Kentucky Heritage Spotlight: Ribbon of History – The Maysville to Lexington Road
Today’s roads and highways are built to be safe, efficient. We rarely notice them until they put obstacles in our path — and accident, a detour — or unless we encounter a particularly bad stretch with potholes and bumps. Travel on modern roads has become so effortless, we measure it in time rather than distance.
However, roads and their roadsides — the space that sits next to the roadway and extends to the visible horizon — are much more than routes to get us quickly from here to there. They hold their own complex history. “Blue highways,” towns bypassed, and curves straightened reveal the history of engineering, modes of travel and commerce between communities and regions. Roadsides contain the tangible ties to local histories and heritage. Moving through these landscapes, we pass by ancient Native American camps, mounds and villages; late eighteenth-century homesteads and inns; and nineteenth-century farmsteads and forgotten communities. In a very real way, highways and their roadsides are ribbons of history.
All Kentucky roads display a certain amount of historical character. None, however, displays as much as the Maysville to Lexington Road. Its length (only 67 miles) is no measure of this road’s historical importance. It was the first highway in the trans-Appalachian West and was one of the most important roads in post-colonial America. It linked the “Eden of the West” (early 1800s Lexington) to the commercial centers of a growing nation. Debate swirled around it as two powerful politicians, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and President Andrew Jackson, argued over the federal government’s role in maintaining regional infrastructure.
But at its core, the Maysville to Lexington Road was a lifeline for rich and poor, farmers and businessmen. And it was a constant travel companion for locals and visitors alike.
This publication from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet — prepared in partnership with the Kentucky Heritage Council and University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology — explores the history and archaeology of the Maysville to Lexington Road and its corridor, and the research conducted at a variety of historic-era Bourbon and Fayette county sites due to improvements made to this historic road.