The National Road was the first federally-funded highway in the United States, and was a far cry from the modern interstate highways today. Begun in the early 1800s, the National Road was meant to link the growing East Coast with the west. Cumberland, Md., made sense for the beginning of the road, as Cumberland was transitioning into a transportation hub, with the C&O Canal and several railroads passing through the city. Although the road was originally authorized to extend as far west as Jefferson City, Mo., federal funding was cut off in the mid-19th Century, truncating the road at Vandalia, Ill.
In the past, the road was operated as a turnpike, and several toll houses still remain along the side of the road in Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the late 1920s, the first federal highway system was formed, which systematically numbered America’s existing roads. For the National Road, U.S. 40 was the best geographic designation, and the National Road, along with connecting western and eastern roads, became U.S. 40, which extended from Atlantic City, N.J., to San Francisco, Calif. (the modern route has been cut back to Park City, Utah).
Between the 1920s and 1950s, U.S. 40 remained one of the main east-west routes across the country, just like U.S. 30 (the Lincoln Highway) and U.S. 66. Thus, many hotels, diners and attractions sprung up along the road. Now, the businesses that remain serve as a reminder to a nostalgic day of travel.
When the Interstate Highway System was established in the late 1950s, subsequent roads were built that either paralleled or replaced U.S. 40. Beginning in 1956, Interstate 70 was the main road to pull traffic (and thereby business) off 40, and in 1991, Interstate 68 lessened the transportation importance of U.S. 40 in Western Maryland.
Now, parts of U.S. 40 are still well-traveled, but the road has diminished importance as a cross-country route. But, although hundreds of chain restaurants have opened along 40, mainly near interstate interchanges, local flavor has been preserved.