Saturday, May 10, 2003

Historic highway helped America grow westward

By Vicki Smith
The Associated Press

SCENERY HILL, Pa. - George Kabay shakes his head as bikers roar past the antique shops and 200-year-old inn, blotting out quiet conversation and, briefly, the power of concentration.

"Warm weather brings two things," he said. "Mosquitoes and motorcycles."

People who live along National Road are used to that. As seasons change for the better, many drivers bypass the convenience of the interstates for a more leisurely drive through history along what is formally known as U.S. 40.

This weekend, the Federal Highway Administration and the six-state National Road Alliance are launching a campaign to get even more people traveling the 800-mile stretch from Baltimore to Vandalia, Ill.

Last year, the highway was named an All-American Road, the highest designation in the federal scenic byway program. This summer, the six states it passes through will hand out new road maps to travelers looking for a weekend - or weeklong - drive.

But Kabay's wife, Carol, is unimpressed with the designation.

"What's it going to do? Other than put up more signs," she said. "What the government ought to do is put more state police out here and ticket the coal trucks. There's a lot of traffic, and it goes too fast."

People who travel the road Thursday through May 18 may have no choice but to slow down. They will have to make way for a caravan of Conestoga wagons, filled with history buffs making the trip along the two-lane road.

National Road was America's first federally funded interstate highway, authorized by Thomas Jefferson in 1806 and begun in Cumberland, Md., in 1811. That connected it to an existing road from Baltimore, now considered the official starting point.

The road reached Wheeling, W.Va., by 1818, but the stretch to western Illinois wasn't finished until 1840.

"It's a shame because we have a lot of history, but there's nothing truly historic about what is there," said Warren McKeen, president of National Road Alliance of West Virginia. "It's the simple urbanization of the area. So much was lost."

"The farther west you go," McKeen concedes, "it's less and less remarkable."

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