Road building in eighteenth-century America had always been a local responsibility, but an Act of Congress in 1806 called for a federally constructed road that would connect the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to those of the Ohio River.
Baltimore, Maryland, an important shipping port, is where the National Road began in the 19th century. Thrilled to be embarking on our cross-country adventure, Florian Neuhauser, riding the Buell Ulysses, and I, astride the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob, arrive in Baltimore's Inner Harbor complex by mid-morning on a clear-blue Sunday. This seaport has been welcoming trade and travelers from distant shores since the 1600s, and in the last few decades the inner harbor has been transformed into one of the most popular tourist destinations on the East Coast.
From the second-floor balcony of the sprawling Harbor Place food court, we survey the fascinating scene. In the near foreground, the USS Constellation, the last all-sail ship commissioned by the United States Navy in 1855, rests in regal repose at its moorings. Alongside it is the USS Torsk, which was also known as the "Galloping Ghost of the Japanese Coast" during World War II. And on the far edge of the harbor, we can see the National Aquarium, where sharks glide silently in shadows and dolphins frolic to the delight of visitors. There's so much here to experience - if only we had more time.
After a few hours spent visiting as many of the harbor attractions as possible, we fire up the big twin motors and head west. Maryland State Route 144 (SR-144) leads to the outskirts of Baltimore and on to historic Ellicott City, MD. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad completed the Ellicott City Station in 1830, making it the first railroad terminal in America. There, amid the artifacts and toy train layout in the restored station, I recall that cost-efficient railroads eventually made the National Road obsolete.
Outside, the sky has turned dark. But it's only a few blocks to our lunch stop, so we ride for it without rain gear. Too late: the heavens open up with a deluge of biblical proportions, and we arrive minutes later at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company looking like a pair of drowned rats. Splendid blackened swordfish sandwiches and large, crispy homemade French fries soon set everything right, though. After lunch I spot a decommissioned hand-pulled elevator in the corner of this former hardware store. An incurable gearhead, I of course find all of the interconnected pulleys, gears and drive shaft of the apparatus mesmerizing.
Motorcycles & Gear
2008 HD Fat Bob
Helmet: Shoei X-eleven, AGV Graphic S4
Jacket & Pants: Olympia Stealth 1-piece
Boots: Oxtar Infinity, Rev'It Airblend
Gloves: Olympia Accordian, Cortech Accelerator Series 2
Ellicott City, a former mill town on the Patapsco River, is laced with sinuous side streets, old townhomes, antique stores, historic buildings with fascinating architecture, used bookstores and an interesting assortment of inviting eateries. Although the rain has become less intense, we forego further sightseeing and locate our accommodations for the evening. While listening to the soothing staccato of raindrops striking the window of my room at the Wayside Inn, I'm soon ghost riding through my own special dreamscape.
Monday dawns dry but overcast. Since its construction, the National Road's alignment has changed numerous times over the years and, of course, it no longer exists as an officially designated route. Although today's US 40 generally follows the historic route, commemorative Historic National Road signage helps travelers stay as close as possible to the route's original path.
As the National Road made its way west, new towns developed to service travelers on horseback, or riding in stagecoaches, and on freight wagons delivering goods to points west. These "pike" towns prospered; but after several decades, their economic success was threatened by an emerging technology - steam powered trains. The B&O Railroad built its tracks west along a route parallel to much of the National Road, giving birth to a completely new assemblage of competing "railroad" towns.