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.