Date of Graduation


Document Type



By 1800 the United States had emerged from the turmoil of its Revolutionary era to begin focusing on economic growth and westward expansion. To open up the vast trans-Appalachian region the federal government in 1802 began formulating plans to fund and build a "national road to connect the eastern seaboard with the "western waters. After considerable debate, Congress in 1806 passed an act that called for laying out and making a road from the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River at Wheeling, (West) Virginia. A six-member surveying team led by three presidentially-appointed commissioners completed the arduous task of laying out the prescribed route in 1808. Based on their recommendations, the federal government then constructed the road between 1811 and 182 1. Built under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Cumberland Road became the nation's first interstate highway. As the largest public works project undertaken in the United States up to that time, the 131-mile route makes for an interesting study of early nineteenth century road building as practiced at the time. The roadway itself embodied no major technological innovations and in fact began to fall apart almost as soon as the highway opened, but its monumental masonry bridges were nothing short of spectacular and rivaled those being built in Europe at the time. The building of the Cumberland Road is an important, albeit heretofore neglected, chapter in our nation's public works history because it represents the first and only attempt by the federal government to fund and build a highway. Despite a wealth of primary sources that exist, there is a tremendous lack of scholarship on the subject and no previous study has attempted to identify the role of individual participants, the agencies they represented, their relationship with contractors, or other pertinent issues related to the day-to-day construction work. This narrative seeks to answer many of those questions as it chronicles the federal role in laying out and building the Cumberland Road.