Early 1910s concrete pavement on the National Road in Illinois

Early 1910s concrete pavement on the National Road in Illinois

Early 1910s concrete pavement on the National Road in Illinois

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Early 1910s concrete pavement on the National Road in Illinois

As the automobile became more popular in the 1910s and 1920s, a fundamental problem with motoring was finding your way. How do you go from, say, Terre Haute, Indiana, to St. Louis, Missouri? Our extensive highway system was yet to come. To fill the gap, a few companies published extensive guides to help drivers. The best known of them was the Automobile Blue Book, which gave turn-by-turn directions with good visual clues. Each route began with a description of the quality of the roads. The 1912 ABB sent drivers along the old National Road as far as it went. Here’s what the ABB had to say about the quality of the National Road.

From the 1912 Automobile Blue Book, Middle West Edition

It was the ABB’s practice to call out hard pavement wherever it happened. This description strongly suggests there was none on this route.

By 1916, however, some hard pavement existed. Elsewhere, the road was in poor repair.

From the 1916 Automobile Blue Book, Middle West Edition

Remarkably, two sections of the concrete road described here still exist. They were left behind when a new brick highway was built in the early 1920s. The first section is about 1,000 feet long. You’ll find it just west of Marshall, at the spot marked with the red star here:

Image ©2024 Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2024 Google.

I found this road in 2007 on one of my first visits here. This photo is from the west end of the concrete road, facing eastbound. It’s on the right, with the later brick road on the left.

Abandoned Illinois National Road

Here’s a better photo of the road.

Abandoned Illinois National Road

When I found this concrete path, I thought maybe it was some sort of pull-off or rest stop. Who knows, maybe that’s how it was used after the brick road was built.

Abandoned Illinois National Road

The other segment of this concrete road is about 1½ miles west of here, east of the unincorporated town of Clark Center. It’s marked on this map.

Imagery ©2024 Landsat/Maxar Technologies. Map data ©2024 Google.

This section of concrete passes over the stone-arch bridge I wrote about last week. I visited this site not long ago and made a bunch of photographs. Here’s where it begins on its east end. It’s on the left, with the 1920s brick road on the right.

National Road, westbound, east of Clark Center, IL

A drainage channel makes it bumpy to enter this concrete road in your car, but these Jersey barriers shortly block further vehicular exploration. I visited the rest of this road on foot.

Concrete alignment of National Road, westbound

This segment is about 1,700 feet long, and is in remarkable condition. I’ll bet I could have driven it, including crossing the stone-arch bridge, with no problems.

Concrete alignment of National Road, westbound

I found only one expansion joint in this concrete. At the time this road was paved, concrete was still an experimental road surface. The first concrete road in the US was only about 20 years older than this — a street in downtown Bellefontaine, Ohio, that was paved in 1891 and still exists. In the years to come, road engineers would figure out that regular expansion joints prevented most random cracking.

Expansion joint

I kept walking. At some point I crossed over the stone-arch bridge, but there was no railing that announced it. The creek it spans is narrow and brush was thick, making it hard to see.

Concrete alignment of National Road, westbound

This is near the west end of the concrete road. It does not connect to the brick road at this end. A fair amount of concrete was removed, presumably when the brick road was built.

Concrete alignment of National Road, westbound, near its west end

I made this eastbound photo of the brick road from where the concrete road would have met it on its west end. If you squint, you can see my car parked to the side in the distance. Current US 40 is less than 200 feet to the left. The concrete road is about 16 feet wide, while this brick road is about 20 feet wide.

Brick alignment of National Road, eastbound

From the brick road I was able to spot the stone-arch bridge on the concrete alignment, and the stream leading to it. I went back onto the concrete alignment and found the stream, which meant I was standing on the bridge. I got out my iPhone and photographed the eastbound and then westbound road from there, so that I could take advantage of the phone’s automatic geotagging. Here are the two photos.

Early 1910s concrete National Road in Illinois
Early 1910s concrete National Road in Illinois

I have a couple unanswered questions:

  • Why did the state of Illinois pave a few short sections of the National Road in concrete during the early 1910s, leaving the rest of the road as dirt?
  • When the state of Illinois paved the National Road from the state line to Effingham in the early 1920s, why did not incorporate these concrete sections into the road? Especially when there was a perfectly usable stone-arch bridge on one of them?

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Hi, I’m Steven, a Florida native, who left my career in corporate wealth management six years ago to embark on a summer of soul searching that would change the course of my life forever.