10 Famous Early American Roads

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The United States has the most extensive road network of any country, with more than 2.6 million miles of paved roads. While many of the roads we use today were designed to accommodate the first automobiles, quite a few follow earlier paths that were hewn out of forests, swamps and prairies to make traveling easier for horses and wagons. And in some cases, those roads were improvements on Indian trails, proof that from our earliest history, people knew the best way to get from here to there. You can still drive a few of the first roads designed for autos, but many earlier routes have vanished into the past. If you know where to look, however, you can find old bridges, 300-year-old mile markers and even wagon ruts scattered across the American landscape, all historic testaments to a nation that has always been on the move.

 

10. Boston Post Road

There are still scores of markers from the Boston Post Road visible in Massachusetts, including this one in Harvard Square.

There are still scores of markers from the Boston Post Road visible in Massachusetts, including this one in Harvard Square.

It may or may not have been the first major road in what would become the United States, dating to 1673, but good luck finding an older one. Blazed through the Northeast forests to transport mail between Boston and New York, the Post Road followed two routes, one hugging the Atlantic coast while another joined it in New Haven, Conn., after dropping south from Springfield, Mass. In its early years, getting lost and wandering off the road was the biggest hazard, particularly at night or when the ground was snow-covered. After the advent of the automobile, various parkways took the Post Road’s place, such as the Hutchinson River and the Merritt, and when they proved inadequate to all the traffic, interstates 91 and 95 stepped up. Scores of the road’s milestones remain, including a broken one from 1734 that can still be found in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.

 

9. Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most popular scenic drives in America. © Jeffrey Pott

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most popular scenic drives in America. © Jeffrey Pott

Started in the mid-1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative to put Americans back to work, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of a handful of roads designed not for the commuter or even the traveler so much as the wanderer. Although it’s the only way to get from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the eastern entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina without encountering a single traffic light or even stop sign, the parkway is one of the curviest roads in the U.S., and its 45-mph speed limit — and heavy traffic during peak seasons — is not for anyone in a hurry. None of the road’s twisty 469 miles traverse anything close to virgin wilderness, but the road is free of any commercial enterprises thanks to eminent domain and strict development regulations. You will never find a McDonald’s on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

8. Mohawk Trail

Vintage 1950s postcard of the Mohawk Trail, first used as a trading path by Mohawk Indians hundreds of years ago.

Vintage postcard of the Mohawk Trail, first used as a trading path by Mohawk Indians hundreds of years ago.

It’s only 63 miles long, and today doesn’t appear to venture to anywhere of great importance, stretching as it does across rural northwestern Massachusetts from the Connecticut River west to the New York state line. But the Mohawk Trail has a rich history. From its origins as a Mohawk Indian footpath, it grew into a wagon trail during the Revolutionary War; Benedict Arnold led Colonial troops along it en route to taking Fort Ticonderoga from the British in New York. The trail was improved for automobile traffic in 1914 — if you can call a 15-foot-wide gravel road an improvement. Today, the Mohawk Trail is a great scenic route following Massachusetts Route 2 along river valleys and over mountain ranges. Ziplining has become a popular activity near the trail, and the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls is a must-see site.

 

7. Natchez Trace

The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a route first used by Native Americans 10,000 years ago. © Mike

The Natchez Trace Parkway follows a route first used by Native Americans 10,000 years ago. © Mike

Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians utilized this path, much of which hugs high ground from Tennessee to the Mississippi River, to look for traces of bison. President Thomas Jefferson designated it an official postal route in 1801. After most of the Indians (and bison) were gone, white tradespeople, many of whom were labeled “Kaintucks,” used the Natchez Trace, extending from Nashville to the bluffs of Natchez, Miss., for the transportation of goods from the Ohio Valley down to New Orleans, at least until new river ports rendered it obsolete. In the 1930s, this 10,000-year-old Native American trail began its transformation into a 444-mile-long auto parkway. The scenic road is now administered by the National Park Service.

 

6. El Camino Real

Sign marking the route of El Camino Real at the Mission San Juan Bautista in California.

Sign marking the route of El Camino Real at the Mission San Juan Bautista in California.

Several roads in the American Southwest originally bore the name El Camino Real, but the most famous El Camino Real covered 600 miles in Spanish-controlled California, connecting 21 missions from present-day San Diego to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco. You won’t find one today unless you’re willing to stray far from current highways. Mission San Miguel Arcangel, built in 1797, is the exception, located just off U.S. Route 101 in San Luis Obispo County. “El Camino Real” is Spanish for the Royal Road, or King’s Highway. After Mexico escaped Spanish rule in 1821, the route assumed other names. By 1909, sections of the old road had become part of one of the first signed auto routes in the U.S., and officials embraced the old El Camino Real name to boost tourism. Today California is rife with El Camino Reals, from city subdivisions to parks to Mexican restaurants. Many modern streets and highways follow or parallel the original route, a portion of which can be found at the mission in San Juan Bautista.

 

5. Dixie Highway

A portion of the old brick Dixie Highway near Espanola, Florida. © Ebyabe

A portion of the old brick Dixie Highway near Espanola, Florida. © Ebyabe

An enormous migration of Americans, many of them African Americans, from the southern states to the big cities of the north began in earnest when the roads that would take them there were improved. That wasn’t exactly the intent of the Dixie Highway Association, at its height from 1915 to 1927. Its organizers wanted to draw more visitors to the South. That happened too, but economic and social forces pulling people in the other direction would not be denied. Dreamed up by Carl Fisher — whose name appears again later in this story — the Dixie Highway had at least two, often intermingling, routes, but generally speaking, Interstate 75 between Michigan and Florida follows the path fairly closely. If you’ve ever seen Rock City in Tennessee, or the teepee-shaped travelers’ cabins in Cave City, Ky., you’re on the old Dixie Highway itself.

 

4. Oregon Trail

Wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail are still visible today, including here at Goodales's Cutoff near Arco, Idaho. © James Tolbert

Wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail are still visible today, including here at Goodales’s Cutoff near Arco, Idaho. © James Tolbert

The first person to travel the Oregon Trail journeyed from west to east. In 1810 Robert Stewart, part of a fur-trading group called the Astorians, sought a route easier than the tortuous ones blazed a few years earlier by Lewis and Clark. No wagons actually used this trail until 1836, but by the 1840s the Oregon Trail had become the most popular way westward, with 52,000 emigrants using it in 1852 alone. Other trails to different Western destinations, the Civil War and especially the transcontinental railroad spelled an end to the Oregon Trail, but the road fully deserves its preeminent place in American history, transporting 400,000 pioneers west during its lifetime. Modern-day travelers can imagine themselves following in those wagon ruts on Interstate 80 in Nebraska and I-84 in Oregon, but venturesome off-roaders may do so literally while visiting portions of the Oregon Trail maintained by the National Park Service.

 

3. Lincoln Highway

An original concrete bridge along the Lincoln Highway, in Tama, Iowa. © Carl Wycoff

An original concrete bridge along the Lincoln Highway, in Tama, Iowa. © Carl Wycoff

Carl Fisher was a man with big ideas. Developer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Florida resort of Miami Beach, he conceived of the Lincoln Highway in 1912 as part of the nation’s Good Roads movement. Most U.S. roads then were anything but good; unpaved and often muddy, they typically ended in the middle of nowhere. Fisher’s Lincoln Highway Association built a road from New York City to San Francisco using private funds, opting for the straightest route possible, and declined every request from towns and attractions to deviate from it. After a federal highway system was devised, the association disbanded in 1927, but a year later Boy Scouts installed Lincoln Highway markers along the entire road, about one per mile. Many still stand today, most along, or near, U.S. 30, and in 1992 the association was reactivated in tribute to the highway’s early travelers. In the western U.S., large portions of Interstate 80 were actually constructed over the original Lincoln Highway roadbed.

 

2. National Road

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge opened in 1849.

The Wheeling (W.Va) Suspension Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1849 on the National Road. © Chris Light

Before the Oregon Trail, before the American frontier had even reached the middle of the continent, there was the National Road. Its origins date to the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s when a young George Washington assisted British Gen. Edward Braddock as British troops and colonial militiamen built a trail known as Braddock Road from the Potomac River across the Appalachians to the Ohio River Valley. Almost a half century later, in 1806, the U.S. Congress authorized a route from Cumberland, Md., to Wheeling, W.Va., marking the first major federally funded highway. The National Road, paved with macadam, eventually extended all the way to Vandalia, Ill., when the Panic of 1837 caused the money to dry up. Railroads soon made this road virtually obsolete. Decades later, the advent of the automobile led to the creation of U.S. 40, which followed the National Road route and stretched it to the West Coast. The Wheeling (W.Va.) Suspension Bridge, opened in 1849, is one of the most visible landmarks still in use on this road today, although there are many other historic structures, such as the Red Brick Tavern in Lafayette, Ohio (built in 1837) still standing along the route.

 

1. Route 66

Route 66 markers painted on the highway have proven to last longer than signs.

Many stretches of the old U.S. Route 66 are still intact. © Gouldy

Culturally, it’s the most significant road in American history. Started in 1926 when the federal government finally got serious about building a viable national road network, Route 66 was advertised as the quickest way to get from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was certainly one of the most scenic, as it hit all the high notes of the desert Southwest. Very quickly, however, Route 66 became a road of misery, as refugees of the 1930s Dust Bowl used it to flee the parched fields of Oklahoma and Texas for new lives in California. After World War II, when the nation’s car culture took off, Route 66 came into its own. It was celebrated in song and even with a 1960s TV series, and helped give birth to the nation’s fast-food industry, with countless frozen custard stands, steakhouses and the first McDonald’s, in San Bernardino, Calif. Eventually interstate highways such as I-15 and I-40 made Route 66 obsolete, and it was decommissioned in 1985. Vast stretches of the original highway and pavement can still be driven, and many history-minded motorists set out each year to explore portions of this beloved American road.

 

More: Cyclists Helped Lead Push for Better Roads

It’s often assumed today that the auto industry led the way in the early 20th century in creating a national road network in the U.S. Often overlooked is the fact that cyclists had been pushing for better roads for years, and were especially active in promoting the idea that good roads should be a national, not a local or state, concern. Here’s an interesting take on that effort on roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com.

Written by

Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.