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Requiem for U. S. Route 40

Bill Meredith

Even if some day I become so senile that I cannot remember my name, I will still remember our first trip to Emmitsburg. We left the University in Morgantown, W. Va., around 4 a.m. that day in April, 1957, and headed east on Route 40 toward this pinpoint on the map where, I had been assured, Mount St. Mary’s College was located. I had studied the map for days, and carefully added up the mileage… about 200 miles… and divided by 35 mph, which I reckoned was a conservative estimate of the speed that would get us there in time for my 10:00 job interview. But I hadn’t allowed for the number of times a 6-week old baby would have to be changed, or the length of the train that held us up while it crossed the main street in Cumberland, or a broken radiator hose, or the effect mountain roads would have on a nervous young wife’s stomach. We were lucky to be no more than two hours late when we pulled up to the terrace at the college to face Father Gordon. It had taken us over 8 hours to get there.

All of that recurred in my mind this fall, when my wife and I returned to our old hometown to attend a wedding. We had not been back for several years. I knew the old Rt. 40 had been replaced by Interstate routes 70 and 68, but I still had in mind those days when the kids’ perennial question, "How much longer til we’re there?" could be answered, "Six hours," without exaggeration. We got on I-70 east of Hagerstown, set the cruise control on 65, and kept one eye on the rearview mirror to avoid being run over from behind as we proceeded westward; and we arrived in Fairmont in about 3 ½ hours.

I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt, that I enjoy driving on the Interstates. I appreciate getting where I’m going quickly; I will never forget the panic I felt that day, 45 years ago, seeing the hands of my watch speeding around as we crept up Polish Mountain behind a line of trucks with the baby crying and my wife trying desperately not to throw up before we found a place to pull off. And I enjoy the scenery; that incredible geosyncline that was exposed when they cut through the top of Sideling Hill Mountain is worth a thousand pictures in geology textbooks. Nevertheless, the new roads make me uneasy. Their graded curves and gentle inclines make driving more comfortable; but I get the feeling it will only be a matter of time until the whole country will be flattened out by giant earth-movers, and all roads will run straight east-west or north-south. I’m not sure it’s a good trade-off.

In spite of the extra time it took, I think there was value in going over the mountains instead of through them. In the old days, you knew when you were going up a mountain; you had to gear down and pay attention. When you got to the top, there would be a sign giving its name and elevation; you learned some geography. My kids could recite the names: Cooper’s Rock, Keyser’s Ridge, Big Savage, Martin, Polish, Green Ridge, Town Hill, Sideling Hill, Catoctin… it gave us a way to keep them occupied during that interminable drive, and today the habit of noticing things is being passed on to their children. The mountains had something to teach us.

The old Route 40 approximated the road laid out by George Washington when he set out to survey the way west for Gen. Braddock’s army in 1755. Considering the problems involved in getting an army through a virgin forest in mountainous terrain, no one can blame George for taking the path of least resistance. So he went along stream banks whenever he could, and when it got steep he would sidle up the mountains at an oblique angle instead of trying to go straight over the tops of them. Perhaps with a premonition of what lay ahead, Braddock doesn’t seem to have been in any hurry. Some of his campsites were marked along the old Rt. 40 west of Big Savage Mountain; I used to point them out to the kids on the way home for holidays. Some of them were barely five miles apart, and that was on fairly level ground. I’ve always wondered how long it took them to get over Polish Mountain!

Washington’s route was sufficient for the next 175 years. As the country grew, it became the Cumberland Road, the main way west through the mountains and on to Ohio; and later, when paving became fashionable, it was the National Turnpike. It was widened, of course, and the grade was improved here and there, but it wasn’t until the late 1920’s that automobiles began to demand really significant changes. In the 1930’s they began paving country roads and assigning U. S. Highway numbers, partly to speed up travel and partly to create jobs; but even then, in the main, they continued to follow the original trail. It wasn’t until after World War II that the entire public began demanding roads on which they could exercise their new-found birthright of driving over 50 mph for long periods of time. That, and the need to transport goods between explosively growing metropolitan centers, led to the creation of the Interstate Highway system… and the demise of Rt. 40 and its kin.

The bureaucrats and engineers of the Eisenhower Administration designed the Interstate system to have beltways so long-distance traffic could save time by going around large cities. It was a nice idea; but the designers did not foresee that those beltways would also provide a means for people who had jobs downtown to move from the inner city to the country and still get to work on time. The result was twofold. When the working folks moved outward, they took their money with them; urban decay accelerated. And a major ecological problem, urban sprawl, was born. Forests and farmland have disappeared along an increasingly wide swath as developers convert Emmitsburg and its sister towns into cookie-cutter bedroom communities for Washington, D. C. and Baltimore. We rapidly losing our individuality as we are swallowed up into the growing megalopolis that extends from Richmond to Boston. And the dwindling space available to wildlife is being carved into smaller and smaller islands, between which predatory traffic efficiently eliminates any animal that dares try to cross.

I know the clock cannot be turned back. And when I go to Cumberland to visit my grandchildren, I am glad to be able to get there in two hours instead of four. But one of these days I would like to turn off the Interstate at Flintstone, and see if I can find where the old Rt. 40 went up Polish Mountain. If it’s still open, I will go to the place on that hairpin curve where we found a rickety picnic table and stopped to nurse the baby and let the car cool off while we waited for the line of trucks ahead of us to get past the worst of the curves. It may have taken longer, those 45 years ago, but we did get to where we had to go; and I got the job despite being late, because everyone understood. I liked the world better when it was like that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith