Several issues back, an article mentioned the restoration in Ohio of an S-shaped bridge on the National Road, America’s first federal highway. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a group of smaller but still important artifacts have recently been restored: the mile markers that dot the National Road’s 16-mile stretch through the state’s northern panhandle. These markers, installed when the road opened in the 1830s, were made of cast iron painted to look like stone, with inscriptions giving the distances to Wheeling, (West) Virginia; Cumberland, Maryland; and other towns along the way. Although the four-foot-tall obelisks were quite sturdy, six of them had disappeared over the years, and the other nine had sustained damage, sometimes serious, from cars, vandals, and the elements.
After word got out about the restoration project, one of the missing 300-pound markers turned up in the basement of a man who had taken it for safe keeping. Members of West Virginia University’s Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archeology (IHTIA) brought it to their Virtual Environments Laboratory and made a laser scan, which they used to create a set of computer-assisted-design drawings that were sent to the foundry. (The laser scan was made primarily to test the laboratory’s experimental technology; the foundry used an actual marker to make its mold for casting the replacement.)
A historic-preservation consulting firm analyzed a paint sample to determine the markers’ original color, and Carboline, a St. Louis paint company, came up with a matching shade. When Dan Bonenberger, the chair of IHTIA, mentioned what the paint would be used for, the company decided to provide it for free. Chips and cracks were repaired using an epoxy filler with a high iron-particle content.
The markers were reinstalled in October 2004, and now motorists along U.S. Route 40, which replaced West Virginia’s stretch of the National Road in the 1920s, can see technological history out their car windows even as they drive on it. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are considering restoring their own National Road markers, and with a life span measured in centuries, they should help keep the memory of the National Road alive for a very long time to come.