Tag Archives: american history

Exploring American History along the National Road

Contributed by Sheena Baker of Somerset County Chamber of Commerce

Earlier this year, we decided to explore the birth of a nation by traveling along the National Road through the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The National Road—modern day U.S. Route 40—was the first federally funded highway in the U.S. and set a precedent for a national highway system and future public works projects. Beginning in Cumberland, Maryland, the route passes through the Cumberland Narrows (which was once one of only a few navigable routes across the Appalachian Mountain Range) before continuing northwest into Pennsylvania, across the Allegheny Mountains, and into the Ohio River Valley. The route’s earliest forms were buffalo trails and Native American footpaths. In the mid-1700s, Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap and Delaware Chief Nemacolin led an expedition to widen the trail for freight and trade into the Ohio Territory. From 1754–1755, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and Major General Edward Braddock widened Nemacolin’s Trail farther during their failed campaigns to drive the French from Fort Duquesne in what is now Pittsburgh.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

In 1806, the Jefferson Administration approved plans to build a multi-state national highway from Cumberland westward to open settlement into the Ohio River Valley and the Midwest. Following the route set forth by Nemacolin, Washington, and Braddock, construction on the National Road began in 1811 and reached Wheeling, West Virginia (then Virginia) in 1818. From there, the highway continued across Ohio, Indiana, and nearly all of Illinois before funding for the project ran dry in the 1830s.

From the late 1810s to the 1850s, the more-than 600-mile National Road served as a gateway to the west as the main route from the east coast to the U.S. interior. Today, 90 miles of the highway—sometimes referred to as the National Pike or the Cumberland Road—pass through southwestern Pennsylvania, including more than 40 miles in Somerset and Fayette counties in the Laurel Highlands, which was the focus of our exploration on this particular weekend.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

Traveling from east to west as settlers would have in the 19th century, our first stop was at the Petersburg Toll House along Old Route 40 in Addison, Somerset County. When the National Road became too expensive to maintain in the 1830s, the federal government turned maintenance over to each individual state. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia turned the highway into a toll road and constructed tollhouses every 15 miles to collect money to pay for the upkeep of the heavily traveled route.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

Constructed in 1835, the Petersburg Toll House was known as Gate Number One, the first tollhouse in Pennsylvania across the Mason-Dixon Line. Now one of only three remaining tollhouses along U.S. 40, the structure serves as a museum that is open by appointment and is owned by the Great Crossings Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

After leaving Addison, we continued westward, crossing the Youghiogheny River Lake and passing centuries-old inns, houses, and other structures on our way to our next destination: Fort Necessity National Battlefield.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

Inside the site’s impressive Interpretive and Education Center, we learned how precursors to the French and Indian War and the worldwide Seven Years War were fought in the Laurel Highlands. In the spring of 1754, a young 22-year-old Washington led a failed attempt to push the French from Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River in what is now Pittsburgh. Following a controversial skirmish at nearby Jumonville Glen, Washington suffered defeat at his “Fort of Necessity” and was forced to retreat. He returned the following year under the command of the somewhat inexperienced Braddock in another attempt to force the French from Fort Duquesne. Again the British were defeated, suffering more than 900 casualties, including Braddock whose grave is marked by a large monument along the highway one mile west of Fort Necessity. (Incidentally, the British finally forced the French from Fort Duquesne in 1758 under the leadership of General Edward Forbes, whose march westward helped shape the Laurel Highlands’ other historic highway: U.S. Route 30, aka the Lincoln Highway.)

In addition to offering a reconstructed version of Fort Necessity, interactive displays, and five miles of walking trails, Fort Necessity National Battlefield also details the history of the National Road. During our visit, we traveled back through time and learned about the highway’s construction, its decline during the industrial railroading age, and its rebirth as an automobile “motor touring” highway in the 20th century. The Mount Washington Tavern, a former stagecoach stop overlooking the reconstructed fort, is part of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield and serves as a museum depicting life along the National Road during its heyday.

Having known very little about the French and Indian War or the National Road before my visit to Fort Necessity, I left quite impressed and eager for more information on how both affected the history of the U.S. I would recommend anyone with an interest in history to visit the National Park Service site.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

With a better understanding of what British troops and early settlers faced traversing southwestern Pennsylvania in the days before automobiles and other modern conveniences made travel so easy, we continued westward, keeping our eyes peeled for the white obelisk mile markers denoting the byway. Stone markers were initially placed at five-mile intervals on the south side of the National Road between Cumberland and Wheeling during the highway’s construction, but were later replaced by cast iron markers at one-mile intervals on the north side of the route in 1835.

At the top of Chestnut Ridge, we were treated to a stunning view of Uniontown and the surrounding countryside before descending into the valley below. Following Business Route 40, we navigated the streets of Uniontown, once a major center of business along the National Road.

Near the center of town, we stumbled upon the George C. Marshall Memorial Plaza, a tree-lined spot at the intersection of West Main and West Fayette Streets near Marshall’s boyhood home. Several statues and the Flags of Nations celebrate his life and narrative plaques tell Marshall’s story. The history and significance of the National Road, which passed through his hometown, was not lost on Marshall as a child and can be linked to his pursuit of a military career. Marshall rose to become a preeminent World War II General, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, among his other notable achievements and positions. In 1953, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in developing the post-World War II European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan). According to History.com, Marshall is one of the most respected soldiers in U.S. history, second only to Washington, another famous George with ties to the region.

From Uniontown we continued our journey westward, stopping briefly to see the Searight Toll House. The structure is similar in design to the Petersburg Toll House and was also constructed in 1835. Searight Toll House is home to the “Off to Market” sculpture, one of five full-size, bronze outdoor sculptures constructed at specific locations for a National Road Sculpture Tour designed to augment visitors’ educational experiences in learning about the historic highway.

Image: Sheena Baker

Image: Sheena Baker

A few miles from the Searight Toll House, we reached our final destination: historic Brownsville on the banks of the Monongahela River. Like Uniontown and other hamlets along the National Road, Brownsville was once a major industrial hub as well as a center for steamboat construction and river freight hauling, eclipsing nearby Pittsburgh in size until the mid-1800s.

From Brownsville, the National Road continues onward through Washington County, into West Virginia, and beyond. Though the National Road officially ends in Vandalia, Illinois, today U.S. 40 stretches 2,285.74 miles across 12 states from New Jersey to Utah.

State Parks Named for Historical Figures

Some park names are derived from geographic, geologic, or topographic features in their regions while others are based on names given to those features by Native Americans. Still other parks are named for state and national level politicians, landowners, celebrities, pioneers, and war heroes. Almost always, park names are steeped in local tradition, lore, or landmarks. While a park’s primary purpose is to provide protection to important resources and wildlife habitats, there is also a place for historical preservation or legacy in nature in the long list of benefits that our state and national parks give us. Here are a few parks named for historical figures to whet your appetite for adventure!

Colonel Allen Allensworth in military dress. [Image: thewright.org]

Colonel Allen Allensworth in military dress. [Image: thewright.org/]

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park–Earlimart, CA

This park is named for Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth, a man born into slavery who escaped and fought for the Union during the Civil War. Allensworth was the first African American to rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. In 1908, he founded the town of Allensworth, CA in the hopes of establishing a “Tuskegee of the West.” Allensworth succeeded, and California’s first African American founded, financed, and governed city blossomed for a few generations. Though the sudden passing of Colonel Allensworth in 1914 ultimately caused the decline of the town, its importance in California is unmistakable. It’s been a state park and in the National Register of Historic Places since the 1970s, and its 240 acres of preserved buildings and open space are an excellent place to take in some American history as well as the vast and fertile San Joaquin Valley.

Patriotic Pulaski, as imagined before charging with abandon into battle on a horse. [Image: polishamericancenter.org]

Patriotic Pulaski, as imagined before charging with abandon into battle on a horse. [Image: polishamericancenter.org/]

Pulaski State Park and Recreational Area–Chepachet, RI

Casimir Pulaski was a Polish nobleman and one of two “fathers of the American cavalry.” As a young man in the 1760s and ’70s, Pulaski fought for the Bar Confederation in Poland as the country resisted Russian control. While his participation in the Polish uprising got him exiled from his homeland, Pulaski remained sympathetic to the tones of rebellion and freedom, and was recruited by Benjamin Franklin to fight in the American Revolution. In addition to many instances of valor, Pulaski saved George Washington’s life and later gave his own for the American cause in the Battle of Savannah. In all, this rambunctious champion of liberty has a number of things named after him in the United States, but perhaps best of all is the 100-acre Pulaski State Park and Recreation Area in Rhode Island. It provides a pleasant and secluded place for relaxing, contemplative activities like hiking or fishing, a far cry from the battlefields of its past.

The Lindbergh House, built by C. A. Lindbergh circa 1906. [Image: minnesotaseasons.com]

The Lindbergh House, built by C. A. Lindbergh circa 1906. [Image: minnesotaseasons.com/]

Charles A. Lindbergh State Park–Little Falls, MN

Charles A. Lindbergh State Park is named for the famous aviator’s father who was a Minnesota Congressman during the early part of the 1900s. The park features a museum made up of the farm and boyhood home of the younger Lindbergh as well as an additional 560 acres of Minnesotan forest and prairie to admire as one hikes, cross-country skis, camps, or picnics. The park also bears access to the shoreline of the Mississippi River where, except for dams raising the water level, not much is altered from the days when young Lindbergh may have seen it shortly after observing an airplane for the first time or the statesman experienced it as he took in the morning paper.

If you’re feeling motivated to go out and see for yourself the many historical sites and features preserved at a park near you, download any of our Pocket Ranger® apps! Many of the apps feature park histories that detail the park or geographic region where the park is situated, putting not only outdoor adventure but thousands of years of human history right at your fingertips. Start planning your trip today!

American History Through State Parks

Ever want to step into American history by visiting state parks? Well then read on.

While the United States’ official foundation is July 4, 1776, its history began well before the American flag flew high in the skies. In the years that followed its official independence date, the United States went on to its more formative years, which contributed to shaping the country’s massive culture and history. History was made when the first explorers stepped foot into what is now commonly referred as “The Land of the Free,” and it continues to be made today.

Check out these important historical and cultural sites that contributed to American history!

Trail of Tears State Park

The Trail of Tears was the forced removal of various Native American tribes in the southeastern U.S. to “Indian Territory,” a designated area west of the Mississippi River. While there was a preexisting treaty between the federal government and the Native Americans that served to honor the interests of both sides, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by President Andrew Jackson made this obsolete. Largely due to a desire to acquire more land in the Midwest, which was occupied mostly by the Five Nations, the Trail of Tears became one of the darkest parts of U.S. history.

The forced relocation caused thousands of Native American deaths due to terrible conditions they faced. These relocations happened during the coldest and hottest days of the month in closed quarters, which led to exposure to communicable diseases; depleted rations led to starvation; and horrible treatment from soldiers, which included extortion and violence, were the leading causes of death. The death march significantly reduced the Native American population in the United States.

Trail of tears

Trail of Tears [Image: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/]

You can delve into this part of American history by visiting the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri. The visitor center tells a more comprehensive breakdown of this time, and hiking is available for those that want to walk a day in the shoes of the Native Americans. Picnic sites, horse trails, camping, and fishing activities are also available alongside the majestic views of the park.

More information can be found by visiting the Missouri State Park website.

Fort Phoenix 

Located in Fairhaven Massachusetts, Fort Phoenix was involved three times in United States history: The American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. It was brought down during the American Revolutionary War when British troops sent 4,000 troops to New Bedford and raided the harbor on September 5–6, 1778.

Following the attack, the fort was rebuilt and renamed “Fort Phoenix” after the mythical phoenix bird that rises from its ashes after death. Later, the fort helped the American troops repel a British attack in June 1814.

Fort Phoenix

Fort Phoenix [Image: http://www.fortwiki.com/]

It officially went out of service in 1876 and was registered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The fort is a state reservation that features picnicking, hiking, swimming, and scenic viewing areas.

Visit Massachusetts’ Energy and Environmental Affairs website for more information.

Robert Frost’s Farmhouse 

On the other side of history, visit the connected farm and home of one of America’s most distinguished literary poets. Robert Frost was a highly-regarded American writer who was known for his realistic depictions of rural life, in addition to his command of colloquial speech. Famous for his works, Fire And Ice and The Road Not Taken, he was the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, was a Congressional Gold Medal awardee for his poetic works in 1960, and was heralded as the Poet Laureate of Vermont in 1961.

Robert Frost Farmhouse

Robert Frost’s Farmhouse in fall. [Image: http://www.english.illinois.edu/]

The Robert Frost Farmhouse is located in Derry, New Hampshire and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968. It is currently managed by the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation department.

For more information, visit their website.

These three sites are only part of a plethora of historic sites located within our various state parks in the country. The United States’ history is colorful, embedded with stories of the past and how it formed our present country, and these sites are certainly worth a visit. Pack your bags, and visit a historic state park today!