Roads And Highways Of New England

The Mohawk Trail, that excellent automobile road over the Hoosacs, opened in 1915, follows the old route that the fierce Mohawks took on their raids from the Hudson into the Connecticut valley. All New England was covered with a network of Indian trails which had been worn by the natives in the centuries before the coming of the white men. As the earliest settlements were along the coast, communication between them was first maintained by water. As settlements multiplied, it was by the Indian trails that the pioneers made their way from one settlement to another, and it was along the Indian trails that they penetrated to the interior. The most available of these in time became the Colonial Bridle Paths which eventually widened into roads.

Many of our present highways and railroads today follow in general the course of the Indian trails. That explains why many of our old roads are so steep and difficult for teams and automobiles. In winter the Indian trails followed along the solid ice of rivers and ponds which furnished a convenient path. The summer trails often went over steep ridges to avoid the dense growth of the lowlands.

The story of how the Colonial Bridle Paths developed from the Indian trails would make an interesting volume itself. The `Old Connecticut Path’ first became known to the English from the Indians who brought corn from the Connecticut valley to sell in Boston. John Oldham was the first to traverse it and over it traveled the emigrants from Boston to settle at Windsor and Wethersfield. Starting from Cambridge, it followed the Charles river to Waltham, thence it went through Weston, Hopkinton, and Grafton into `the Wabbaquasset Country’ across the Connecticut line to Woodstock, reaching the Connecticut river opposite Hartford.

The `Connecticut Trail,’ first noted by Winthrop in his journal in I648, left the Old Connecticut Path at Weston and ran through Sudbury Center, Stow, Lancaster, and Princeton, through West Brookfield, Warren, and Brimfield, to Springfield. It avoided the hills, and is in part traversed today by the Massachusetts Central.

The `Bay Path,’ most famous of Colonial highways and so known since 1673, started at Watertown and from South Framingham ran through Marlboro, Lancaster, Worcester, and Brookfield, where it joined the Connecticut Trail to Springfield. From it, at Brookfield, turned off the `Hadley Path.’

The first reference to a road in New England appears in the Connecticut Records in 1638, when it was ordered that a road be made to Windsor, which is probably the oldest in the State. In 1673 the first mail upon the continent of America was dispatched by post riders from New York to Boston by way of New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester. In 1679 the Connecticut General Court ordered that once a year the inhabitants should clear a roadway a rod wide on the “King’s Highway.” In 1684 “great neglect was fowned in mayntaining of the highways between towne and towne; the wayes being incumbered with dirty slowes, bushes, trees and stones.” In 1687 John Munson of New Haven was granted the monopoly for seven years of transporting persons and goods between New Haven and Hartford. This was probably the earliest regular established transportation line.

Shortly after, in the more thickly settled portions, highways began to be laid out, but for a half-century this was little more than a reservation of the land for them. Wheeled vehicles, at first unknown, were hardly practicable outside the towns before 1700, though in Boston John Winthrop had a coach as early as 1685 and Governor Andros had one in 1687. A form of four-wheeled vehicle known as.’ the chariot’ was gradually introduced as roads developed, but even up to the middle of the eighteenth century the inhabitants of the remoter regions of Connecticut had never seen a wheeled vehicle, and there are many records of crowds gathered in some village to see the first coach or chaise. Such things were regarded as particularly hard on the horses. One narrative relates that “the horse dragging it was fagged nearly to death.” Benevolent farmers kept oxen yoked in `mud time’ to relieve teams that had mired.

Taverns came early, in the eighteenth century improved, and some of them before the Revolution became famous for their hospitality. One of the most famous was the Black Horse Tavern at Hartford, the great coaching center with 26 lines of coaches. Timothy Dwight wrote a century ago: “Every innkeeper in Connecticut must be recommended by the selectmen and civil authority, con-stables and grand jurors of the town in which he resides; and then licensed at the court of common pleas. Substantially in the same manner is the business regulated in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In consequence of this system, men of no small personal respectability have ever kept inns in this country.”

The Peases were a famous family not only in hotel management, but in transportation. John Adams wrote: “Oated and drank tea at Peases—a smart house and landlord truly.” Captain Levi Pease, born at Enfield in 1740, was the most famous stage driver in his day. He started a line of stage routes from Boston to Hartford. This in turn led him to such efforts toward the improvement of roads that he has generally been called `Father of the American Turnpike.’

The New London Turnpike Company was chartered in 1800 to build and maintain a road between Hartford and New London. Other turnpikes followed rapidly. Privately owned, they proved the popular investment of the time. They were constructed generally in straight lines between important centers without regard to gravity, ascending hills and crossing swamps.

The invention of the Scotchman MacAdam early in the nineteenth century brought in a better type of road, eminently satisfactory until the advent of the motor car. The invention about the middle of the nineteenth century of the Blake Stone Breaker by Eli Whitney Blake of New Haven, a relative of the cotton gin inventor, did much for the cause of good macadam roads. In the ten years between 1862 and I872 the direct labor-saving due to the five hundred breakers then in use was computed at over $50,000,000.

It was the bicycle, together with a growing appreciation for the open country, taking the citizens out of the narrow confines of their town to explore the countryside, which resulted in the discovery that good roads paid. The knowledge that bad roads were wasteful of energy had doubtless long been common in the horse world. But hard pedaling over sandy and rutty roads did much to make it comprehensible to human intelligence and bring men to a willingness to pay taxes for good roads.

New England has led in highway improvement and Massachusetts has shown the way. The Bay State had the first Highway Commission, and Governor Ames inaugurated the policy of having the State financially aid in road building. Up to 1893 all road work in New England was done in hit-or-miss fashion, as it still is in remote rural districts where the natives turn out at `road working’ to avoid paying the road taxes and have a sociable time.

When Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, Professor of Geology at Harvard, was appointed Chairman of the Massachusetts Highway Commission, in 1893, he not only kept it wholly out of politics, but gave it a standing for efficient organization and scientific improvement in road construction, resulting in an impetus to the good roads movement which it has never gotten over. Moreover, he established at Harvard in charge of his nephew, Walter Page, a laboratory for testing road materials from which has developed the national office of Public Roads at Washington. Since then Massachusetts has expended $8,500,000 on nine hundred miles of State Road.

Waterbound macadam was all very well until the automobile came along and tore the surface to pieces. The road builders were filled with consternation, travelers with dust. The automobile has necessitated new methods of road building. Waterbound is being largely displaced by bituminous macadam.

New Hampshire several years ago adopted a system of marking the new State Trunk Highways so that they might be the more readily followed by means of uniform colored bands on telegraph poles along the road. New Hampshire has continuously developed this policy. As each State Road has been completed, its course has been marked by a new color. Some dozen colors in all are thus utilized, making quite unnecessary the usual automobile road book directions when traveling along any of these routes.

It was some years before Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted a similar system. In these States a tricolor system is used. East and west trunk lines are marked by red bands on telegraph poles and fence posts, north and south routes by blue bands, and diagonal routes of secondary importance by yellow bands. This tricolor system is under consideration for adoption in Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine, and will doubtless be put into effect as soon as appropriations make it possible. On highways so marked no route directions are needed or can be of any avail in following the course of the route.