In the late 18th Century, for all practical purposes our Appalachian Mountains marked the western boundary of our country. In those days we in Western Maryland lived in the “Wild West,” or so at least the folks in Baltimore and Philadelphia may have thought.

George Washington knew our region well as a surveyor and from his service with Braddock in the French and Indian War. As President, he proposed a series of national roads whose avowed purpose was defense: the efficient movement of troops to quell Native American uprisings, foreign invasions, or farmers unhappy with taxes on corn whiskey. Then with Thomas Jefferson in the White House, the program moved briskly ahead. The road west from Cumberland to Wheeling was called The National Pike, today’s Route 40. The vital link joining our region with Baltimore and Cumberland was often called “The Bank Road,” because many sections were paid for by bonds underwritten by the banks of the era. The banks then sold the bonds to canny investors who knew the value of efficient transport to our local agriculture and industry.

Then as now, better roads meant more business… and business traffic. The new roads crossed innumerable streams, which had to be forded. This was most unsatisfactory, very unsafe, and a sure way to get wet, or worse.

Although the original military planners would have been satisfied with plank bridges along the new roads they had reckoned without the practical and industrious western Marylanders. Through their elected representatives, they made it clear that they had tired of losing valuable shipments, animals, and the expense and inconvenience of maintaining and replacing wooden bridges every couple of seasons.

With unassailable logic they asked, “Why build temporary wooden bridges when we have so much limestone, rugged granite, sandstone, slate, and even beautiful marble in our own quarries?” They got their way.

Throughout the 19th Century one magnificent stone bridge after another was built. This local bridge-building boom, which was to give Washington County more beautiful stone bridges than any other similar jurisdiction in the United States, seemed to peak just in time for the Civil War. Both sides crossed and re-crossed the bridges to maneuver against each other throughout the war. But our bridges soldiered on long after peace came to the nation.

Today,18-wheelers speed across stone arches where once horse and mule-drawn wagons of Confederate and Federal forces rolled. But other historic bridges now lie in forest shadows, crumbling along once busy streams.

They still draw admiration, if not of travelers and soldiers, of fishermen, of hikers, kayakers, and canoeists. Restored, many of our bridges will continue in daily service to our region for generations to come. Others will be preserved as monuments, rather than as key parts of our infrastructure. Sadly, some will be lost to time, the elements, and a changing countryside.

Please use this map to visit our amazing legacy in stone: our Washington County bridges. Like the elders of a lively family, they are a surviving gift that helps remind us who we once were, who we are, and to give us a firm foundation upon which to build our region’s future.

Concept and photos by Katherine Campbell Francomano of DoubleDog Productions. Text by Frank Francomano.