Crossing The Alleghenies – The Old Pike

THE American aspiration has always been to go westward. In the early history of the Republic the Government gave great attention to the means of reaching the Western frontier, then cut off by what was regarded as the almost insurmountable barrier of the Alleghenies. General Washington was the first to project a chain of internal improvements across the mountains, y the route of the Potomac to Cumberland, then a Maryland frontier fort, and thence by roads to the headwaters of the Ohio. The initial enactment was procured by him from the Virginia Legislature in 1774, for improving the navigation of the Potomac ; but the Revolutionary War interfered, and he renewed the movement afterwards in 1784, resulting in the charter of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, of which Washington was the first President. Little was done at that early period, however, in building the canal, but the Government constructed the famous ” National Road,” the first highway over the Allegheny Mountains, from Cumberland in Mary, land, mainly through Southwestern Pennsylvania, to Wheeling on the Ohio. This noted highway was finished and used throughout in 1818, and, until the railways crossed the mountains, it was the great route of travel to the West. It was familiarly known as the ” Old Pike,” and Thomas B. Searight has entertainingly recorded its pleasant memories, for it has now become mainly a relic of the past :

” We hear no more of the clanging hoof, And the stage-coach, rattling by ; For the steam king rules the travelled world, And the Old Pike’s left to die.”

He tells of the long lines of Conestoga wagons, each drawn by six heavy horses, their broad wheels, canvas-covered tops and huge cargoes of goods ; of the swaying, rushing mail passenger coach, the fleet-footed pony express ; the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, the droves of horses and mules sent East from the ” blue-grass ” farms of Kentucky ; and occasionally of a long line of men and women, tied two and two to a rope, driven y a slave-master from the South, to. be sold in the newer region of the South-west. He describes how the famous driver, Sam Sibley, brings up his grand coach at the hotel in Uniontown with the great Henry Clay as chief passenger, and then after dinner whirls away with a rush, but unfortunately, dashing over a pile of stone in the road, the coach upsets. Out crawls the driver with a broken nose, and a crowd hastens to rescue Mr. Clay from the upturned coach. He is unhurt, and brushing the dust from his clothes says : ” This is mixing the Clay of Kentucky with the limestone of Pennsylvania.” Many are the tales of the famous road. One veteran teamster relates his experience of a night at the tavern on the mountain side—thirty six-horse teams were in the wagon-yard, one hundred mules in an adjoining lot, a thousand hogs in another, as many fat cattle from the West in a field, and the tavern crowded with teamsters and drovers—the grunts of the hogs, the braying of the mules, the bellowing of the cattle and the crunching and stamping of the horses, ” made music beyond a dream.” In 1846 the message arrived at Cumberland at two o’clock in the morning that war was declared against Mexico, and a noted driver took the news over the mountains, past a hundred taverns and a score of villages, one hundred and thirty-one miles to Wheeling, in twelve hours. Over this famous road the Indian chief Black Hawk was brought, but the harness broke, the team ran away and the coach was smashed. Black Hawk crept out of the wreck, stood up sur-prised, and, wiping a drop of blood from his brow, earnestly muttered, ” Ugh ! Ugh ! Ugh !” Barnum brought Jenny Lind over this road from Wheeling, paying $17.25 fare apiece to Baltimore. Lafayette came along it in 1825, the population all turning out to cheer him. Andrew Jackson came over it four years later to be inaugurated the first Western President, and subsequently also came Presidents Harrison, Polk and Taylor. What was thought of the ” Old Pike ” in its day of active service was well expressed at a reception to John Quincy Adams. Returning from the West, he arrived at Uniontown in May, 1837, and was warmly welcomed. Hon. Hugh Campbell, who made the reception address, said to the ex-President : ” We stand here, sir, upon the Cumberland Road, which has broken down the great wall of the Appalachian Mountains. This road, we trust, constitutes an indissoluble chain of Union, connecting forever, as one, the East and the West.”

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Lancaster in Pennsylvania was the largest inland city of the United States. It is sixty-nine miles from Philadelphia, and the ” old Lancaster Road,” the finest highway of that period, was constructed to connect them. This began the Pennsylvania route across the Alleghenies to the West, which afterwards became the most travelled. In 1834 the Pennsylvania Government opened its State work, the Columbia Rail-road between the Delaware and the Susquehanna. In 1836 there were four daily lines of stages running in connection with this State railroad between Philadelphia and Pittsburg, making the journey in sixty hours. Gradually afterwards the Pennsylvania Rail-road was extended across the mountains, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was completed to Wheeling, and they then took away the business from the ” Old Pike ” and all the other wagon or canal routes to the Ohio River.