First national road approved 211 years ago — Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers when he signed the legislation for the first nationally funded road, called the Cumberland Road.

From The Americana, a universal reference library, published in 1912:


The Cumberland Road or Great National Pike, originally, a road planned from the Maryland frontier at Cumberland, Md., to connect with the State roads and run to St. Louis (then just fallen into United States hands by the Louisiana Purchase); to open up the West to immigrants, and provide for military and postal transportation.

It was to be built at national expense from the sales of public lands, as a fair counterpoise to the seaboard States’ ability to pay their expenses by levying customs duties; and pushed forward by sections as settlement advanced.

Henry Clay was its most conspicuous projector and advocate, and a monument to commemorate his services to it has been erected on its course near Wheeling, W. Va.

The bill for the first section passed Congress 29 March 1806; it authorized the President (Jefferson) to appoint three commissioners to lay out the road from Cumberland to the Ohio River (Wheeling), and appropriated $30,000 for expenses.

At the same time another was passed to lay out one through Georgia, on the New Orleans route; and others followed in swift succession for two decades.

This policy of roads, soon supplemented by canals, became the great battle-ground for the strict-construction party, who fought the whole policy of internal improvements as unconstitutional; and the Cumberland Road with its constant call for improvements and repairs aroused ever fresh resistance.

Finally in 1822, Monroe, although he had signed two annual bills of the kind, vetoed a third; and for the time the improvements and new roads came to a standstill.

With John Quincy Adams, who was in thorough sympathy with Clay’s policy, as with every other to increase the national wealth and power, the system started up afresh; and the Cumberland Road was pushed forward through Ohio and Indiana.

On the accession of Jackson, a strict-constructionist, the vetoes began and the roads stopped; with Van Buren the latter commenced again, and by 1840 the road had advanced to Vandalia, Illinois.

By this time the railroads had become so decisively the coming transportation system that no more was built; the last act in its favor was passed 25 May 1838.

It was admirably constructed, macadamized, with stone bridges, and iron mile- posts and toll-gates; and the total amount expended on it by the United States was $6,821,246.

The name “Cumberland Road” in current use was extended to take in the section from Cumberland through Frederick to Baltimore, built largely by Maryland banks, which were re-chartered in 1816 on condition of completing it.

It was a most profitable speculation, the tolls yielding them sometimes as high as 20 per cent, though finally sinking to 2 or 3 per cent.

The portion built by the national government was acquired in 1878 by the counties of Alleghany and Garrett, which made it a free road.

The whole road from Baltimore to Vandalia is about 800 miles long.


The legislation from The Old Pike, A History of the National Road by Thomas Brownfield Searight, published in 1894:


An Act to Regulate the Laying Out and Making a Road from Cumberland, in the State of Maryland, to the State of Ohio.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States be, and he is hereby authorized to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, three discreet and disinterested citizens of the United States, to lay out a road from Cumberland, or a point on the northern bank of the river Potomac, in the State of Maryland, between Cumberland and the place where the main road leading from Gwynn’s to Winchester, in Virginia, crosses the river, to the State of Ohio; whose duty it shall be, as soon as may be, after their appointment, to repair to Cumberland aforesaid, and view the ground, from the points on the river Potomac herein before designated, to the river Ohio; and to lay out in such direction as they shall judge, under all circumstances the most proper, a road from thence to the river Ohio, to strike the same at the most convenient place, between a point on its eastern bank, opposite the northern boundary of Steubenville, in said State of Ohio, and the mouth of Grave Creek, which empties into the said river a little below Wheeling, in Virginia.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the aforesaid road shall be laid out four rods in width, and designated on each side by a plain and distinguishable mark on a tree, or by the erection of a stake or monument sufficiently conspicuous, in every quarter of a mile of the distance at least, where the road pursues a straight course so far or farther, and on each side, at every point where an angle occurs in its course.

SEC. 3. And, be it further enacted, That the commissioners shall, as soon as may be, after they have laid out said road, as aforesaid, present to the President an accurate plan of the same, with its several courses and distances, accompanied by a written report of their proceedings, describing the marks and monuments by which the road is designated, and the face of the country over which it passes, and pointing out the particular parts which they shall judge require the most and immediate attention and amelioration, and the probable expense of making the same passable in the most difficult parts, and through the whole distance; designating the State or States through which said road has been laid out, and the length of the several parts which are laid out on new ground, as well as the length of those parts laid out on the road now traveled.

Which report the President is hereby authorized to accept or reject, in the whole or in part.

If he accepts, he is hereby further authorized and requested to pursue such measures, as in his opinion shall be proper, to obtain consent for making the road, of the State or States through which the same has been laid out.

Which consent being obtained, he is further authorized to take prompt and effectual measures to cause said road to be made through the whole distance, or in any part or parts of the same as he shall judge most conducive to the public good, having reference to the sum appropriated for the purpose.

SEC. 4 And be it further enacted, That all parts of the road which the President shall direct to be made, in case the trees are standing, shall be cleared the whole width of four rods; and the road shall be raised in the middle of the carriageway with stone, earth, or gravel and sand, or a combination of some or all of them, leaving or making, as the case may be, a ditch or water course on each side and contiguous to said carriageway, and in no instance shall there be an elevation in said road, when finished, greater than an angle of five degrees with the horizon. But the manner of making said road, in every other particular, is left to the direction of the President.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That said Commissioners shall each receive four dollars per day, while employed as aforesaid, in full for their compensation, including all expenses.

And they are hereby authorized to employ one surveyor, two chainmen and one marker, for whose faithfulness and accuracy they, the said Commissioners, shall be responsible, to attend them in laying out said road, who shall receive in full satisfaction for their wages, including all expenses, the surveyor three dollars per day, and each chairman and the marker one dollar per day, while they shall be employed in said business, of which fact a certificate signed by said commissioners shall be deemed sufficient evidence.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That the sum of thirty thousand dollars be, and the same is hereby appropriated, to defray the expense of laying out and making said road.

And the President is hereby authorized to draw, from time to time, on the treasury for such parts, or at any one time, for the whole of said sum, as he shall judge the service requires.

Which sum of thirty thousand dollars shall be paid, first, out of the fund of two percent, reserved for laying out and making roads to the State of Ohio, by virtue of the seventh section of an act passed on the thirtieth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and two, entitled, “An act to enable the people of the eastern division of the territory northwest of the river Ohio to form a constitution and State government, and for the admission of such State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, and for other purposes.”

Three percent, of the appropriation contained in said seventh section being directed by a subsequent law to the laying out, opening and making roads within the said State of Ohio; and secondly, out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, chargeable upon, and reimbursable at the treasury by said fund of two percent, as the same shall accrue.

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That the President be, and he is hereby requested, to cause to be laid before Congress, as soon as convenience will permit, after the commencement of each session, a statement of the proceedings under this act, that Congress may be enabled to adopt such further measures as may from time to time be proper under existing circumstances.

Approved, March 29, 1806.



The Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an image of a portion of the Cumberland Road, circa 1910.

Thomas Jefferson Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin