A collision point was coming into focus amid the rolling green hills of western Pennsylvania. “The Forks of the Ohio” — the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio (where Pittsburgh sits today) — was to be a fulcrum in the global struggle between two European empires. Whoever controlled the Forks controlled the Ohio, which, since it flowed west to the Mississippi, connected the east and the interior of the continent. Braddock’s mission was to chase away the French soldiers stationed at Fort Duquesne at the Forks and establish a permanent English presence that would give Britain free rein over the limitless continent.But first he had to get there. Technically his expedition began in Alexandria, Va., but the first half was a relative cakewalk on existing roads. The roads ended at Fort Cumberland, on the Potomac River in Maryland, near my house. The fort was the staging point from which Braddock would lead his army westward, carving out the very road they would traverse across 120 brutal miles to the Forks...Braddock’s expedition would serve as a warm-up for some colonists who went on to greater things. Benjamin Franklin supplied wagons. Daniel Boone drove one of them. Meanwhile, Braddock needed men with experience. He knew that a young officer of the Virginia militia had headed toward the Forks the year before. At 22, George Washington had been sent to warn the French away. His trip turned into a diplomatic nightmare when his troops attacked the French they were supposed to parley with. The incident was one of the sparks that touched off the war.On May 30, the first 600 men, equipped with cannons, mortars and 50 wagons, set off at daybreak. They labored up the slope of Haystack Mountain, clearing trees and blasting rocks. Just beyond our backyard, the ascent was “almost a perpendicular rock,” according to an officer’s journal; three wagons, teams and all, plunged over a cliff. By the end of the first day they had gone only two miles. It was a horrendous start.Following in their footsteps today is in one sense almost embarrassingly simple. When Thomas Jefferson sanctioned construction of a national road westward in 1806, it followed the trail Braddock had blazed. The National Road, which was also called the Cumberland Road and is better known today as Route 40, is for much of the way the modern incarnation of Braddock’s road.Then again, the journey is simple only if you are content to buzz along the general course of the route. The actual road — meaning the 12-foot-wide path Braddock’s men hacked and blasted through the wilderness — has the status of myth among some historians because of its ur-American connotations but also, I think, because locating it has proved so difficult. Centuries of development and neglect have obscured things; Route 40 repeatedly crosses it, but doesn’t precisely track it. One could do Braddock’s route in a fine day trip by staying behind the wheel and using the markers placed near each of the army’s encampments. But I wanted more, so I contacted Robert Bantz, a former engineer who has made the tracking of Braddock’s road his retirement project. After 20 years of collating data from firsthand accounts, old maps, metal detectors and a GPS, of tramping through backyards, fording streams and confronting bears and rattlesnakes, he has become the undisputed expert, lauded by the state’s archaeological society and beloved of local schools.
I am surprised Bantz is an engineer and not a surveyor. That project definitely sounds like something a surveyor would undertake, possibly in colonial garb.