Your Great American Places

PrintPrintEmailEmail The National Road

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Clay have one thing in common: All were promoters of America’s first federally funded thorough-fare, the National Road, today’s U.S. Route 40. Yet even ese visionaries could not have predicted the explosive impact of a road that united the burgeoning Eastern seaboard with lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. Built from 1811 to 1818 between Cumberland, Maryland, and Wheeling, West Virginia, and extending finally to Vandalia, Illinois, the National Road stimulated unparalleled economic growth, nurtured a young nation’s political unity, and gave rise to the great Westward movement that created the modern United States. The road summoned towns from the wilderness in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, communities that sprang up and grew through the sheer vitality of the incessantly traveled east-west route. Today many National Road artifacts remain in every stage of preservation and decay, including tollhouses, stone taverns and inns, churches, bridges, mile markers, and portions of the handmade road itself, still visible beneath layers of pavement. Many communities boast the original family and business names that arrived with the road and never left. If a sense of place seems to be missing from America today, it can yet be found in traveling the National Road, the original transportation artery in a country still obsessed with moving along the highway.

Suzanne Grenoble Uniontown, Pa.

Fortune and Flood

Galveston, Texas, is a very interesting town. Cabeza de Vaca explored it in 1526. Jean Laffite, who commanded three ships and a thousand privateers, controlled the area between 1817 and 1821. In 1836 the cabinet of the Texas Republic retreated to Galveston while Sam Houston fought the Battle of San Jacinto forty miles to the north. During the Civil War, Galveston was captured by the Union and then recaptured by the Confederacy. After the war Galveston served as the main port for four Southern states and exported cotton to Europe with such vigor that by 1880 it was the second richest city per capita in the United States. Twenty years later a hurricane struck and killed 6,000 people, the greatest calamity in the nation’s history (the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, by contrast, killed only 750).

Galveston has gone through a fascinating renaissance in the last thirty years, largely fueled by a growing appreciation of its history, and has restored the charm of many of its beautiful homes and significant buildings.

George P. Mitchell Woodlands, Tex.

Safe Haven

Since my hometown is Springfield, Illinois, I’m tempted to nominate it for your Great American Place. However, I now live in a house built in 1861 in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and I’ve become aware of the historical treasures of this place. This small Susquehanna County seat has in the past years seen its courthouse, green, and former jail entered on the National Register of Historic Places. Lake Avenue’s mansions are a living reminder of the Gilded Age, when wealthy Philadelphians discovered Montrose and the Endless Mountains. Most notably, the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies is trying to revive interest in Montrose as a vital stop on the Underground Railroad, a place where fleeing slaves were made to feel so welcome that many of them stayed on. Until perhaps thirty years ago Montrose had a large black population. Most have since moved away, and their heritage was forgotten until recently. The folks at the Center have changed that, and they hope to restore the AME Zion Church and to build a research center on a nearby farm settled in 1810 by Bristol Budd Sampson, a black Revolutionary War veteran. And these are only the highlights of this beautiful area.

Barbara J. Mitchell Montrose, Pa.

Nobody Got Rich

I’m writing to bring your attention to a great American place you may not have heard much about: Bonanza City, Colorado. Bonanza, a productive mining town from the 188Os to the 1930s, was nearly destroyed by fire in 1937, and it survives today as one of the smallest incorporated towns in Colorado. Its early promoters proclaimed Bonanza the new Leadville, but it was never anything of the sort; it was more typical of the hard prospecting life. Nobody seems to have gotten rich in Bonanza, but the hardy and hopeful worked and dreamed and lived and died there, and a few still do. A fortunate consequence of my own work here has been learning the history of Bonanza and locating more than 150 historic photographs of the area. Some are great, while many are just snapshots of forgotten people or vanished buildings. A few are poignant, like the picture of a handsome, grinning miner named Pat Burns standing with a friend at the Empress Josephine mine. We know he was later killed by a cavein, but there he is, carefree and full of life, confident of a future that never came about.

Today I work with the Forest Service to clean up a century of mining-related environmental problems that contaminate the creek in Bonanza. It’s a very good thing, but the history of the optimistic, hardworking common Americans who lived here in a time long gone, but not so long ago, is what makes this place special to me.

Tim Buxton Saguache, Colo.