What exactly is the “The Great Wagon Road”? It was a migration trail that began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and traveled south through Virginia and ended in Wachovia, North Carolina, present day, Winston-Salem, NC. This was a distance of 455 miles through mountainous terrain and rivers. During the 1760’s, land was readily available in North Carolina through grants. Hundreds of families moved southward to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them in North Carolina. By, 1780, the road extended southward to Georgia and new settlements originated along the road. The trip was hard on the travelers with steep mountain passes and deep rivers, but even in 1765, there were small communities located throughout the road that provided shelter, food and other accommodations.
The trip would have most likely been made by wagon, some by horseback, but all families carrying only the necessary items needed for the new home. Starting in Philadelphia, then to Lancaster where supplies would have probably been purchased for the trip and then on to Harris or present day, Harrisburg. Here, the travelers would have to cross the Susquehanna River then reach York. The road now turns southwest into Virginia. Near Winchester, the travelers entered into the Shenandoah Valley located between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. Near Roanoke, Virginia, the road passed through Roanoke River Gap. From here, they traveled southward to the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
Present day Highway 81 follows the similar route from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania through Virginia. Then, Highway 85 picks up the remainder of the route in Petersburg, Virginia into North Carolina.