Economics and Business

Navigation Acts

What was National Road?

National Road was the first federal road. Today, the path of the great westward route is followed closely by U.S. Highway 40. Congress authorized construction of the road in 1806 to answer the cry of settlers who demanded a better route across the Appalachians into the Ohio River valley. Originally called Cumberland Road, work began in 1811 in Cumberland, Maryland. Progress was slow: The road did not reach present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, a distance of 130 miles, until six years later. But in 1830 President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) gave the project a boost when he signed an act of Congress appropriating $130,000 to survey and extend the Cumberland Road westward. Jackson called it a “national road” (it was also called the Great National Pike). By the time the route was completed in 1852, it extended westward from Wheeling to cross Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where it ended at Vandalia, east of St. Louis. The project cost the government more than $7 million to complete but accomplished what had been hoped: National Road spurred development in the Old Northwest (the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) and the Far West (the territories west of the Mississippi River). The overland route was traversed in covered wagons and Conestogas by pioneers and tradesmen; large quantities of goods, including livestock, grain, and finished products were transported both east and west. Towns along the route boomed. By the end of the century, the road diminished in importance as settlers, new immigrants, and goods were transported along the railroads that had begun to crisscross the nation in 1865. Nevertheless, the National Road heralded the future of federal transportation projects that would knit the nation together.


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