National Road, The

Walsh, Margaret

Karl Raitz (ed.), The National Road, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD (1996), I, 489 pp., 29.00, II, 392 pp., L29.00.

These two volumes of essays on the National Road describe the origins, evolution and meaning of the first federally funded and planned national highway in the United States. Written by a team of authors who are primarily geographers, published in co-operation with the Center for American Places, Harrisburg, Virginia, and sponsored in part by the Pioneer America Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the volumes are a testimony to what can be achieved within the broad framework of landscape interpretation. Volume I surveys the history and geography of the road from its conception in the early nineteenth century to its evolution as modern routes US 40 and 1-68/70. Volume II is a companion guide, written for travellers who wish to explore the present and past panoramas of the road. Both books are amply illustrated with diagrams, photographs and maps. Volume I may well find more use in university libraries, volume II in public libraries.

For transport historians roads are a means of movement between discrete points, but for social archaeologists they are also communication links. As such they are more than feats of engineering and technology and pathways of vehicular operation; they are `thoroughfares for the exchange of ideas and artifacts’ and thereby embrace cultural as well as physical and economic perspectives. With a strong emphasis on cultural interpretation, these volumes demonstrate that, for many academics as well as for the general public, the history of transport has moved beyond the construction and operation of the mode itself to the significance of the system for society at large. In some senses this is not a new phenomenon. Econometricians talked about backward and forward linkages in the 1960s and 1970s. Such linkages, however, were measured and discussed in linear format and were not weighted with human baggage. Now in a postmodern milieu academics recognise diverse cultural contributions and are willing to engage in circular and layered discourse. There are no clear-cut actions and repercussions; rather a series of multi-dimensional consequences.

Volume I of The National Road is probably of more interest to transport historians. It examines the western and national roots of the road at the start of the nineteenth century, explains the engineering problems involved in its construction, offers insights into the political wranglings over finance at both the federal and state levels, suggests patterns of use in its heyday in the years before the Civil War and looks at its nadir in the late nineteenth century, when it was overtaken by competing transport technologies and fell into disrepair and disuse. But the road did not become defunct. Even as the railroad triumphed in carrying both freight and passengers, roads were about to make a comeback. The advent of the automobile stimulated a `good roads’ movement which eventually resulted in major highway improvements. In 1926 the National Road became route US 40 and as part of a national road system was eligible for federal funding. In this guise it was a major thoroughfare to and through the old north-west for both people and goods in the mid-twentieth century. Automobility continued to move apace as Americans not only took to their cars to gain individual mobility but increasingly transported commodities by truck. US 40 was not up to standard for the rapid post-war expansion of road traffic. Multi-lane highways were needed, and Interstates 68 and 70 became its successors. It has not, however, fallen into disrepair, for only 20 per cent of America’s traffic moves by interstate highway. Volume 11, though designed as a guide and gazetteer with historical insights for the leisured traveller, demonstrates that the road serves local communities and the region as well as providing access to the higher-speed highways.

The two volumes are a fund of information for the transport historian who wishes to explore the life cycle of the National Road and the place of roads in the US economy and society. The authors display in-depth knowledge of the historical geography of the locale through which the road passes and the capacity to make connections between the region and the nation and between the past and the present. There are some wonderful photographs; those in Volume II were specially commissioned to reflect the cultural attributes of the roadside. There is ample referencing to primary documentation which reveals familiarity with government sources and to a range of secondary materials. It is a pity that there is considerable repetition of information between the chapters in Volume I, and here a firmer editorial hand might have been beneficial. Possibly the publishers considered that specific essays would be read as single items rather than that the volume would be read as a whole. Or perhaps the parallel layering of cultural data suggests that readers can better appreciate the diverse historical interpretations of society. Or it may be that, as geography is not taught regularly in US schools, Americans need careful instructions in appreciating landscape in order to become heritage tourists.

Margaret Walsh, University of Nottingham

Copyright Manchester University Press Mar 1999

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