History of the Road
The Maryland National Road is part of a six-state All-American Road, National Scenic Byway that spans more than 700 miles from Baltimore through Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to East St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1806, Congress authorized the establishment of a road running from Cumberland, Maryland to the Ohio River. This National Road (alternately referred to as the National Turnpike, Cumberland Road, or Cumberland Turnpike) facilitated America’s westward expansion and would eventually extend to Vandalia, Illinois.
The Cumberland Road was, at that time, aligned near an American Indian Trail called Nemacolin’s Path, named for the Delaware Indian who helped open it for the Ohio Company in 1751. British General Edward Braddock’s officers widened or blazed fragments of Nemacolin’s Path and renamed the road Braddock’s Road. Braddock’s Road was The National Road’s recommended route, but the slopes were too steep for its maximum grades.
The new road from Cumberland to Wheeling inspired Maryland’s General Assembly to create a turnpike, run by private interests, connecting Baltimore and Cumberland. The Baltimore to Cumberland section was designated the Baltimore National Pike. It combined several existing turnpikes such as the Baltimore and Fredericktowne Pike, also known as Frederick Road, the Hagerstown and Boonsboro Turnpike, and the Cumberland Turnpike. Local banks financed the pike, which became known as the Bank Road.
Many of the towns traditionally associated with the National Road’s early period were actually founded in the first two decades of the 19th Century. Town development along the National Road was dominated by the Main Street model, a linear plan including a principal street and one or two parallel “back streets.” Main Street, the National Road, was the town’s commercial and residential center. Maryland has five official Main Streets on the road including Mt. Airy, Frederick, Middletown, Cumberland and Frostburg. The MNRA also recognizes Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Ellicott City as vibrant communities on the Maryland National Road.
As trucks and automobiles evolved, so did roads and towns. Modern transportation and travel needs demanded wider, straighter and faster routes. Although the two-lane National Road still threads together Maryland’s Main Streets, sections are now disguised as U.S. Route 40, Scenic Route 40, Alternate Route 40 or 40A and Interstate 68.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Route 40 bypass skirted town centers and widened sections of the original road linking the towns. Later, an interim highway, U.S. 48, was constructed from Hancock, Maryland through West Virginia, which today has become Interstate 68. U.S. 48 was designated The National Freeway, reflecting its origin as part of the old National Road and its use as an express route through Western Maryland.
To discover your own adventure, follow the Maryland Scenic Byways Historic National Road signs posted on local routes. Stop at landmarks or wayside exhibits to uncover stories about the people who built, traveled, lived and worked along the National Road.
- National History
- Corridor Partnership Plan
- Historic Preservation
- National Scenic Byways Program
- Additional Resources
“To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”– Chinese Proverb