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July 2004
St. Clairsville, Ohio

    If you are traveling Interstate 70 in eastern Ohio, near the West Virginia border, you'll pass signs for the city of St. Clairsville. The interstate passes to its south, but the city is built on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside so you might catch glimpses of the St. Clairsville skyline. Most notable is the Belmont County courthouse, an imposing structure built in 1886 and seemingly located between two water towers.

    St. Clairsville was originally named Newellstown because a man named David Newell built a tavern here. Later, the name was changed in what seems a masterful political move. It seems that the governor was schedule to visit the community—David St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory. In honor of this occasion, Newellstown became St. Clairsville and stayed that way. We don’t know if any direct political favors were received in return, but it sure couldn’t have hurt. And, probably, the citizens of the community felt it more dignified for it to be named for a governor than after a guy who owned a bar.
    St. Clairsville was located on Zane’s Trace, the first pathway cut through the central Ohio wilderness. To give an idea of what this region we’re now traveling through was like just 200 years ago, consider the journey of Mr. Thomas Starchett. Mr. Starchett settled in Cambridge in 1806—Cambridge is 40 miles west of St. Clairsville. Cambridge was also on the Trace and so there was a direct path connecting the two communities. Mr. Starchett purchased three wagons which he wanted to bring back to his homestead in Cambridge. He left St. Clairsville on Tuesday and arrived home in Cambridge on Saturday night-five days’ travel to make this 40 mile trip. And that was considered making pretty good time.

    The original industry in this community was tanning, that is, converting hides of freshly killed animals to leather. Two St. Clairsville tanners, Nathanial Kirk and Sam C. Clark, took their craft a step further, inventing a device to mechanize the tanning process. It was, as they put it, a “machine for  breaking, hairing, and fleshing every species of hide.” In 1812 they received a patent for this machine, becoming the first Ohioans to be granted a U.S. patent.

    On July 4, 1825, an event took place in St. Clairsville that signified the beginning of a new era—both for this community and for all of central Ohio. On that day a crowd gathered near the steps of the Belmont County Court House. There were speeches—as was the custom of the day—and firecrackers and refreshments, and a ceremonial turning of earth.

    The occasion was the start of construction on Ohio’s portion of the National Road. The National Road was conceived as a route from Cumberland, Maryland, to St. Louis and then proceeding farther west. It was approved by Congress in 1806 and completed as far west as Wheeling by 1822, but then it stalled. Now, July 4, 1825, the eastern Ohio section of the road had been authorized, and construction was to proceed in both directions from St. Clairsville: east to the Ohio River at Wheeling; west to Cambridge. This was to be a road better than anything yet seen in these parts: a stone foundation and a graded crushed gravel surface. Once opened, the National Road promised to make the Ohio country more accessible than it had ever been before.

    Oddly enough, on that same date, July 4, 1825, there was another groundbreaking a few miles to the west at Hebron, Ohio, just south of Newark. Again, speeches were given, firecrackers and refreshments—it was, after all, the 4th of July. Emotions ran high at this event and some were so overwhelmed that, according to eyewitness accounts, “tears fell from manly eyes.” This occasion was also a groundbreaking: not for a road, though, but for  a waterway, a canal. It was the first spadeful of earth turned for the Ohio & Erie Canal that would link central Ohio with Lake Erie and the East Coast by way of the Erie Canal.

    It’s an odd convergence because at the same time the beginning of the National Road in Ohio was celebrated, there was this other event heralding another beginning that would eventually relegate the National Road to a has-been.

    It might be hard to conceive of today, but back the early 1800s, roads were about the least efficient means of transporting people and cargo. The vehicles that rumbled along them were slow, uncomfortable to ride in, and subject to frequent breakdowns. The roads themselves—even the best of them—were rough, difficult to maintain, and often impassable because of weather conditions. Canals were faster, safer, cheaper, more reliable. They were the wave of the future, at least until the railroads came along.  And so most resources were directed to them. Parts of the Ohio & Erie Canal were open within two years of the groundbreaking, and the entire 308 miles of the Ohio & Erie Canal were in use within seven years.

    The National Road? Well, that project consumed half a century, and it never was finished. Construction limped along until 1852 when the plug finally was pulled—46 years after it was authorized by Congress. By this time the road had only made it to Vandalia, Illinois, still 100 miles short of St. Louis. With the railroads now opening the frontier, it didn’t seem worth pouring money into that old anachronism: a road.

    But we shouldn’t tarnish St. Clairsville’s glory on July 4, 1825. It was an important step in opening the Ohio wilderness. Once this section of the National Road was complete, wagons and stagecoaches began rolling by, bringing new life to the Ohio frontier.

For more about St. Clairsville and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-70 West: Wheeling, WV to Columbus, OH or I-70 East: Columbus, OH to Wheeling, WV.

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