MoboReader > Literature > The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway

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The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway By Archer Butler Hulbert Characters: 21515

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

A Nation on Wheels

In early days the Indian had not only followed the watercourses in his canoe but had made his way on foot over trails through the woods and over the mountains. In colonial days, Englishman and Frenchman followed the footsteps of the Indian, and as settlement increased and trade developed, the forest path widened into the highway for wheeled vehicles. Massachusetts began the work of road making in 1639 by passing an act which decreed that "the ways" should be six to ten rods wide "in common grounds," thus allowing sufficient room for more than one track. Similar broad "ways" were authorized in New York and Pennsylvania in 1664; stumps and shrubs were to be cut close to the ground, and "sufficient bridges" were to be built over streams and marshy places. Virginia passed legislation for highways at an early date, but it was not until 1662 that strict laws were enacted with a view to keeping the roads in a permanently good condition. Under these laws surveyors were appointed to establish in each county roads forty feet wide to the church and to the courthouse. In 1700, Pennsylvania turned her local roads over to the county justices, put the King's highway and the main public roads under the care of the governor and his council, and ordered each county to erect bridges over its streams.

The word "roadmaking" was capable of several interpretations. In general, it meant outlining the course for the new thoroughfare, clearing away fallen timber, blazing or notching the trees so that the traveler might not miss the track, and building bridges or laying logs "over all the marshy, swampy, and difficult dirty places."

The streams proved serious obstacles to early traffic. It has been shown already that the earliest routes of animal or man sought the watersheds; the trails therefore usually encountered one stream near its junction with another. At first, of course, fording was the common method of crossing water, and the most advantageous fording places were generally found near the mouths of tributary streams, where bars and islands are frequently formed and where the water is consequently shallow. When ferries began to be used, they were usually situated just above or below the fords; but when the bridge succeeded the ferry, the primitive bridge builder went back to the old fording place in order to take advantage of the shallower water, bars, and islands. With the advent of improved engineering, the character of river banks and currents was more frequently taken into consideration in choosing a site for a bridge than was the case in the olden times, but despite this fact the bridges of today, generally speaking, span the rivers where the deer or the buffalo splashed his way across centuries ago.

On the broader streams, where fording was impossible and traffic was perforce carried by ferry, the canoe and the keel boat of the earliest days gave way in time to the ordinary "flat" or barge. At first the obligation of the ferryman to the public, though recognized by English law, was ignored in America by legislators and monopolists alike. Men obtained the land on both sides of the rivers at the crossing places and served the public only at their own convenience and at their own charges. In many cases, to encourage the opening of roads or of ferries, national and state authorities made grants of land on the same principle followed in later days in the case of Western railroads. Such, for instance, was the grant to Ebenezer Zane, at Zanesville, Lancaster, and Chillicothe in the Northwest Territory. These monopolies sometimes were extremely profitable: a descendant of the owners of the famous Ingles ferry across New River, on the Wilderness Road to Kentucky, is responsible for the statement that in the heyday of travel to the Southwest the privilege was worth from $10,000 to $15,000 annually to the family. But as local governments became more efficient, monopolies were abolished and the collection of tolls was taken over by the authorities. The awakening of inland trade is most clearly indicated everywhere by the action of assemblies regarding the operation of ferries, and in general, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, tolls and ferries were being regulated by law.

But neither roads nor ferries were of themselves sufficient to put a nation on wheels. The early polite society of the settled neighborhoods traveled in horse litters, in sedan chairs, or on horseback, the women seated on pillions or cushions behind the saddle riders, while oxcarts and horse barrows brought to town the produce of the outlying farms. Although carts and rude wagons could be built entirely of wood, there could be no marked advance in transportation until the development of mining in certain localities reduced the price of iron. With the increase of travel and trade, the old world coach and chaise and wain came into use, and iron for tire and brace became an imperative necessity. The connection between the production of iron and the care of highways was recognized by legislation as early as 1732, when Maryland excused men and slaves in the ironworks from labor on the public roads, though by the middle of the century owners of ironworks were obliged to detail one man out of every ten in their employ for such work.

While the coastwise trade between the colonies was still pre?minently important as a means of transporting commodities, by the beginning of the eighteenth century the land routes from New York to New England, from New York across New Jersey to Philadelphia, and those radiating from Philadelphia in every direction, were coming into general use. The date of the opening of regular freight traffic between New York and Philadelphia is set by the reply of the Governor of New Jersey in 1707 to a protest against monopolies granted on one of the old widened Indian trails between Burlington and Amboy. "At present," he says, "everybody is sure, once a fortnight, to have an opportunity of sending any quantity of goods, great or small, at reasonable rates, without being in danger of imposition; and the sending of this wagon is so far from being a grievance or monopoly, that by this means and no other, a trade has been carried on between Philadelphia, Burlington, Amboy, and New York, which was never known before."

The long Philadelphia Road from the Lancaster region into the Valley of Virginia, by way of Wadkins on the Potomac, was used by German and Irish traders probably as early as 1700. In 1728 the people of Maryland were petitioning for a road from the ford of the Monocacy to the home of Nathan Wickham. Four years later Jost Heydt, leading an immigrant party southward, broke open a road from the York Barrens toward the Potomac two miles above Harper's Ferry. This avenue-by way of the Berkeley, Staunton, Watauga, and Greenbrier regions to Tennessee and Kentucky-was the longest and most important in America during the Revolutionary period. The Virginia Assembly in 1779 appointed commissioners to view this route and to report on the advisability of making it a wagon road all the way to Kentucky. In 1795, efforts were made in Kentucky to turn the Wilderness Trail into a wagon road, and in this same year the Kentucky Legislature passed an act making the route from Crab Orchard to Cumberland Gap a wagon road thirty feet in width.

From Pennsylvania and from Virginia commerce westward bound followed in the main the army roads hewn out by Braddock and Forbes in their campaigns against Fort Duquesne. In 1755, Braddock, marching from Alexandria by way of Fort Cumberland, had opened a passage for his artillery and wagons to Laurel Hill, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. His force included a corps of seamen equipped with block and tackle to raise and lower his wagons in the steep inclines of the Alleghanies. Three years later, Forbes, in his careful, dogged campaign, followed a more northerly route. Advancing from Philadelphia and Carlisle, he established Fort Bedford and Fort Ligonier as bases of supply and broke a new road through the interminable forest which clothed the rugged mountain ranges. From the first there was bitter rivalry between these two routes, and the young Colonel Washington was roundly criticized by both Forbes and Bouquet, his second in command, for his partisan effort to "drive me down," as Forbes phrased it, into the Virginia or Braddock's Road. This rivalry between the two routes continued when the destruction of the French power over the roads in the interior threw open to Pennsylvania and her southern neighbors alike the lucrative trade of the Ohio country.

From the journals of the time may be caught faint glimpses of the toils and dangers of travel through these wild hill regions. Let the traveler of today, as he follows the track that once was Braddock's Road, picture the scene of that earlier time when, in the face of every natural obstacle, the army toiled across the mountain chains. Where the earth in yonder ravine is whipped to a black froth, the engineers have thrown down the timber cut in widening the trail and have constructed a corduroy bridge, or rather a loose raft on a sea of muck. The wreck of the last wagon which tried to pass gives some additional safety to the next. Already the stench from the horse killed in the accident deadens the heavy, heated air of the forest. The sailors, stripped to the waist, are ready with ropes and tackle to let the next wagon down the incline; the pulleys creak, the ropes groan. The horses, weak and terror-stricken, plunge and rear; in the final crash to the level the leg of the wheel horse is caught and broken; one of the soldiers shoots the animal; the traces are unbuckled; another beast is substituted. Beyond, the seamen are waiting with tackle attached to trees on the ridge above to assist the horses on the cruel upgrade-and Braddock, the deceived, maligned, misrepresented, and misjudged, creeps onward in his brave conquest of the Alleghanies in a campaign that, in spite of its military failure, deserves honorable mention among the achievements of British arms.

Everywhere, north and south, the early American road was a veritable Slough of Despond. Watery pits were to be encountered wherein horses were drowned and loads sank from sight. Frequently traffic was stopped for hours by wagons which had broken down and blocked the way. Thirteen wagons at one time were stalled on Logan's Hill on the York Road. Frightful accidents occurred in attempting to draw out loads. Jonathan Tyson, for instance, in 1792, near Philadelphia saw a horse's lower jaw torn off by the slipping of a chain. Save in the winter, when in the northern colonies snow filled the ruts and frost built solid bridges ove

r the streams, travel on these early roads was never safe, rapid, nor comfortable. The comparative ease of winter travel for the carriage of heavy freight and for purposes of trade and social intercourse gave the colder regions an advantage over the southern that was an important factor in the development of the country.

No genuine improvement of roads and highways seems to have been attempted until the era heralded by Washington's letter to Harrison in 1784. But the problem slowly forced itself upon all sections of the country, and especially upon Pennsylvania and Maryland, whose inhabitants began to fear lest New York, Alexandria, or Richmond should snatch the Western trade from Philadelphia or Baltimore. The truth that underlies the proverb that "history repeats itself" is well illustrated by the fact that the first macadamized road in America was built in Pennsylvania, for here also originated the pack-horse trade and the Conestoga horse and wagon; here the first inland American canal was built, the first roadbed was graded on the principle of dividing the whole distance by the whole descent, and the first railway was operated. Macadam and Telford had only begun to show the people of England how to build roads of crushed stone-an art first developed by the French engineer Trésaguet-when Pennsylvanians built the Lancaster Turnpike. The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road Company was chartered April 9, 1792, as a part of the general plan of the Society for the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation already described. This road, sixty-two miles in length, was built of stone at a cost of $465,000 and was completed in two years. Never before had such a sum been invested in internal improvement in the United States. The rapidity with which the undertaking was carried through and the profits which accrued from the investment were alike astonishing. The subscription books were opened at eleven o'clock one morning and by midnight 2226 shares had been subscribed, each purchaser paying down thirty dollars. At the same time Elkanah Watson was despondently scanning the subscription books of his Mohawk River enterprise at Albany where "no mortal" had risked more than two shares.

The success of the Lancaster Turnpike was not achieved without a protest against the monopoly which the new venture created. It is true that in all the colonies the exercise of the right of eminent domain had been conceded in a veiled way to officials to whose care the laying out of roads had been delegated. As early as 1639 the General Court of Massachusetts had ordered each town to choose men who, co?perating with men from the adjoining town, should "lay out highways where they may be most convenient, notwithstanding any man's property, or any corne ground, so as it occasion not the pulling down of any man's house, or laying open any garden or orchard." But the open and extended exercise of these rights led to vigorous opposition in the case of this Pennsylvania road. A public meeting was held at the Prince of Wales Tavern in Philadelphia in 1793 to protest in round terms against the monopolistic character of the Lancaster Turnpike. Blackstone and Edward III were hurled at the heads of the "venal" legislators who had made this "monstrosity" possible. The opposition died down, however, in the face of the success which the new road instantly achieved. The Turnpike was, indeed, admirably situated. Converging at the quaint old "borough of Lancaster," the various routes-northeast from Virginia, east from the Carlisle and Chambersburg region and the Alleghanies, and southeast from the upper Susquehanna country-poured upon the Quaker City a trade that profited every merchant, landholder, and laborer. The nine tollgates, on the average a little less than seven miles apart, turned in a revenue that allowed the "President and Managers" to declare dividends to stockholders running, it is said, as high as fifteen per cent.

The Lancaster Turnpike is interesting from three points of view: it began a new period of American transportation; it ushered in an era of speculation unheard of in the previous history of the country; and it introduced American lawmakers to the great problem of controlling public corporations.

Along this thirty-seven-foot road, of which twenty-four feet were laid with stone, the new era of American inland travel progressed. The array of two-wheeled private equipages and other family carriages, the stagecoaches of bright color, and the carts, Dutch wagons, and Conestogas, gave token of what was soon to be witnessed on the great roads of a dozen States in the next generation. Here, probably, the first distinction began to be drawn between the taverns for passengers and those patronized by the drivers of freight. The colonial taverns, comparatively few and far between, had up to this time served the traveling public, high and low, rich and poor, alike. But in this new era members of Congress and the élite of Philadelphia and neighboring towns were not to be jostled at the table by burly hostlers, drivers, wagoners, and hucksters. Two types of inns thus came quickly into existence: the tavern entertained the stagecoach traffic, while the democratic roadhouse served the established lines of Conestogas, freighters, and all other vehicles which poured from every town, village, and hamlet upon the great thoroughfare leading to the metropolis on the Delaware.

Among American inventions the Conestoga wagon must forever be remembered with respect. Originating in the Lancaster region of Pennsylvania and taking its name either from the horses of the Conestoga Valley or from the valley itself, this vehicle was unlike the old English wain or the Dutch wagon because of the curve of its bed. This peculiarly shaped bottom, higher by twelve inches or more at each end than in the middle, made the vehicle a safer conveyance across the mountains and over all rough country than the old straight-bed wagon. The Conestoga was covered with canvas, as were other freight vehicles, but the lines of the bed were also carried out in the framework above and gave the whole the effect of a great ship swaying up and down the billowy hills. The wheels of the Conestoga were heavily built and wore tires four and six inches in width. The harness of the six horses attached to the wagon was proportionately heavy, the back bands being fifteen inches wide, the hip straps ten, and the traces consisting of ponderous iron chains. The color of the original Conestoga wagons never varied: the underbody was always blue and the upper parts were red. The wagoners and drivers who manned this fleet on wheels were men of a type that finds no parallel except in the boatmen on the western rivers who were almost their contemporaries. Fit for the severest toil, weathered to the color of the red man, at home under any roof that harbored a demijohn and a fiddle, these hardy nomads of early commerce were the custodians of the largest amount of traffic in their day.

The turnpike era overlaps the period of the building of national roads and canals and the beginning of the railway age, but it is of greatest interest during the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, up to the time when the completion of the Erie Canal set new standards. During this period roads were also constructed westward from Baltimore and Albany to connect, as the Lancaster Turnpike did at its terminus, with the thoroughfares from the trans-Alleghany country. The metropolis of Maryland was quickly in the field to challenge the bid which the Quaker City made for western trade. The Baltimore-Reisterstown and Baltimore-Frederick turnpikes were built at a cost of $10,000 and $8000 a mile respectively; and the latter, connecting with roads to Cumberland, linked itself with the great national road to Ohio which the Government built between 1811 and 1817. These famous stone roads of Maryland long kept Baltimore in the lead as the principal outlet for the western trade. New York, too, proved her right to the title of Empire State by a marvelous activity in improving her magnificent strategic position. In the first seven years of the nineteenth century eighty-eight incorporated road companies were formed with a total capital of over $8,000,000. Twenty large bridges and more than three thousand miles of turnpike were constructed. The movement, indeed, extended from New England to Virginia and the Carolinas, and turnpike companies built all kinds of roads-earth, corduroy, plank, and stone.

In many cases the kind of road to be constructed, the tolls to be charged, and the amount of profit to be permitted, were laid down in the charters. Thus new problems confronted the various legislatures, and interesting principles of regulation were now established. In most cases companies were allowed, on producing their books of receipts and expenditures, to increase their tolls until they obtained a profit of six per cent on the investment, though in a number of cases nine per cent was permitted. When revenues increased beyond the six per cent mark, however, the tendency was to reduce tolls or to use the extra profit to purchase the stock for the State, with the expectation of ultimately abolishing tollgates entirely. The theories of state regulation of corporations and the obligations of public carriers, extending even to the compensation of workmen in case of accident, were developed to a considerable degree in this turnpike era; but, on the other hand, the principle of permitting fair profit to corporations upon public examination of their accounts was also recognized.

The stone roads, which were passable at all seasons, brought a new era in correspondence and business. Lines of stages and wagons, as well known at that time as are the great railways of today, plied the new thoroughfares, provided some of the comforts of travel, and assured the safer and more rapid delivery of goods. This period is sometimes known in American history as "The Era of Good Feeling" and the turnpike contributed in no small degree to make the phrase applicable not only to the domain of politics but to all the relations of social and commercial life.

While road building in the East gives a clear picture of the rise and growth of commerce and trade in that section, it is to the rivers of the trans-Alleghany country that we must look for a corresponding picture in this early period. The canoe and pirogue could handle the packs and kegs brought westward by the files of Indian ponies; but the heavy loads of the Conestoga wagons demanded stancher craft. The flatboat and barge therefore served the West and its commerce as the Conestoga and turnpike served the East.

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