Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The National Road / Route 40 - from the French and Indian War to Frank Lloyd Wright - Over 250 Years of Must See History

The Old National Road - From Cumberland Maryland to Brownsville Pennsylvania.

For any enthusiast of US Colonial History, Westward Exanpansion, once thriving industrial towns and blue highways, route 40 (the Old National Road / National Pike), is a must do adventure. While the ground I'm discussing here is accessible from DC for a day trip, you'd have to do what I did in the day chronicheled here at a pretty fast pace.  I recommend a few lodging locations in this entry, as you'll find plenty to do spending at least one night in Western Maryland/South West Pennsylvania. I've picked this portion for it's mountain beauty, historical signifigance and it's many remenants from it's bygone days as the nations first transportation artery.

As I have my roots in Ohio - my parents live in Toledo, friends in Columbus, Cincinatti etc., I've always sought out the scenic back ways to reach Buckeye State destinations and what better method than the former National Pike/Road now present day US 40, which stretches from Delaward to California but which has some of the most beautiful and historic portions within hours of Washington. I used to be a purist about taking this road, i.e. I would pick it up in Frederick Maryland (the closest the road comes to DC) and follow it continually West. The drawback for this is the time involved. Passing through periodic small towns with 25 mph speed limits means adding a few hours onto any trip. I've always been intrigued by this stretch of the    road.  My father took the family on this portion of rte 40 on our first family road trip to Washington when I was about 14 years old.

What's we'll see in this overview is an area rich in history - from famous battle sites in the French and Indian Wars, where a young Leuteniant George Washington earned the respect of those he served under, to what many consider the most beautiful bridge in Ameria (don't forget I have a bridge obsession), also the oldest cast iron bridge in America, famous roadside landmarks, The Summit Inn, just east of Uniontown, PA, and my real favorite aspect -abandoned and/or refurbished period roadside architechture (gas stations, old motels, diners).

Flatiron Building Brownsville and 40 bridge behind
I was meeting a friend from Columbus Ohio and we had to figure out a good half way point to rendez-vous. I had recently passed through Brownsville Pa., on the way back from Ohio.  The town once played a pivotal in role in American westward expansion - once early settlers reached the town they could get on a flat boat in the Monogahela River and travel all the way to the Ohio Country via the Ohio river.  It now sits in mute testament to the nations past industrial prowess, a combination ghost town and symbol of new found historical pride and preservation.  Visit this town before it's filled with pourpourri shops and year round Christmas item stores, which at present economic growth rates might not be achieved for awhile, but it will. I wanted to share it with my friend and see again the sites in town I wanted to savor again, minus my 8 year old who at the time was anxious to return to DC.  We'll get back soon, but first the trip must begin....

Cumberland Maryland from the alt. 40 / 68 overpass
 The drive from the metro DC area to Brownsville should take about 4 hours but I had to drop in on some of my favorite touchstones along the way. I took 270 to route 68 west (Hancock, MD) and arrived in Cumberland just over two hours out of DC.  For those who have never paid a visit to Maryland's western capital, you can make a day or two leisurly exploring this charming city.

I was passing over the bridge pictured to the right and could see steam billowing near the train station. The Western Maryland Steam Engine excursion was ready to leave the station.  I had my video camera in tow, and I was presented with a great chance to capture a noteworthy rail fan video. Problem was I needed to get a view of the engine coming at me down the rails (this would be so much more interesting that what the excursion riders themselves will see I smugly thought to myself).  I flew through the old back streets of town until I came across the tracks (think Steve McQueen in Bullitt) - I had arrived in time, or so I thought....I was poised with camera at side of the rails ready to shoot but I could hear the train whistle getting further away (not a good sign).  I approched a local sitting idly in his truck and queried after the train - "uh, sorry but you got the wrong set of tracks here son"....As I headed out of town, any sense of self worth shattered, I gave a nod to George Washington's Headquarters, when Ft. Cumberland was a real frontier town.

Washington plays a big role in this article and this town is really where Washington began his meteoric climb onto the global stage. The one room cabin, used by George Washington as a young aide to General Braddock, was built in 1754-55 and is the only remaining structure of Ft. Cumberland. Cumberland was the furthest western outpost in Colonial America and as Britain and the Colonists looked Westward there was a clash waiting to happen.  Someone else was in these wooded mountains besides the Native American tribes....

Grantsville Maryland - Casselman River Bridge
I jumped back onto 68, and made more some time up, (picking up 40 in Cumberland is rewarding but slow going), I continued on to Grantsville Maryland and joined 40 again. I can never pass up what I consider the most pleasing bridge in the entire country, the Casselman River Bridge. It's blending of materials (native limestone), soaring arch and mountain mountain setting make this site the perfect spot for a picnic.  It was one of the first major bridges on the National Road and at 354 feet, was the longest single-span stone arch in the United States when built. Skeptics were sure it would collapse when the supports were removed, but the 80-foot-long arch proved equal to the tidal wave of stagecoaches and cargo wagons that poured over it, carrying goods and people from Cumberland to the western frontier. Today the National Historic Landmark bridge is a pedestrian crossing in a state park. From the bridge one can see the march of progress: a 1930s metal truss on US 40, which supplanted the 1813 stone arch, and a modern steel-beam bridge, which carries IS 68 and the bulk of traffic in far western Maryland.

Atop Casselman River Bridge - 40 and 68 stand in the fore and distance

Grantsville, 1/2 mile west of the Casselman River, began as a small Amish and Mennonite settlement, called Tomlinson's or Little Crossing, along Braddock rd., which wound westward from Cumberland over Negro Mountain. Later a new village flourished as a stop along the nearby National Road. From 1818, the national road carried hundreds of thousands of pioneers and settlers in stagecoaches and covered wagons.  The Casselman BridgeSigns mark the location of the post office and the blacksmith shop that stayed open all night to fix broken horseshoes. An 1879 article in Harper's Monthly described the wagons as "so numerous that the leaders of one team had their noses in the trough at the end of the next wagon ahead."

Near the Casselman Bridge, is the Penn Alps Restaurant and The Spruce Forest Artisan Village. Penn Alps Restaurant is housed in the last log hospitality house on the National Pike. It is situated between a 1797 gristmill and the Casselman Bridge.

Spruce Forest Artisan Village, a part of the extended Penn Alps campus, has grown from a few cabins to some 12 log and frame structures of early vintage, two of which date to the Revolutionary War Period. Most of these provide studio space for artisans. Artisans work in various media, including: bird carving, stained glass, basket making, hand-loom weaving, and hand-thrown pottery.

General Braddocks Grave Site

Live in the DC region long enough and one notices how often this name comes up, Braddock Rd. in Alexandria for example, but many probably don't know General Braddock was an English General sent with some 2,000 redcoats and native militia to confront the French at Fort Fort Duquesne, present day Pittsburgh. The route I was on started out as a road built by the Army on it's march west, from Alexandria Virginia to an area just outside Pittsburgh where the army was routed by a combined French and Indian force. General Braddock was mortally wounded during the fighting and George Washington accompanied him from the battlefied. As Braddock was carried from the field severely wounded, the surviving British fled. British losses were staggering: more than 900 killed or wounded out of 1,400 men engaged. They were completely beaten by a force they could not see in a wilderness where they did not want to be.  Washington reported "The shocking Scenes which presented themselves in this Nights March are not to be described. The dead, the dying, the groans, lamentations, and crys ... of the wounded for help were enough to pierce a heart"

On July 13 The British camped about one mile west of the Great Meadows, site of Fort Necessity , and in the evening Braddock died. Washington officiated at the ceremony the next day. The general was buried in the road his men had built. The army then marched over the grave to obliterate any traces of it and continued to eastern Pennsylvania. It wasn't until much later, while the national road was being built that his grave was discovered. When you pull off 40 into the small park you follow a trace of Braddocks road that remains here and see where his body was hidden. A large memorial marker now stands where the general was re-intered.  I've always been facinated by this marker and can't resist it's allure (the fact that it's literally on Rte. 40 makes pulling off that much easier).

Passing through Uniontown Pa.

A glance at my watch and a semi anxious call from my buddy Chris (he was approaching Brownsville now) and I was still about 40 minutes away by my calculations.  I was now coming down the mountain and headed towards Uniontown Pa.  This town was another early beneficiary of the Old National Road and took a renewed pride in it's place in history.  Drive old 40 through downtown and you'll be treated to a treasure trove of roadside Americana - from solid stone inns from the 19th Century to grand neon from the golden age of road travel.  In the interest of time, I decided I'd better take the bypass around town.  This turned to folly on my part - the road was under construction and I missed my turn off to get back on 40.  While making an exit to get back on course I was greeted by a legendary figure in roadside Americana lore - I had stumbled upon one of the legendary "Muffler Men".   Muffler Man (or Muffler Men) is a term used to describe large molded fiberglass sculptures that are placed as advertising icons, roadside attractions or for decorative purposes. Standing approximately 20 feet tall, the first figure was a Paul Bunyan character designed to hold his axe.  Derivatives of that figure were widely used to hold full-sized car mufflers, tires, or other items promoting various roadside businesses.  I had seen many of these in books but hadn't seen one in person - the sense of pride of discovery once again enveloped me!

Explore this topic further at Roadside

Brownsville PA

I finally arrived in Brownville around 1:30 p.m. and met up with my friend Chris - actually I saw him in the street and I gunned the engine in a mock attempt at running him over as while he pretented to unload a spray of lead in my direction (no, we haven't fully grown up).  We spent some time down at a small park on the Monogohela river and gazed over the bend in the river that made for the best crossing point and natural water access point long before the town was ever settled.  In a real sense, this marked the end of the road for many early pioneers as here they were able to board a steam boat and head into the wilds of Ohio and Kentucky.  We walked up to the end of Market Street where I showed Chris a bridge, small in stature but that ranks with the Eiffel Towner in terms of engineering historical signifigance. Dunlap's Creek Bridge was built in 1839 and carried old U.S. Route 40 over Dunlap Creek which drains into the Monogahela in the midst of downtown.  It is the nation's oldest cast iron bridge in existence and still carries road traffic.

Just up the road stands the Flatiron Building (c. 1830), constructed as a business building in thriving 19th-century Brownsville, it is one of the oldest, most intact iron commercial structures west of the Allegheny Mountains. It is the unofficial "prototype" for the flatiron buildings seen across the United States. The most notable is the Fuller Building in Market Square in New York City. After nearly being demolished, the building was saved by local preservationists and now serves as an historic asset to Brownsville. The Flatiron Building Heritage Center, located within the building at 69 Market Street, holds artifacts from Brownsville's heyday, as well as displays about the community's important coal and coke heritage. Brownsville is the location of other properties on the National Register of Historic Places, such as Bowman's castle (Nemacolin Castle), the Philander Knox House, and the Brashear House.

I was anxious to visit a site that I had passed numerous times in the past, Jumonville Glenn.  This site held all the answers as to how the English (and Colonists) came to war with France and her allied Indians, and at the center of this was a young George Washington who set off this entire conflagaration.   I wondered why I didn't know more about this spot - turns out there's pretty good reason - George Washington's conduct during this clash - between his scouting force and that of the French would have would have had Washington in front of a UN court had it happened today.

Jumonville Glen -

Jumonville Glen - present appearance and painting of the ambush.

The account varies widely as to what exactly took place here, what is known is that the British colonial force had been sent to protect a fort under construction under the auspices of the Ohio Company at the location of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A larger French force had driven off the small construction crew, and sent Jumonville to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory. Washington was alerted to Jumonville's presence by Tanacharison/ Half King (an allied Seneca Indian Chief - the various Indian alliances between continental forces is too complex to describe here). Tanacharison informed Washington that a party of French soldiers was camped in a ravine not far from his position at Great Meadows. On the stormy night of May 27th, 1754, Washington and about 40 men began an all night march to confront the French and learn their intentions. They travelled through woods so dark the men sometimes spent nearly half an hour just trying to find the trail.  Washington and his men easily surrounded the unsuspecting French as they hadn't posted sentries.

A shot was fired, no one really knows by whom, and soon the peaceful glen was filled with the crash of musketry and the sulphurous smell of powder. The skirmish lasted about 15 minutes. When it was over, 13 Frenchmen were dead and 21 captured. One escaped and made his way back to Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio. Washington's casualties were one man killed and two or three wounded.

Washington treated Jumonville as a prisoner of war and extended him the customary courtesies due a captured military officer. Washington attempted to interrogate Jumonville but the language barrier made communication difficult. During their conversation however, the Half King walked up to Jumonville and without warning struck him in the head with a tomahawk, killing him.

Why the Half King did this has never been clear. He had been kidnapped by the French and sold into slavery as a child. He claimed that the French had boiled and eaten his father. He was also a representative of the Iroquois Confederacy, which stood to lose its authority over other Indian peoples in the Ohio River Valley if the French were able to assert their control. (For a detailed discussion, see Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754-1766 (2001).)

When word reached Fort Duquesne about the incident, Jumonville's half brother, Captain Coulon de Villiers, vowed revenge. He attacked Washington and the garrison at Fort Necessity and forced them to surrender on July 3, 1754. In the surrender document, written in French, Coulon de Villiers inserted a clause describing Jumonville's death as an "assassination". Washington, who did not speak French, signed the document. The assassination of the French diplomat and revered soldier Jumonville would later be used as propaganda by the French against the war crimes of Washington and the British, during the conflict.

Washington was heavily criticized in Britain for the incident. British statesman Horace Walpole referred to the controversy surrounding Jumonville's death as the "Jumonville Affair" and described it as "a volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America [that] set the world on fire."

The Glenn today really is off the beaten path, just a few miles off route 40, the visitor is served by a modest parking lot and a haunting hike to the rock formations that butressed the French campsite.  After we tramped through the Glenn to our content - Here I have to mention I somehow led us off the main trail, deep into adjacent woodland where we emergered onto a road a few miles from our car.  This walk was great in its own right, large portions of Braddocks original road remained and shadowed our progress.  When we finally got back to the cars, we were pretty famished and daylight was fading - our plan to visit Fort Necessity wouldn't happen this trip.  This is where the French exacted revenge of sorts and George Washington made his first and last surrender July 4, 1754.  

The Summitt Inn Hotel

We were coming out of the now lingering dusk and were at the foot of one my favorite landmarks along this route, the historic Summit Inn.  I had passed it many times but had never stopped to appreciate the architecture and views up close.  It boasts a grand porch and pool which overlooks the twinkling lights of Uniontown at the base of the mountain.  After a hearty meal and a beer it was time to part with Chris and head back to DC.  I will return to these sites and others, such as the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, Fallingwater....

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  1. What a delightful adventure! I too have an affinity for Muffler Men and all roadside attractions. My blog,“Go BIG or Go Home,” chronicles what happens when my small-town family visits the “world’s largest”…whatever!

    1. Hi / I appreciate the visit - I'm migrating all my material - I'll check yours out!