Last year, I signed up for a bus tour of Braddock Road, a warpath blazed through the wilderness by British forces during the French and Indian War. Remnants of the 18th-century trail run through majestic scenery in the leafy mountainous regions stretching from western Virginia to Pennsylvania, but the breathtaking panorama was not the main reason I was going.
Rather, I was interested in seeing the setting for a story now almost forgotten, a tale that unfolded more than 260 years ago and also happens to mark a milestone in the early life of George Washington.
I was also pretty excited by the prospect of making friends with the 15 or so others who would be going on the trip, organized through the French and Indian War Foundation, although I couldn’t quite imagine who they would be. Maybe history hipsters who do things like shun modern, industrialized meat. Or couples taking their impressionable children on an in-depth history excursion.
I picked up my rental car in the early morning at Reagan National Airport (like the first president, I don’t own a car) and set off toward the tour’s starting point in Winchester, Va., cruising on a chilly spring morning down the George Washington Memorial Parkway – an aptly presidential beginning.
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In the spring of 1755, Washington, then just a 23-year-old military type with greater aspirations, set out on a similar journey to meet up with the nearly 3,000 men participating in the British campaign to clear a road to – and overtake – France’s coveted-but-remote Fort Duquesne, located in what today is downtown Pittsburgh (back then, a strategic gateway to western territory). Washington would serve as an aide-de-camp under the expedition’s leader, Gen. Edward Braddock, a Brit whose lack of knowledge regarding North America and Indian warfare remains one of his defining characteristics.
I arrived at my tour group’s rustic meeting spot – a Food Lion parking lot – and was surprised to find the blacktop void of humanity. I spotted a small bus parked in a distant corner, but by the time I made my way over, I was, admittedly, six minutes late.
I mounted the steps in eager anticipation and peered inside – where more than a dozen people with gray hair, mostly men (all, apparently, early birds), stared back at me. Now I knew who went on Braddock Road day trips.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” said an irritated woman, one of the few females on the bus.
“Awww, leave her alone,” a man from the back shouted. The seat next to him was the only one left in the packed house of retirement-age enthusiasts – apparently Braddock’s main fan base – so I took it. And we were off.
Our guide, Norman Baker, an energetic World War II veteran who has spent years retracing the trail and wrote a book about it, guided us down a modern highway. All that remains of the path are faint, ditchlike traces in the ground, which zig-zag back and forth under the road at certain points. As Norman pointed out the first of these, a multi-person “Oooooooohh!” rang out, including from Kass, the gentleman beside me, who practices Colonial-style land surveying in his spare time.
“The road swings back across, goes behind this Burger King. Braddock’s Road went right behind this Burger King!” Norman shouted above the roaring engine as we sped down the thoroughfare.
“Is that? . . . There’s a tollhouse!” Kass shouted, spotting a historic turnpike tollbooth, which was not from Braddock’s expedition.
“Tollhouse!” multiple excited voices exclaimed.
Not only was I beginning to get the gist of traveling with these folks, I was wholeheartedly joining in. A tollhouse? I hadn’t even considered that.
Our first stop would be Cumberland, Md., a picturesque town nestled in rolling mountains along the North Branch Potomac River. Deep green hills rim the city, which is home to 20,000 residents and has a quaint downtown with a mixture of buildings from decades and centuries gone by. But when Braddock and his men stopped here, there was only Fort Cumberland, the westernmost outpost in the British empire.
Today, the sightly Emmanuel Episcopal Church, on a bluff overlooking downtown, is where Fort Cumberland once stood. The property is marked by a variety of historical plaques, but for those in the know, the old fort’s underground earthworks can still be seen in the church’s basement – a strange melange of HVAC components and old walls. Then, just a short walk around the corner, nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and its tributary Wills Creek, is a tiny log cabin – Washington’s fort headquarters. Although it is not staffed by guides, if you press a button on the porch, a comprehensive account of the building’s history plays to the tune of fifes and drums.
We next headed to Big Savage Mountain, where Braddock Road can be followed on foot, then onward to Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity. These are the respective sites preserved at Fort Necessity National Battlefield where, before Braddock’s campaign, soldiers under young Washington’s command fought the earliest battle of what became the French and Indian War by ambushing French soldiers and later were defeated after retreating.
Our last stop would be Braddock’s grave – a bit ahead of ourselves since we hadn’t even made it to the battle site where (spoiler alert) Braddock sustained a fatal wound. Nonetheless, we bid the general adieu, sipping from plastic cups filled with merlot and chardonnay at the spot in southwest Pennsylvania where he was buried in the middle of his own road. In “Washington: A Life,” Ron Chernow wrote that Washington, fearing desecration by Indians, directed wagons across the fresh grave, over and over, to hide it.
The general’s remains, rediscovered in 1804, have been reburied under a monument off Highway 40, a two-minute walk from the original wooded site.
The bus tour was over, but I was far from done exploring Braddock Road, journeying on my own over the next few months to see the expedition to its end.
In late July, I found myself in the suburbs of Braddock and North Braddock 9 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, where a sizable number of dilapidated houses and boarded-up buildings greet visitors.
On a similar day in July 1755, Chernow described, Braddock’s men stood where these neighborhoods now meet and were ambushed by the French and Indians.
Scores of English, Scots, colonists, frontiersmen and farmers were slaughtered in a depraved scene of carnage after traveling some three months and arriving within miles of Fort Duquesne. The wounded who were left behind amid a frantic retreat met an even worse fate – scalping. For years afterward, as our tour leader earlier noted, bones could be found at the site.
More than 900 of the approximately 1,400 British-side troops who engaged in the fight are thought to have been killed or wounded in the bloodbath that would become known as the Battle of the Monongahela, after the nearby river, according to an account on Fort Necessity’s website.
There’s a trophy among all this for those who seek it.
Standing like a larger-than-life Academy Award on a small grassy plot next to a funeral parlor, a large, iridescent, coppery-orange statue of Washington, glowing bright upon a pedestal, depicts him with a sword in hand, gazing valiantly into the distance from the terrain where he would emerge a hero. Even though two horses were shot out from under him and, in many accounts, four bullets pierced his coat, Washington not only escaped unscathed but brought order to the troops amid a harrowing defeat and retreat.
My logical next stop was Fort Duquesne, which is marked today by Point State Park, a wide-open green space in downtown Pittsburgh where two rivers – the Allegheny and the Monongahela –merge to form the Ohio River. An enormous, awe-inspiring fountain sprays 100 feet into the air on the bank where the rivers meet.
Sitting on its ledge, I watched skaters glide by on Rollerblades and a mother playing tag with her small daughter, running around and around the enormous base. Just behind the fountain, the star-shaped outline of Duquesne’s perimeter is marked in the grass. There are few hints of the rugged existence forged by the original French frontiersmen who lived here, especially with structures such as Heinz Field, home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, dominating the Ohio’s northern bank.
On the south, however, a towering, wooded cliff, too steep to build on, provides a glimpse of what the area might have looked like. It’s also home to the Duquesne Incline, a red cable railway that dates to the late 19th century and still transports people up and down the craggy hillside of Mount Washington for $5 round-trip. Up top is an expansive view of Pittsburgh. A three-minute walk along a cliffside road takes visitors to yet another outlook, where a statue of Washington conversing with a Seneca Indian leader keeps history at the fore as the modern skyline looms in the background.
What Braddock aimed to do, a British general named John Forbes finally accomplished more than three years later. Charting a separate course through Pennsylvania, his soldiers arrived at Fort Duquesne in November 1758 – with Washington leading one of three brigades – only to find it abandoned by the French, who knew they were outnumbered and set it ablaze.
As they cut their trail, Forbes and his men built posts and depots, the last of which was Fort Ligonier, which would serve as a staging post for the Duquesne attack.
Reconstructed in the 20th century, the fort is 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, several blocks from the town square of Ligonier, Penn., with its charming bandstand and restaurants.
For such an impressive reconstruction, the absence of visitors was striking.
I could only hope that somewhere in Pennsylvania, a bus tour was being arranged in Forbes’ honor. If in life Braddock’s men had been quite unlucky, at least, 260 years later, they have their fans.
Where to stay
Cumberland Inn & Spa
- 120 Greene St., Cumberland
- Cozy, historic and affordable, this charming inn is located in two 19th-century buildings a few minutes’ walk from the site of Fort Cumberland and downtown. Rooms from $89.
Where to eat
Gaucho Parrilla Argentina
- 1601 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh
- Located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, this carnivore’s delight specializes in wood-fired meats. Fresh, Argentine flavors waft throughout the well-lit space. Meals start around $12, with sandwiches from $9.
The Kitchen on Main
- 136 E. Main St., Ligonier, Pa.
- The mainly American fare here is flavorful and well thought out in a spot with local charm located just off the town square. Dinner runs around $25 to $35.
What to do
- Greene and Washington streets, Cumberland, Md.
- See the spot where Fort Cumberland once stood, now well-explained in a series of plaques and historic markers. If you can, tour the basement of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which contains the remnants of the fort’s underground section.
Fort Necessity National Battlefield
- 1 Washington Pkwy., Farmington, Pa.
- Before Braddock’s March, a contingent of men led by Washington faced bloody defeat at the hands of the French and Indians on July 3, 1754, at this flimsy fort. Ask the front desk for directions to nearby Jumonville Glen, where just more a month prior, Washington and his men launched the French and Indian War. $5 for adults; children age 15 and younger visit free.
Point State Park
- 601 Commonwealth Pl., Pittsburgh
- Come for the history but stay for the enormous fountain and pleasant waterfront at this downtown park, located at the former site of France’s Fort Duquesne. Free.
- 1197 W. Carson St., Pittsburgh
- Travel in an old-timey cable railway up Mount Washington for a phenomenal view overlooking downtown Pittsburgh. $5 round trip for adults; $2.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Seniors 65 and older ride free.
- 200 South Market St., Ligonier, Pa.
- This reconstructed fort is the site from which Gen. John Forbes staged the British attack on Fort Duquesne. From its walls to its officers’ quarters, it has been rebuilt to create a vivid depiction of the bastion during its heyday. Open April 1 through Oct. 19. $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for ages 6 to 16; children younger than 6 visit free.