mail. For a two-year period in the mid-1830s an early version of the pony express rode swiftly along the road.

Numerous stage lines sprang up to serve the public. Every area had lines that constantly used the National Road to ferry travelers. In Indiana the Bears line was one of the most famous. One of the great advantages of the road, of course, was that it considerably shortened travel times. In 1832, even before the road was completed, it advertised its trips from Dayton to Indianapolis as taking only two and a half, with nightly stops at inns or taverns. Later, “express” stage services claimed the ability to cross 150 miles of the road in a day.

Another heavy presence on the road were the ubiquitous teamsters who, like modern-day truckers, hauled their freight day and night. They often drove conestoga wagons, perhaps the vehicles most associated with the National Road. The six-horse team so closely identified with these haulers was actually a National Road innovation that allowed the teamsters to more efficiently exploit the highly profitable business of transporting goods. The wagons often competed for space with herds of cattle and pigs being driven to market.

Perhaps the group most associated with the road were the settlers using it as an avenue to a new life. Families, often complete with household good, numerous children, and a few farm animals clogged the road. The highway became the yellow brick road to a new eden.

The above description of the road as clogged is an apt one. Observers marveled at the traffic. One Hoosier took note of the phenomena as it appeared in the 1840s: “From morning til night, there was a constant rumble of wheels…. when the rush was greatest,there was never a minute that wagons were not in site [sic], and as a rule, one company of wagons was closely followed by another.” During many periods traffic was so constant a traveler noted that the wagons were so closely strung together they resembled a train upon its tracks.

It was a sight which inspired wanderlust. The same Hoosier wrote that “with the tinkling of the bells, the rumbling of the wheels, the noise of the animals and the chatter of the people…. the little boy who had gone to the road from his lonesome home in the woods was captivated and carried away into the great active world.”


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