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Illinois Small Towns
and the National Road

Elizabeth Oseland
St. Bede Academy, Peru

The National Road became "Main Street" for many small Illinois towns along its path during the 1800s. It paved the way westward. Small-town shops thrived because of travelers and business people on the National Road. They stopped, stayed the night, and went on the road again. A new surge of people arrived each day, and this was the cycle that followed for some time. By the 1840s and 1850s, the railroads were the National Road's main competitors. This competition eventually took its toll on the bustling National Road and many business travelers stopped using it because of the road's high shipping costs. Instead of using the road, farmers and businessmen used railroads and water passageways for transportation and shipping.

In the early twentieth century, the National Road made a comeback because of the growing popularity of automobiles. The use of the National Road brought business back again to small towns, but this did not last, and the use of the National Road declined once again. Although it was still being used, the National Road was not as prominent as it might have been because of a wider interstate highway system that was built to provide a more direct route.

Also known at various times as the Cumberland Road, U.S. Route 40, and the National Old Trails Road, the National Road was planned for construction by Congress in 1802. Trade began to grow between the East and those who lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. A more secure route of transportation was needed because the footpaths and military roads already existing were not as reliable as an interstate road. The construction of the National Road began around the year 1806. The National Road was one of the first projects in the 1800s to have the help and support of the federal government. It was also the only interstate road that was both planned and constructed by the federal government.

Many small towns were built along the National Road. In Illinois, the last original segment of the National Road runs from Terre Haute, Indiana, to Vandalia, Illinois. The National Road continued on to East St. Louis, Illinois, and the auto highway trail to the west coast, but the older wagon road stops at Vandalia. Located along that segment, Livingston, Marshall, Casey, Greenup, Effmgham, Teutopolis, and Vandalia are just a few examples of towns that were built on the National Road. The oldest settlement along this stretch of the National Road was the town of Vandalia, which was platted in 1819, and the newest settlement was Casey, which was founded in 1854.

While the National Road was popular, these cities flourished. Plans to turn them into great business towns and economically sound communities were created. These plans, however, never came to be. For a number of reasons, the National Road was only traveled during the summer. Before the National Road was paved, it was only passable when


The National Road did not bring the predicted prosperity to many Illinois towns,
but it did benefit St. Louis, which became known as the Gataway to the West.

weather conditions were perfect. When it rained, cars and buggies had no chance of getting through and got stuck in a muddy track that was once the dirt road. During the winter, the National Road proved to be impassable and people who would have otherwise taken the National Road used the railroads. Travelers would find themselves snowed in or the roads too icy to traverse. Once the National Road was paved, cars were able to travel on it even in the winter. The going was a lot smoother and people often used the National Road for vacations. For a brief time, middle class families even camped alongside the road just for fun or if they could not afford lodging.

Business in downtown areas of small towns went to great measures to attract customers. One of these businesses was the Archer House. The Archer House is one of the oldest hotels in Illinois and is found in the small town of Marshall. Named after the founder of the city, William B. Archer, the Archer House was built in 1840. It was thought to be one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite stops when he was a young attorney traveling on the National Road. President Cleveland and soon-to-be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Judge Scholfield, had also visited the Archer House.

In general, the small towns that were platted alongside the road did not grow as much as their founders had hoped. Their building plans for a great metropolis fell short. Around the 1960s, bypasses were built around many of these small towns so people would not have to drive through town. Business from tourists was short-circuited and income came solely from the few people who lived in town. Activity began to slow down and the individual cities dropped into a small-town lifestyle.

The National Road influenced the culture of many small towns and encouraged the building of towns along it. It helped revolutionize the interstate highway system and established a more sophisticated way of constructing major roads and highways. Even though small towns along the National Road were not transformed into bustling urban cities, they are home to many people. The National Road will always have an important place and significant role in the history of Illinois transportation. [From Frank Brusca, "Construction Phases," (Dec. 13, 2001); Frank Brusca, "History of the National Road and U.S. Route 40," htm (Dec. 13, 2001); Denver Service Center, National Park Service, Special Resource Study; Karl, Raitz ed., A Guide to The National Road; Karl, Raitz, eds.. The National Road; Dr. George T. Mitchell, "Stone Arch Bridge on U.S. Route 40 at Marshall, Illinois," (Dec. 13,2001).]


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