America’s interstate highway system, the largest and most sophisticated in the world, is critical to our economy and our way of life. Now, we know that President Eisenhower jump-started construction of the modern interstates we drive today, but the actual concept of a federally funded highway supporting commerce between states dates back to the administration of Thomas Jefferson.
And this Sunday, May 8, marks the bicentennial of the first construction on the National Road --America’s original interstate highway. Authorized by Congress in 1806, and signed into law by President Jefferson, the National Road--now U.S. Highway 40--was our first federally funded road.
The idea had been introduced earlier in the Jefferson Administration, but Congress had to think innovatively to fund the road. Instead of using tax revenue, the 1806 law applied 2 percent of the revenue from the sale of Ohio's public land to building the road.
Then, to ease concern that the government lacked the authority to build a road on land owned by the states, Jefferson had to secure consent from the states through which the road would pass. Because of delays in securing that consent and the difficulties of surveying in the early 1800s, construction did not begin until May 8, 1811.
Called "the road that built the nation," the National Road helped settlers reach public lands for sale in the newly created state of Ohio. And by crossing the Appalachians, it allowed for the trade that would bind the growing western territories to the existing states.
As statehood spread to Indiana and Illinois, the road was later extended west and reached Vandalia, then the capital of Illinois. Like today's interstate highways, the road helped unify the nation physically, strengthened local and regional economies, and facilitated America's tremendous growth.
Today, DOT’s Federal Highway Administration and the six state National Road Associations along the route are working together to preserve the legacy of this important artery.
To mark the 200th anniversary of the National Road, the city of Cumberland is celebrating all weekend long. A full list of activities marking this celebration, including Saturday’s National Road Bicentennial Grand Feature Parade and groundbreaking ceremony at Riverside Park featuring a 12-foot replica of an original national Road marker, can be found at www.nationalroad.com.