Traveled by Native Americans, presidents, generals, gypsies and families seeking a new life in the west, “The Great Road,” known today as Frederick Road or Route 355, provided a path for both the adventurer and the entrepreneur. As the main route northwest from Georgetown, the last port on the Potomac River, it was heavily traveled from the mid 18th century until it was replaced by Interstate 270 in the 1960s.
It began as an Indian trail leading from the Piscataway settlement at the mouth of Rock Creek to the great “Conestoga,” a trail that included footpaths and waterways (what we would today call “intermodal”) from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania southwest into Virginia and beyond. It went inland to avoid the falls on the Potomac River and along the high ground to avoid crossing large creeks, taking the most direct route to its destination.
This was such a good Native American trail that it was used immediately by the European invaders, widened to accommodate wagons full of goods to trade and supplies to build homes. After homesteads were established, it was used to transport hogsheads of tobacco to the port of Georgetown.
When U.S. Route 40, leading west from Baltimore, was built in the mid 1700s, the Great Road connected with this new road at Frederick, Md., and began to be known as the Georgetown-Frederick Road (or the Frederick-Georgetown Road if you were traveling from Frederick). When Route 40 was completed to the Ohio River in the early 1800s by the federal government, it became the major trade route west. This new trade route stimulated the growth of commercial enterprises all along its way.
As one of the major feeder roads for this trade route, Georgetown-Frederick Road also grew. Old towns such as Rockville and Gaithersburg grew larger and more prosperous. New towns such as Clarksburg, Hyattstown, and Urbana popped up. A stage line ran the road sometimes twice a day, loaded with passengers, merchandise and mail. Pioneers heading to the western wilderness started off on this road, as memorialized by the “Madonna of the Trail” statue on this road in Bethesda. And so it became known as “The Great Road.”
This was the road traveled by Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755, leading his army to disaster at Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. Braddock's army, accompanied by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, camped at Clarksburg, along Little Bennett Creek. The General stayed at Dowden's Ordinary situated on the hill overlooking the village. A ghost structure of Dowden’s Ordinary can now be seen on the site of the original, which was destroyed in the early 20th century.
George Washington traveled Frederick Road many times on his surveying trips west. He usually stayed at Tabler's Tavern (then called Peter's Tavern) on the bank of Bennett's Creek. Another famous visitor to Tabler's Tavern was former President Andrew Jackson. In the 1840s, James K. Polk stayed at the Hyatt House in Hyattstown, on the way to his inauguration.
During the Civil War the road was a revolving door for Union and Confederate soldiers. In 1862 the Union held the road as state militias marched to Washington from the north to join the attempt to put an end to the southern rebellion. Union forces were then deployed up the road to be dispersed west as a protective force along the Potomac River. In September, 1861, Gen. George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac and Gen. Edwin V. Sumner's II Corps marched up Frederick Road in pursuit of Confederate Gen. Robert. E. Lee's army. The two opposing forces met at the bloody Battle of Antietam.
Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart and his cavalry used part of the road, between Hyattstown and Urbana, on Oct. 12, 1862, as they completed their second ride around McClellan's army. They escaped pursuing Union forces by heading west and crossing the Potomac at White's ford – but not before the ladies of Urbana entertained the dashing cavalrymen with a ball.
Many small forces from both sides used parts of the road as they tried to out-maneuver each other throughout the war, but the last large army to travel Frederick Road was the army of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early as he led his force of about 14,000 down the road toward a futile attack on Washington in July, 1864.
An army of another sort was seen on the road in April, 1894. This was Coxey's Army — a group of out-of-work men, led by the Populist Jacob Coxey, marching from Ohio to Washington to ask the government to create work programs to generate jobs during the depression of that era. The army created quite a sensation with the local people when they camped at Hyattstown and then at Gaithersburg. The group of about 300 men set up a canvas fence around their camps and charged admission for those who wished to come inside and hear their speeches. Their efforts seemed doomed to failure as most of the marchers were arrested when they reached Washington — although most of the reforms they had asked for were later passed by Congress.
This scene was repeated, though not in such an organized fashion, during the Great Depression of the 1930s as it became a common sight to see hobos and the occasional destitute family making their way down the road toward Washington to seek work.
The last major event to occur on Frederick Road was "Hands Across America" in May, 1986, when the entire length of the road was lined with people holding hands as a part of a nation-wide project to raise money for America's poor and homeless.