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Traveling the National Road to West Virginia Statehood

June 20, 2013
By DANIEL DORSCH - Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

By 1863, the National Road had long-since lost its distinction as the primary means for the movement of goods between the Potomac and Ohio rivers, but the bond between the men who fought for West Virginia's statehood was forged along the highway, according to state historians.

National Road "really helped connect western Virginia not to Richmond but to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the northern markets," West Virginia State University professor Billy Joe Peyton said.

Peyton said virtually all the delegates who voted to secede from Virginia were from the northern part of the state. In his book "The Old National Road," Archer Hulbert said the idea of a road connecting the Potomac and Ohio rivers started with George Washington. While building the new United States, Hulbert said the connector was something Washington found exceptionally important.

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Hulbert said the concept of the National Road was born in 1806 with commissioners hired by President Thomas Jefferson. Work began in Cumberland, Md., in 1811. By 1839 the National Road stretched 620 miles from Baltimore to Vandalia, Ill.

According to Hulbert, the National Road helped drive the westward movement of American settlers and frontiersmen.

"Throughout its generation, the course of the National Road was on the general alignment of the expansive movement," Hulbert wrote.

Championed by Henry Clay, three presidents - Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe - signed legislation that brought the National Road from Cumberland to what was then Wheeling, Va. The road originally was planned to run through Charles Town (Wellsburg), but the efforts of Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger changed that.

The greatest blow to the road came when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad expanded into the Wheeling area, offering the National Road competition for the movement of goods and people, according to Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. Executive Director Jeremy Morris. Still, Morris said, the road had its uses.

"The National Road was still a good secondary road to get things into the state," Morris said.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Peyton said one increasingly controversial commodity was being moved along the National Road. "There are documented accounts of slave catchers moving captured slaves along the road," Peyton said.

When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legally authorized the catching of runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, Peyton said it was common for farmers and merchants along the road to see slave catchers escorting slaves through Virginia, a slave state, then Pennsylvania, a free state, and back toward the South through Maryland, another slave state.

Once West Virginia joined the Union, all states connected to the National Road were loyal to the United States during the Civil War. Neither Morris or Peyton knew of any Civil War battles or skirmishes along the National Road though both agreed it could have been an auxiliary means of transport.

On June 13, 2002, the National Road was one of 36 highways across the country added to the federal government's list of scenic, historic and recreational byways known as America's Byways.

 
 

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