Whitewater Gorge and the National Road
White colonizers traveled to what would become Wayne County, Indiana after being enticed by the US government with promises of land to settle and abundant natural resources. They encountered fertile farmland, easily available building material - both wood and stone – and sovereign Miami and Shawnee Indian communities.
The many springs and rivers provided fresh water, attracted wildlife, and enabled settlers to move easily throughout the county along a north-south route. Those rivers would power grain mills that settlers would build and provide power for mills. Unfortunately, though, the swiftly flowing Whitewater River cut a deep gorge into the porous limestone (similar to the process that created the Grand Canyon). This gorge proved to be a significant barrier to east-west travel.
In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to create the young nation’s first interstate highway, called the National Road. Construction began in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland (in some stretches it’s still called the Cumberland Road). The surveying team didn’t reach the Indiana state line until 1827. Soon thereafter, work crews constructed the road through Richmond, but this only accentuated the problem of the gorge. As traffic increased toward the American West, it became difficult to haul large wagons down into the gorge, downstream to a stable spot to ford the river, then back up the western face to continue the journey westward.
In 1834, the first bridge across the Whitewater River opened just down the hill from Richmond, near the spot of Jeremiah Cox’s tub mill. Even though wagons still had to descend to the bridge, it was a much easier crossing than it had been before. The bridge itself was a marvel of its day, a covered bridge wide enough for two lanes of wagon traffic and two pedestrian walkways on the outer edges. It remained in service until 1895.