Zane’s Trace and Zane Grey

Ebenezer Zane

Zane’s Trace was a frontier road constructed under the direction of Col. Ebenezer Zane. It cut through the Northwest Territory in what is now the state of Ohio, and many portions of it followed traditional Native American trails. Constructed during 1796 and 1797, the road ran more than 230 miles, from Wheeling, Virginia (now Wheeling, WV) to Maysville, Kentucky.

In 1811, when the US government decided to build a major east-to-west road, the Ohio portion of that primitive highway–first called the Cumberland Road and later the National Road–incorporated parts of Zanes’s Trace.

The original National Road

The National Road originally ran from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois (the state capital at the time). Nowadays, the highway is called US Route 40, and you can drive it from Atlantic City, New Jersey all the way to Silver Summit, Utah.

Seventy-five years after the completion of Zane’s Trace, Ebenezer Zane’s granddaughter, Alice, gave birth to her fourth child, a son, in Zanesville, Ohio. Alice was married to a local dentist, Lewis M. Gray.

Zane Grey

Sometime after the child’s birth, the family changed the spelling of their name to Grey for reasons I don’t know. The boy was christened Pearl Zane Gray, but later in life he wisely dropped the first name and was known forever after as Zane Grey.

Craig and I have a fondness for the National Road because our house in Cumberland, Maryland is 300-400 feet from it. Where it travels through our neighborhood, it’s called National Highway. I also have an interest in famous authors born in Ohio. As it happens, there’s a museum about an hour from where we now live that celebrates both the National Road and Zane Grey. Craig and I have talked about visiting it for quite some time, and last Thursday, we finally made it there.

It was an interesting trip. I love history, though my aging brain doesn’t retain much of it. I love museums, with their artifacts, adorable little dioramas, and the information that accompanies it all. I enjoyed our trip and learned a thing or two about both subjects.

One of those adorable museum dioramas.

The evening before our visit, I downloaded Grey’s best known novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, planning to read it before we left. It turned out to be longer—and duller—than I expected, so I only got a quarter of the way through before I gave it up for the night.

I wondered, though, what the author would have thought about people “downloading” his books. I’m sure he’d be pleased that they’re still being read in this century. But imagine his reaction if you would have told him that one day, a person would be able to purchase a copy online (“What does ‘online’ mean?”) and start reading it on an electronic device within minutes of making the decision to buy it. Would he have been delighted at the prospect, or would he have found it unnatural and abhorrent?

In its print-book-only day, Grey’s work was tremendously popular. His novels and short stories have been adapted into 112 films, two television episodes, and a TV series. The proceeds not only supported his family, but also financed extensive travels, including numerous fishing expeditions around the world.

A museum model of Grey writing in his office in California.

Grey always knew he wanted to be a writer. His father’s attempts to beat that notion out of him were successful, for a time. But the dream never died.

Grey also had aspirations of playing major league baseball and went to college on a baseball scholarship. Finally, he bowed to life’s financial realities and went into dentistry. He never did give up the idea of writing, though, and after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he set himself up in a dental practice in New York City, where he’d be in close proximity to publishers.

His devoted wife, Dolly, a former English teacher, helped with his writing aspirations. She edited his work and typed it from his handwritten copy. When it was initially rejected by publishers, she arranged for its publication at the family’s expense. She offered her considerable inheritance as a financial cushion until his writing career finally took off. And from the beginning and throughout their long marriage, she stayed with him despite his open philandering.

National Road and Zane Grey Museum

If you happen to be near Zanesville, Ohio with a little time on your hands, I encourage you to visit the museum.

And if you like antique stores, there are scads of them in the area. We visited almost a dozen that afternoon.


Have you ever read any Zane Grey stories? Did you enjoy them?

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4 thoughts on “Zane’s Trace and Zane Grey

  1. Loved this little bit of history. It reminded me of when I was younger. My best friend and I thought we were being “naughty” and borrowed from her dad’s extensive library of westerns to read and giggle over them.

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