Traveling in the Good Old Days: Life Along General Hull’s Road

Recently an article appeared in the Toledo Blade(click for link) concerning a man who had found an old coin and what turned out to be a War of 1812 relic back in the 1960’s while a seminary student near Perrysburg. When shown recently to the staff at Ft. Meigs a local historian positively identified them as dating to the time of the War of 1812 but was at a loss as to how they got to be where they were found, that is about a mile west of the fort along West River Road. Perhaps they were relics of some sort of reunion or maybe a soldier who had served in the war homesteaded in that location. No one knew for sure. However, when the story was posted on Facebook Dr. Larry Nelson, former Ft. Meigs site manager, prominent author and recognized expert on the War of 1812 in northwest Ohio noted that the seminary was located just about where Hull’s Road or Trace, the main north-south military supply route through Ohio at that time, crossed the Maumee River. Before you think Hull’s Road, which ran from near present day Cincinnati to Urbana to Detroit, was some sort of easily traversed turnpike it should be noted that just north of Findlay laid a region known as the Great Black Swamp. The Great Black Swamp was actually the western end of the ancient Lake Erie basin extending from above Findlay to Ft Wayne to Detroit and was a collection of hundreds of square miles of sunken springs, ponds, bogs, fens, dead streams, tangled forests and impenetrable undergrowth. General Hull was marching north to invade Canada in the spring of 1812 (which turned into a supreme debacle) and to traverse such a morass it was necessary for him to construct what’s known as a corduroy road or an elevated way made of tree trunks laid side by side and offering at least the illusion of a path through the wilderness. As might be guessed, without continued maintenance such structures were far from permanent. Hull made his way to Detroit during the warmer months of the spring and summer and still found the trip miserable due to snakes, incessant mosquito swarms and the stench of rotting vegetation stirred up by construction activities. However, as trying as Hull’s march must have been in warm weather consider making the same trip on foot in the winter. Frozen ground didn’t make traversing the road any easier and likely presented even greater challenges especially to those who hardly knew such places even existed. The following is an excerpt from The Helm, the Sword and the Cross: A Life Narrative by Alfred Lorrain, a private in a company of patriotic young men from Virginia known as the Petersburg Volunteers who saw it their duty to serve their country in this second war with Great Britain as had their fathers and grandfathers in the Revolutionary War. By January 1, 1813 the Volunteers had made their way through Virginia and Ohio as far as Franklinton across the Scioto River from Columbus. After a holdover of a couple of days to allow a blizzard to pass they began their push northward to rendezvous with General Harrison at the foot of the Maumee Rapids. Please keep Lorrain’s account in mind the next time you hear the TV weather man forecast imminent white death to those foolish enough to venture out of doors. His account picks up after they had reached camp near Upper Sandusky. When called up from there they would march to Hull’s Road near where it passed the Findlay blockhouse and from on to Harrison’s camp basically following the route of modern I-75/Route 25. The corduroy portion of Hull’s road began just above North Baltimore.

Hull’s Road. From Ohio Memory: AL03977

“It was midnight; the ground covered with snow, the heavens profusely flaking down additional supplies and our heavily laden tents were rocked to and fro by the howling winds when the troops were suddenly aroused by a call to arms. Orders were given to buckle on our knapsacks and blankets and to be ready to march at a moment’s warning. In a few minutes we were plunged into the dark and almost interminable forest, bound through the Great Black Swamp to reinforce Harrison who, after Winchester’s defeat had fallen back to the Carrying River (actually the Portage River at Pemberville). It was a dark, dark night. An experienced pilot led the van and the whole detachment followed in Indian-file, every man taking care to keep in feeling relation to his predecessor. We plunged and floundered on through brush and brier, deep creeks and rising waters, mingled with drift and ragged fragments of ice. Like Paul and his shipmates, “we longed for the day”; but when light broke upon us it seemed to augment our wretchedness by calling into painful exercise an additional sense and greatly enlarging the scene of desolation. We had frequently to pass through what was called in the provincialism of the frontiers “swales” – standing ponds through which the troops and packhorses that had preceded us had made a trail of shattered ice (another account describes the mixture of snow, ice, mud and dung from the pack animals through which they marched as having the consistency of brick mortar). Those swales were often a quarter mile long. They were, moreover, very unequal in their soundings. In common they were not more than half-leg deep; but sometimes at a moment when we were not expecting it, we sank down to our cartage boxes. While fording such places our feet would get so benumbed that we seemed to be walking on bundles of rags; and it was a real luxury to come to a parenthesis of mud and mire, for then we could feel a returning glow of vitality”.

“The reaching of Hulls road was a grand desideratum. It is true we had never heard it spoken of by those who had seen it, except in terms of unqualified execration; but still it was a ROAD and there was a kind of redeeming sound in the phrase that struck pleasantly on the drum of our ear. At last a triumphant peal in the van announced its appearance. We were not slow in rushing to the point of observation. But OH! the burst of indignation that followed!. Sure enough the HULL was there and an occasional patch of corduroy and there had evidently been an opening made through the dense forest; but the road, if there had ever been any had been mostly washed away before our time”.

“The first night and day we traveled, thorough all those disadvantages, thirty miles. At a late hour we approached an arena which bore a strong resemblance to TERRA FIRMA>; and scraping away the snow we spread our blankets under the naked canopy of heaven for, at the time we left Sandusky, we had left our tents standing with all our camp equipage. How long we lay that night in a shivering condition before we fell asleep we could never ascertain but I awoke in the morning from pleasant dreams and in a state of profuse perspiration and, as I thought, under a heavy press of blankets. But when I threw up my arm to make an observation and to see how the land lay, an avalanche of virgin snow, which had silently ministered to my comfort during the night, tumbled on to my bosom. It quickly roused me to a recollection of my proper latitude and true bearings and I found by calculation that I was bounded on the north, south, east and west by the BLACK SWAMP”!

Lorrain went on to write that he began to feel sick at the mere recollection of such scenes. He and his compatriots finally reached his destination of Harrison’s Camp on the Carrying River and finished his description of his time on Hull’s road as follows.

“It was certainly an extraordinary structure. Here and there we found a fragment of rail-road, not of the modern but of the Gothic Order. For most of the way the rails had had been routed in disorder by the swales and scattered in every direction and various forms, angular and triangular, vertical and horizontal visible and invisible so that our ankles at times appeared to be extremely loath to acknowledge our footsteps. At other times we were scraped and snagged and railed. And then we would get our temper up and rail back again; and it was railing against railing. Then old General Hull came in for his share of blessings and Winchester too was not forgotten; but our only hope was in progress and after a forced march, which could find no prototype, as we believed, in the American Revolution, we joined the army on the banks of the Portage”.

Posted February 13, 2015
Topics: MilitaryArchaeology

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