Our nation’s first interstate, the National Road, traversed through Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Maryland. It was the United States’ first fully paved highway, funded and built by the Federal government. Providing a connection between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, it initially stretched a distance of approximately 620 miles.
Known today as US Highway 40, it was built as a toll road, and charged fees to travelers who wished to use it. Not unlike today’s turnpikes, travelers paid tolls in advance, prior to embarking on their journey. Toll amounts were based on total distance traveled, based on which exit travelers planned to disembark from the road.
The project started in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, at the headwaters of the Potomac River. Heading west, construction traversed the Allegheny Mountains, crossed through Pennsylvania, and continued onward where it reached the Ohio River by 1818, at Wheeling, West Virginia*.
From Wheeling westward, construction continued, snaking through Ohio and terminating at Vandalia, Illinois, where the project finally stopped. Originally planned to stretch even further westward, funding for the project evaporated during the Hard Times Era of the 1830s.
The Wheeling West Virginia Suspension Bridge
In the late 1840s, construction began for a suspension bridge at Wheeling, which spanned the Ohio River. Until that time, the National Road was not contiguous, as no reliable crossing existed over the Ohio River.
Completed in 1849, the bridge was the longest suspension span in the world. Having thus become a part of the National Road, a toll gate was established that corresponded with the bridge.
Like other gates along the National Road, travelers who wished to cross the bridge at Wheeling were charged a toll and issued a token. Struck on planed large cents and foreign coins, the blanked tokens were counterstamped with “THROUGH / 20 / WEST.”
Pictured below is a Wheeling West Virgina Suspension Bridge token.
This particular specimen is quite rough, and most probably is a ground find. The planchet has a diameter that exceeds one of a large cent, and appears to be brass.
The second specimen hails from the Eric Schena Collection. Also struck in brass, the specimen nicely illustrates the appearance of the emissions without ground damage and corrosion. Interestingly, the specimen was obtained from a collector in South Carolina. It is approximately Choice Very Good in grade. Curiously, evidence of an undertype counterstamp appears underneath.
A rarity rating is tough to assign to these examples, as these are but only two specimens seen in many years. Brunk in his counterstamp book catalogs the specimen as T-258, and lists 4 known. Using Sheldon’s Rarity Scale, that would give it an R-7 designation.
It should be noted there also exists a “THROUGH / 20 / EAST” specimen. Brunk designates it as a T-257, and lists it as “Unique.”
In addition to tokens, paper scrip was also issued for use on the National Road. Redeemable for fare or cash, travelers could use the notes for stage coach service.
The specimen below was emitted by the Good Intent Stage Co. Based out of Baltimore, their notes were payable at Wheeling or Cumberland. This particular variety was redeemable in Cumberland, and like the second token above, also hails from the Eric Schena Collection.
Listed as Jones/Littlefield PW20-41 and Shank 50.84.5, the note is R-6 in rarity. Despite possessing damage, the specimen survives as a beautiful example.
Notes and Sources
- The Cabinet of Eric Schena, Numismatist
Merchant and Privately Countermarked Coins, 2nd Edition, Gregory G. Brunk, World Exonumia Press, ©2003
The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue, John M. Coffee and Harold V. Ford, AVA
The Library of Congress Digital Archives