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Thursday, May 26, 2016 12:10 am

Travel through history on the National Road in Illinois

A sitting Abraham Lincoln statue across the street from the old Statehouse in Vandalia commemorates Lincoln’s term as a state legislator there. He and others succeeded in moving the state capital to Springfield and thus away from the National Road.


“Road trip!” can evoke images of fun and freedom for family and friends. This summer, toss in a little history and take off with a “National Road Trip!”

Driving Illinois’ 164-mile stretch of the iconic route takes you from the National Road Welcome Center in Marshall on the Indiana border to the Mississippi. In between you can learn how settlers arrived with bells on, ramble over a covered bridge, gaze up at a giant cross and catsup bottle and climb ancient mounds.

Twenty-one new kiosks along the way give background on the road and information about the communities spread over seven Illinois counties.

The National Road, now U.S. 40 through six states, literally paved the way for settlement in the West. More than a century before interstates, settlers and traders welcomed its building from 1811-1839. Funds ran out before its intended completion in East St. Louis, so some National Road literature puts Vandalia as the terminus, while Illinois officials tout the original plan.

No matter where you consider the end, no one doubts the road’s impact on Illinois. From 1830 to 1840, the state’s population more than doubled, and stagecoach stops and towns sprang up. Once railroads came along, the road’s popularity dwindled.

The best place to begin your journey through time is at the welcome center in historic Harlan Hall, a former opera house in Marshall. The talking mannequins are a bit cheesy by Disney standards, but they and dioramas tell the road’s history.

You’ll hear from early road advocates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and Illinois pioneers explaining their vision and experiences. The building’s livery area still has the original trough for watering the horses that pulled wagons and stagecoaches westward.

The National Road stretches 164 miles across Illinois, from Marshall on the Indiana border to the Mississippi.


In Casey, check out its collection of giant things such as chimes, knitting needles, crochet hook and golf tee. Mary Truitt, president of the National Road Interpretive Center Board, says the town has worked hard to earn recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records.

Follow the National Road signs west to a covered bridge outside Greenup, named for William Greenup, who was in charge of the road’s construction in Illinois. He paid workers with gold, which he supposedly kept under his bed.

You can stop in Effingham for the old courthouse turned transportation and military museum and the 198-foot “cross at the crossroads.” But save some time to explore Vandalia.

The town was Illinois’ second capital from 1819 to 1839, and Truitt says it wasn’t much back then. “We called ourselves the wilderness capital, and I wonder if there wasn’t a stronger word than ‘wilderness.’”

The interpretive center in Vandalia features plenty of National Road history, including a log from the original road, a Conestoga wagon replica and a harness set with bells. Early travelers used bells to warn of their approach and often gave a bell to someone who helped along the way. If they arrived at their destination with all bells intact, it meant they had encountered no problems. It was a matter of pride to say, “I’ll be there with bells on,” according to National Road historians.

Vandalia also hosts one of 12 Madonna of the Trail statues, erected to honor pioneer mothers. It is on the grounds of the old Statehouse, where legislators including Abraham Lincoln met for three years before moving the capital to Springfield.

Continuing west brings you to one of the oldest towns on the National Road. Founded in 1815, Greenville has a history steeped in religion, ties to the Underground Railroad, a thriving college and a heritage farm. The Bock Museum (open by appointment) highlights sculptor Richard W. Bock, and the DeMoulin Museum (open on weekends) features marching band uniforms and lodge initiation devices.

A re-created covered bridge in Cumberland County near Greenup is an “art and architecture site” along the historic National Road in Illinois.


South of Highland, settled in 1831 by Swiss immigrants, is the Latzer estate, home of the founder of Pet Milk. As you pass through Troy, you can think of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon, who published a newspaper there before entering politics.

A popular photo spot in Collinsville is the 170-foot water tower in the shape of a catsup bottle, built by Brooks Catsup makers. The city also touts itself as the “horseradish capital of the world.”

Between Collinsville and East St. Louis are the Cahokia Mounds, one of the largest settlements of the Mississippian culture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It thrived for hundreds of years and may have had 20,000 inhabitants at its peak from 1050 to 1150.Visit indoor displays from 9 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays; the grounds close at dusk.

The National Road ends in East St. Louis. Once a thriving meat-packing center, the city suffers from declining population and industry, although music clubs and a riverboat casino attract some visitors.

As you arrive at the Eads Bridge spanning the Mississippi, once the largest arch bridge in the world, perhaps you can announce you have arrived with bells on.

For more information about the National Road in Illinois, go to www.nationalroad.org or www.nationalroadvandalia.org.

Mary Bohlen of Springfield is a freelance writer and editor and former chair of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois Springfield. She alternates writing the IT travel column with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.


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