Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes

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Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes

Early roads in every region of North America were animal paths, often carved by bison migrating between salt licks, water sources, and natural pasturage. If the herds were large enough, they trampled underbrush in broad swaths, turning narrow trails into wide but still rudimentary roads. Native Americans used these same trails, most obviously during hunting seasons but also on diplomatic or warring trips against other nations and European and American settlers.

By the 1750s a network of roads provided an infrastructure for colonists' transportation. Early emigrants

traveled the Mohawk Road from Albany, New York, to Lake Erie. The Great Warrior Path through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley became the Great Wagon Road by which Germans and Scots-Irish migrated from Pennsylvania through the southern backcountry to central North Carolina, where another Indian trail, the Great Trading Path, ushered colonists into South Carolina and Georgia.

While Indians had relied on herds to maintain these traces, American colonists actively cleared roads. Following English tradition dating from the Middle Ages or earlier, Virginia enacted road-clearing legislation in 1632 requiring each man to work on the roads a given number of days each year or to pay another to work in his place. William Penn's policy of 1683 placed Pennsylvania county courts in charge of road clearing and empowered them to assign road overseers. Despite official efforts to maintain roads, however, colonial roads remained narrow, difficultto-travel surfaces of compacted dirt.

The French and Indian War marked a shift in American ideas about roads. In 1753 George Washington oversaw the widening of Nemaolin's Path through northwestern Virginia to facilitate attacks on the French in western Pennsylvania. A year later, needing to move large armies through northern and western wildernesses, the British began a series of road clearings. General Edward Braddock authorized a twelve-foot wide military road between Fort Cumberland, Maryland, and Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania. Six hundred soldiers cleared about two miles of the rude path each day. In August 1759 General Jeffrey Amherst sent two hundred Rangers to widen the Indian Road from Crown Point, New York, to Lake Champlain. When the war ended, many Americans had access to wide roads on which horsedrawn wagons could more conveniently haul goods.

But without constant attention, these military roads quickly became overgrown and impassable. By the 1770s Braddock's Road was abandoned, and the Crown Point Road fell into disuse until cleared again in 1777 by colonial militias on their way to Fort Ticonderoga. More traveled roads fared little better. The Boston Post Road, cleared and maintained since 1673, served as the primary route between Boston and New York City. Heavy use by post riders and the general public created ruts, holes, and mud. Gradually the route became part of the King's Highway, connecting Boston to Charleston. Since the King's Highway linked all thirteen colonies, it became a central military road during the Revolutionary War. After the war the name drew disgust, and Americans once again employed more colloquial names, such as "Boston Post Road."

In the meantime, some Americans busily carved roads out of the trans-Appalachian wilderness. In 1775 Daniel Boone led about thirty woodsmen through the Cumberland Gap, clearing a road on behalf of the Transylvania Land Company into central Kentucky and beyond to the falls of the Ohio River. It would be another twenty years before the road was widened enough to accommodate wagons. By 1785, in an age before the steamboats, the Natchez Trace allowed Mississippi rivermen to return northward through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. And in 1796 Ebenezer Zane began blazing a road across the southern Ohio Territory between Wheeling, Virginia, and Limestone, Kentucky.

The new and expanding nation required not only new roads but improved roads as well. By modern standards, roads were very poor. Tree stumps under a foot high dotted most roadbeds. Most trails were not wide enough for wagons to pass. And the only option to muddy roads before 1800 was the corduroy road: half-sawn logs laid flat-side down and covered with dirt, which provided a solid albeit bumpy route through low-lying, marshy areas.

State legislatures desperately sought new ways to ensure road transportation. Pennsylvania chartered the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company, which, in 1794, completed the nation's first toll road. Eight years later the Catskill Turnpike opened in New York. Private turnpike companies paid the expenses of maintaining and upgrading roads, passing the costs onto travelers and profits onto stockholders, most of whom were owners of land adjacent to the road and merchants who meant to use it. By 1811 states were issuing charters wholesale: New England had about 180 chartered companies; New York, 17 companies; and New Jersey, 30 companies. South of the Potomac River, however, river systems remained the dominant mode of transportation, and few turnpike companies were formed.

The federal government also become involved in road construction. In 1806 post riders carved the Federal Road through Creek Indian lands in the Alabama and Mississippi Territories. President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation authorizing the construction of the Cumberland Road, which eventually stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. In 1808 Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin promoted road building to aid federal government and "facilitate commercial interests."

Despite these efforts at road improvement, during the War of 1812 the army was greatly hampered by the scarcity of good western roads. As the war ended, President James Madison approved funding for what became known as Jackson's Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans. A series of federal military-road projects followed. Madison and later James Monroe showed less interest in public roads, however. Madison vetoed John C. Calhoun's 1817 Bonus Bill, which would have funded a network of roads that were to bind the Republic together, and a similar proposal two years later failed as well. Determined, Calhoun, as Monroe's secretary of war, repackaged his plan for internal improvements, and in 1824 a new era in federal road construction began. The Survey Act of 1824 called for federal surveys for commercial, military, and post roads, all to be done by the Army Corps of Engineers. Road construction began immediately in the Michigan, Florida, and Arkansas Territories, where the need for military roads was greatest.

Road technology improved alongside governmental funding. By the 1810s, plank roads of flat sawn boards were replacing corduroy roads. Macadam, layered rock in twenty-foot-wide roadbeds to provide stability and drainage, likewise improved roads. In 1823 the Boonsborough Turnpike, the first macadamized road in the nation, was built in Maryland. The most significant use of macadam was on the Cumberland Road project, which, by 1825, had received so much funding from the federal government that it was renamed the "National Road." In 1826 work began in Kentucky on the Maysville Turnpike, the first macadamized road west of the Appalachians.

An active federal government employed new technologies to satisfy a highly mobile population, with the result that the United States had an official road-building program by the late 1820s. Still, as the far west opened and pioneers carved new roads, beginning with the Santa Fe Trail in 1822, most American roads remained what all roads had been one hundred years earlier—simple dirt roads.

See alsoCity Growth and Development; Economic Development; Government and the Economy; Railroads .


Friend, Craig Thompson. Along the Maysville Road: The Early Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

Hill, Forest G. Roads, Rails, and Waterways: The Army Engineers and Early Transportation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

Jackson, Donald C. "Roads Most Traveled: Turnpikes in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Early Republic." In Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850. Edited by Judith A. McGaw. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Meyer, Balthasar Henry. History of Transportation in the United States before 1860. New York: Peter Smith, 1948.

Raitz, Karl, ed. The National Road. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Southerland, Henry deLeon, Jr., and Jerry Elijah Brown. The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806–1836. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. Vol. 4: The Economic History of the United States. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951.

Craig Thompson Friend

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Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes

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