Tag Archives: Road trip

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.

How to Pack Your Car

We all know that driving on a road trip to your destination can be filled with excitement, but thinking about how to pack your car with all those items may give you a migraine. Whether you drive a mini-van, SUV, or even a hot new BMW, you can still pack all your belongings while thinking about your family’s safety. Follow these few steps on how to pack your car and you will be ready to leave for your trip tomorrow!

Heavy Items

The cargo of a red vehicle with three suitcases packed neatly

This is a good example of how to pack your car. [Image: www.bmwblog.com]

Pack your car with the heaviest items towards the center of the vehicle, which reduces the harmful effect on handling that is caused by cargo weight. If there is too much weight at the back, it could compress the rear springs and reduce weight over the front wheels. This can impact steering and braking, which potentially can cause a rollover of your vehicle.

Loose Items

Smaller items packed into one container in cargo

When you pack your vehicle, put loose items in containers. [Image: www.pinterest.com]

In order to prevent smaller objects from flying around in your car in case of a sudden stop, pack smaller items into boxes or a backpack, and strap down larger ones. Make sure items from the trunk will not hit passengers in an emergency situation.

Rear Visibility

A bad example of how to pack your car

This is NOT a good example of how to pack your car! [Image: www.carrentals.co.uk]

If you are in an SUV or any other truck, it is important not to stack your belongings too high so that you can’t see out of your rear view window. If it’s blocked, it makes driving difficult and creates concerns and risks while driving to your destination and reversing out of a parking spot.

Emergency Essentials

Before leaving home, don’t forget to download your state’s Pocket Ranger® app and pack your roadside emergency kit. Also, be aware that you may need to have access to your spare tire, which may be located in cargo.

Man checking tire pressure with gauge

Image: usedcars.offleaseonly.com

Your vehicle’s tire maintenance and pressure is important. Inspect your vehicle before leaving for your trip. Make sure the tires are properly inflated for carrying people and luggage. The recommended inflation pressure can be found on the driver’s side door, inside the fuel filler door or inside of your vehicle’s manual. You can also pick up a tire pressure gauge to take with you in case of an emergency.

Helpful Tips:

Car Organizer that is attached to front sear

Image: www.twoofakindworkingonafullhouse.com

  • Always pack your vehicle with your children’s items last because their needs are more important, so their items should be easily accessible and not buried under a pile.
  • Give children their own Ziploc bag to pack fun items, which will keep them busy during the drive.
  • Pack a cooler for drinks and snacks, especially if you are going for a long drive or camping.

We hope you’ve learned how to pack your car. We’ve got one more tip before you hit the road. Download your state’s Pocket Ranger® app to find the perfect destination to show off your new vehicle-packing skills to other outdoor enthusiasts!

Red car with trunk open and luggages outside near car

Image: www.bimmerfest.com

Suggested Gear:

  • BikerBar w/Locks
  • SkyBox Pro 12 Cargo Box
  • Travel Bags
  • CRKT Multi Tool

Check out these items from our Pocket Ranger® Gear Store. They will make your traveling experience to the state parks so much easier!

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On the Road Again: Best American Road Trip Movies

Ah, the road trip.  The great American journey across the country, soaking in the beauty and uniqueness of our great land from the cramped quarters of a car or an RV, singing along to good tunes, pinching your brother in the backseat, and making memories with friends and family.  This summer ritual is as American as apple pie.  Whether you’re heading to the beach, to a theme park, or to a great State Park, we’ve compiled a list of road trip movies to watch either before you hit the road or while you’re on those long stretches of interstate, all chosen to muster up your spirit of adventure.

The Classics

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

The first (and best?) of the National Lampoon Vacation films, this comedy features the hapless Griswold family.  Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has grand ideas about bonding with his family on the Great American Road Trip to Walley World (the fictionalized Disneyland), but – as with any family adventure – nothing goes according to plan, resulting in hilarity (and, eventually, a number of “Vacation” sequels, proving that the journey might just be worth it, no matter what happens).

Easy Rider (1969)

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper star in this classic film that helped define an era.  As two rough bikers ride through the American South and Southwest, they uncover the gritty American landscape – physical and social – of the late 1960s.  It’s a road trip for the sake of the trip and the freedom it gives to define a counterculture in a tumultuous era.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Beloved ’80s director John Hughes brought us this comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy, a story about Murphy’s Law on the road. Neal Page (Martin) is an uptight ad-man just trying to get to Chicago for Thanksgiving, but every obstacle imaginable – including meeting the bumbling Del Griffith (Candy) – conspires to make the quick flight a 3-day road trip full of memorable comedy and heart.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

When an honest fishing trip between two best friends goes awry, they travel from Oklahoma to Mexico to escape the law.  It’s not your typical family-friendly fare, but the film does feature two saucy ladies-turned-fugitive (both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were nominated for an Academy Award for their roles), the first big screen appearance of Brad Pitt, an unforgettable ending, and enough memories in a 1966 Thunderbird to make you want to buy a convertible and hit the road.

For the Family

The Muppet Movie (1979)

“A frog and a bear seeing America.”  What more do you need for a road trip?  When everybody’s favorite little green friend decides to head for the big lights of Hollywood, he meets all manner of creature and adventure along the way.  Spun off of The Muppet Show, the series that brought good humor and famous faces into our childhood living rooms, this film has everything from psychadelic cars to catchy tunes: “Movin’ right along.  Footloose and fancy-free.  Getting there is half the fun; come share it with me.”

The Princess Bride (1987)

Adventure, fantasy, drama, “Twoo love,”  and enough quotable one-liners to last you a lifetime. Though not a typical road trip with a car and the highway, it’s a multi-layered journey.  A caring grandfather (Peter Falk) leads his sick grandson (Fred Savage) through a magical book journey, the star-crossed lovers Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) must travel through fantasy – not to mention the Cliffs of Insanity and the Fire Swamp – to find one another, and a host of unforgettable characters find the path to movie history in this beloved film.  Missing out on the adventure would be “inconceivable.”


We’re treating all of the delightful Disney-Pixar feature films as a composite of greatness here because all of them are thoroughly entertaining films (for kids and adults alike), almost all are about some kind of trip, and any of them would be perfect to pass the time in between destinations.

Our Favorites:

Toy Story (1995, 1999, 2010) -The journey from childhood to adulthood, from kid’s room to neighbor’s house to daycare to landfill and back again.

Finding Nemo (2003) – A road trip Down Under – literally, under the sea and in Australia – that helps a son grow up and a father let him.

Cars (2006) – An homage to the wonder years of the road trip, to the days of Route 66 and small-town America, we couldn’t help but include this one on our list.

Up (2009) – After the most emotionally compelling opening sequence ever, this film leads viewers from heartache to Paradise Falls in Venezuela.



The New Classics

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

This comedy-drama breathes new life into the family-bonding-through-a-road-trip experience.  A highly dysfunctional family characterized by anger, depression, and disappointment realizes how much they need each other when they band together to protect and support the charmingly idealistic Olive (Abigail Breslin) in her attempt to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

Away We Go (2009)

This small but touching film approaches the family road trip from a different angle – from the beginning.  Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona de Tessant (Maya Rudolph) are a couple expecting their first child, and they go on the road searching for a place to settle down, a place to call home.  Seeing their friends and family in different stages of life and trial – in places as diverse as Arizona, Wisconsin, Montreal, and Florida – they come to define themselves, their relationship, and their future as they travel. (Bonus: It’s a green film, whose every element of production was environmentally conscious.)

On the Road (2012)

“The road is life” (On the Road, Part 3, Chapter 5). This choice is a sneak peek, but it’s an upcoming film based on Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1951 road trip novel of the same name. In it, Sal Paradise (representing Kerouac) and the enigmatic Dean Moriarty (representing Neal Cassady) criss-cross the American landscape, helping to define the Beat Generation.  Sal’s journey is literal and metaphorical as he journeys from East to West Coast, loving the free-spirited nature of the road, jazz music, and the democratic idealism embodied in American culture: “Why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” (On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 6).