Roads and Travel in New England 1790-1840

“There is more travelling [in the United States] than in any part of the world,” an article in the Boston American Traveler claimed in 1828. “Here, the whole population is in motion, whereas, in old countries, there are millions who have never been beyond the sound of the parish bell.” The editor of the same paper remarked two years later that whereas in 1786 it had taken as long as six days to travel by stage from Boston to New York, now the trip was made easily in only a day and a half. “Who will undertake to predict the wonderful results of the next half century?” he wondered.

Aside from the fact that his paper was dedicated to the interests of the coaching business, the editor had good reason for looking forward to another fifty years of improvement and growth in highway travel. Except for its navigable rivers and a handful of canals, the interior of New England in 1830 still was traversed only by a network of dirt and gravel roads. As in other parts of the country, there had been a flurry of excitement over canals during the 1820s following the initial success of New York’s Erie Canal. Only a few canals were built in New England, however, and despite the fact that the canal companies promised to reduce transportation costs, teamsters had been able to compete with them by selectively cutting their own charges and by offering services the canal companies were unable to duplicate. Agitation for railroads also had begun during the 1820s; Massachusetts chartered the Boston and Lowell in 1830. But claims that railroads would revolutionize transportation, although frequently made, remained to be proved.

By 1840, however, there were already more than 3,000 miles of track in the United States, including more than 400 miles in New England. Railroads came to dominate overland transportation so completely that a half century after 1830 it had been largely forgotten that the roads, which then carried mostly local traffic, once had been important arteries of commerce. Thus the historian of Ashburnham., Massachusetts, was describing experiences familiar only to his older readers when he wrote in 1887:

“For many years long lines of teams and a great amount of pleasure travel passed through the central village ... heavy wagons, drawn by four, six and eight horses, laden with produce for the market and returning with merchandise for the country stores, [and] four and six horse stages ... daily passed each way.”

With even further passage of time, improvements in overland transportation in the decades prior to the railroad era have become almost completely obscured by a mist of writings that either nostalgically relate the more romantic aspects of stagecoach and tavern days or that simply conclude that poor roads continued to keep inland communities isolated from effective links with the outside world until railroads brought about a revolution in transportation. In the hill country of northern New England, according to one twentieth?century account, “men and women were born, lived, and died without traveling twenty miles from the place of their birth.” Although there were undoubtedly people who fit that description, New Englanders even before the railroad era were increasingly a people on the move. This was true of the hundreds of thousands of Yankee migrants who made overland treks to new settlements far removed from their places of birth and it was also true of those who remained behind. It was made possible in part by improvements in the roads.

New England’s first great road?building era occurred during the period 1790 to 1840. Its first phase, commonly referred to as the turnpike era, began during the 1790s and had practically ended in all the New England states except Connecticut before the War of 1812. Some 240 corporations built more than 3,700 miles of toll roads. Every part of New England except Maine acquired an extensive turnpike network, although Connecticut was far in the lead with about 1,600 miles. A second phase occurred between 1820 and 1840 and was marked by an upsurge of construction at public (local) expense.

In few ways had the United States been more backward prior to the turnpike era than in the roads that linked the coastal towns with the growing inland settlements. Even near the largest towns main highways were at times so hard and rutted that they threatened to shake a vehicle to pieces and at other times so muddy as to be virtually impassable. An English traveler during the fall of 1795 had his vehicle sink to the hubs near the same place in the vicinity of Baltimore where the President of the United States recently had suffered a similar indignity. When the same traveler reached Baltimore he was detained for a week until the roads had frozen sufficiently for the Philadelphia stages to begin running again. Another foreign visitor who traveled by stage from New York to Philadelphia wrote that the passengers were ill for an hour or more after being slammed about on a particularly rough stretch of road. Other travelers described clouds of choking dust and vain efforts to defend themselves against the hordes of mosquitoes.

Newly settled areas, including parts of northern New England, were even less a place for the traveler faint?of?heart. A Connecticut minister who made a preaching tour of Vermont during the spring of 1789 at one point found himself in “mud belly deep to my horse and I thought I should have perished.” Even so inveterate a traveler as President Timothy Dwight of Yale could only marvel at the way settlers on the northern New England frontier adjusted to hardships of travel “over the worst roads, where both horses and men, accustomed to smoother ways, merely tremble, and creep.

“Over roads, encumbered with rocks, mire, and the stumps and roots of trees, they ride upon a full trot; and are apprehensive of no danger. Even the women of these settlements, and those of every age share largely in this spirit. The longest journies, in very difficult roads, they undertake with cheerfulness, and perform without anxiety. I have often met them on horseback; and been surprised to see them pass fearlessly over those dangers of the way, which my companions and myself watched with caution and solicitude.”

Southern New England had some of the best roads in the United States. The broad, smooth highway between Boston and Portsmouth was by far the best section of the great postal route from Portsmouth to Savannah, Georgia, and portions of the upper post road from Boston to New York, which led through Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford, also were considered good. But between Spencer and Wilbraham, Massachusetts, the same road was so poor in 1788 that a Frenchman, after being “bumped over rocks for thirty miles” in a springless carriage, concluded that “a coach with springs would have very soon upset and been smashed to pieces.” An Englishman who traveled by stage from Boston to Newport in 1797 wrote

“Very often we surprised a family of pigs taking a bath in a gully of sufficient compass to admit the coach. As often such chasms were filled by piles of stones that, at a distance, looked like Indian tumuli. I found there were two evils to be dreaded in New England travelling—a clayey soil in wet weather, which, unqualified with gravel, made the road a canal; and a sandy one in summer, which might emphatically be called an enormous insect preserve.” New England roads, he concluded, were “far better than those in any other quarter of the Union,” but “brought ... sad comparison with the bowling?greens of England.”

Each New England town was responsible for building and maintaining all roads within its limits. Colonial laws originally had required all adult males with few exceptions to work a certain number of days each year in the roads. These laws were revised during the eighteenth century so that by 1800 most towns annually voted a highway tax assessed in proportion to the value of property holdings. But these taxes continued to be paid in labor, and in halfhearted labor at that. Although conditions varied somewhat from town to town, indifference in most cases prevented significant improvement. A Connecticut man complained in 1797 that the people of many towns in that state “have gone fifty or an hundred years through sloughs, as often as they have gone to the house of God, and probably they would be content to do the same fifty years more unless the public relieves them.” Even the main street of “a flourishing and beautiful country town,” according to an account written in 1803, was likely to be littered with pieces of old fences and firewood, “old sleds bottom upwards, carts, casks, weeds and loose stones, lying along in wild confusion.” The roadway itself would be “scandalously bad; foot ways, or cross paths, ruts and gutters, with stones at every step, disturb the traveler in his carriage, and the teamsters with their loads. In a road of 80 miles, the worst part is that which passes through this charming street!” And voters indifferent to their own convenience, were even less inclined to exert themselves for the benefit of outsiders who passed through town on the main highways.

Labor on the roads was supervised by surveyors of highways, twenty to thirty of whom were elected annually by some small towns. When John Adams reached the age of twenty?one, he was surprised to find himself nominated for this job and objected that he knew nothing about road making. He was told that “they make it a rule to compell every Man to serve either as Constable or Surveyor, or to pay a fine.” Adams performed his duties in a conscientious way, even though a bridge built under his direction soon was washed away. It was charged, however, that most highway surveyors lacked interest as well as skill and that many of them were concerned only to have the roads past their own houses repaired.

Gangs of men working out their own or someone else’s highway taxes remained a common sight in many New England towns until well after the Civil War. Some work was done during the fall and a way had to be cleared after particularly heavy snowstorms, but most repair work was done on several days in June during the period between planting and haying. The roads then were deeply rutted but were no longer muddy from spring thaws and rains. Gutters were ploughed out and ruts filled with the dirt and decayed vegetation thus obtained. In many instances the dirt simply was piled high and left to be worn down by the wheels of passing vehicles, although ox?drawn scrapers sometimes were used to level and smooth. Much time was spent in leaning on shovels or hoes or resting in the shade, for a day on the roads was widely regarded as a holiday from farm work. Rum flowed freely, stories were told, and impromptu footraces and contests of strength occasionally were held. At the end of the day the workers were given credit for a day’s labor and left the roads in little better condition than they had found them.

In spite of these road conditions, traffic increased considerably during the latter half of the eighteenth century. One reason was that inland areas had become more fully settled. Families struggling to overcome the wilderness at first were able to procure little more than a bare subsistence and had little to trade with the outside world. But by the early 1790s, according to a contemporary account, even in towns settled no earlier than the time of the Revolution “the present inhabitants have overcome the first difficulties of clearing their farms, and begin to furnish considerable supplies of produce for market.” Butter, cheese, beef, pork, and other articles able to bear the cost of transportation over poor roads to the markets along the coast and navigable rivers were traded at inland stores for sugar, spirits, hardware, and occasional “gewgaws” such as “new fashioned blue and white ware,” “Very Elegant Fruit Baskets and Stands,” “wood painted fans,” and “silver tea and table spoons, sleeve buttons, knee buckles, broaches and clasps.” During the slack winter months many farmers brought sleds loaded with their produce to sell in Boston, Portsmouth, and other markets from as far away as northern Vermont and New Hampshire. One winter Saturday in 1803 more than 700 sleds and sleighs entered the river town of Hudson, New York, by way of a toll road leading from Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

The Revolutionary War was another factor in the growth of transportation. It created a temporary need for the movement of men and supplies over long distances, but more importantly, perhaps, many a New Englander returned from service with a greater realization that the world was not bounded by the limits of his own town and that distances could be overcome. Levi Pease, for example, had been a blacksmith in Blandford, Massachusetts, before serving as a courier and procurer of supplies during the Revolution. In 1783 he decided to start a stage line between Boston and Hartford despite the warning of at least one skeptic that there would not be sufficient patronage for such a line “in your day or mine.” There were then only about a dozen stage lines in New England, the longest of which ran between Boston and Portsmouth. Pease and his partner, starting business with two coaches and twelve horses, persisted even though at first they sometimes carried no passengers at all. They gradually attracted patronage and by 1786 had thrice?weekly stages running between Boston and New York. By 1795 there were “upwards of an hundred horses, and twenty carriages employed” between Boston and New Haven alone and competitors were trying to emulate Pease’s success.

Finally, business opportunities resulting from war in Europe during most of the period between 1793 and 1815 led to further growth in transportation. It was largely because of these opportunities that Timothy Pitkin could write in 1816, “No nation, it is believed, has ever increased so rapidly in wealth as the United States.” Shipping interests enjoyed the greatest profits, but farmers, who still relied primarily on overseas markets in a pre?industrial United States, also benefited from a growth in foreign demand. The quantity of barreled pork exported from the United States in 1795, for example, was more than three times what it had been four years earlier. Even so remote a community as Peacham, in northern Vermont, shared in the prosperity and a storekeeper there in 1801 warned “those few individuals who have dispensed with punctuality in their payments” that “it is much better for them to make remittances now, when articles of the country command a good price, than after they have fallen at least 50 per cent, which will probably take place, at the termination of the European war.”

By the end of the eighteenth century a growing number of New Englanders thus were directly affected by the condition of the roads. Among the number were stagecoach operators, storekeepers who made semiannual purchasing trips to New York or Boston in addition to using the roads for the transportation of goods, and those farmers who received lower prices for their produce at inland stores because transportation costs were high as well as those who made marketing trips themselves. The attitude of many of them was summed up in the complaint of a Connecticut farmer that “our winters are often open ? our spring and fall are rainy ? yet these are the seasons for going to market, and the poor farmer who lives 30 or 40 miles from water, must risk his cattle and his carriage, or lose the benefit of market.” Why, he wondered, must “the interior towns [continue] to drag their produce to market thro’ deep mud to the axle?trees of their carts and Waggons?”

As Americans during the 1790’s sought to form “a more perfect union,” the improvement of transportation facilities for purposes of both defense and development came to be regarded as a patriotic duty. This, together with the already growing importance of roads in New England and in other parts of the United States where forces similar to those described were at work, led to demands for improvement of the highways and for reform of the system of local responsibility for the roads. As long as the towns remained seemingly free to do almost as they pleased, according to one observer, “three centuries, perhaps ten, will pass away before the roads are made good and more money will be spent in vain than would dig the canals of China.”

Although the towns in theory were answerable to the states, laws relating to road standards had proved difficult to enforce. It was recognized that many towns, particularly the newer and more sparsely settled ones, lacked resources as well as the inclination to maintain through roads, which at any rate seemed to be primarily for the benefit of the travelers who used them. During the years following the Revolution, however, the states generally were in no position to assume the responsibility themselves or to increase already unpopular tax burdens. The day when they could look to the federal government for assistance in such matters still was far in the future. English eighteenth?century experience with toll roads financed by bonding had shown, moreover, that it was possible to secure better roads by requiring those who actually used them to pay the cost.

Given proper incentives, individuals with money to invest stood ready to undertake road building projects. With proper regulation, voluntary associations of such individuals might well prove more amenable as agents of the state than the towns had been. Toll bridge corporations had enjoyed some success during the 1780s and during the 90s a number of states similarly began chartering semi?public turnpike corporations, the name turnpike having been derived from an early device used to stop travelers on English toll roads. Although turnpike companies were owned by private shareholders who were to be permitted profits on their investments of as much as twelve per cent a year from the collection of tolls, it was well understood that they were in business to perform a public service as well as to earn profits. They were required to build and maintain their roads to standards approved by public commissioners, to charge no more than legally established rates of toll, and to locate their tollgates at specified intervals (usually ten miles) to prevent overcharging. In most cases the states also sought to protect the public by retaining the right to condemn and award compensation for land taken for turnpike use, thus erecting a barrier against abuses such as later occurred when railroads were given considerable freedom in determining their routes. As a further safeguard, most turnpike charters were to expire after the companies had earned back their investment plus profits averaging twelve per cent a year. Complaints that turnpikes were “injurious to the Rights of free men” usually were based on objections to paying toll. On the whole, public interests were fairly well protected during the turnpike era.

The Lancaster Turnpike, chartered by Pennsylvania in 1792, was the first toll?road corporation in the United States, although previously there had been a few experiments with toll roads based on the English model of a turnpike trust with a bonded debt to pay in Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut. Rhode Island established the second such corporation in 1794 and within two years each of the New England states had chartered at least one turnpike. With its relatively heavy concentration of population and wealth, the region during the next decade took the lead in this form of enterprise. In 1800 two?thirds of the seventy?two toll roads in the United States were in New England, twenty?three in Connecticut. “Turnpike roads seem to be the great rage of the day,” a traveler in Berkshire County observed in 1801. Two years later the Rev. William Bentley predicted that Essex County, Massachusetts, soon would “be intersected with the best [turnpike] roads, & the whole will probably be lucrative to adventurers.” By 1808, when Jefferson’s Embargo interrupted foreign trade and helped to bring an end to turnpike fever in New England, most of the important routes of travel and many unimportant ones had been taken over and improved by corporations.

Most New England toll roads, according to Fisher Ames, the former Federalist Congressman who was himself president of a turnpike company, were built “to facilitate country produce on its way to market.” Many closely followed previously established routes between the back country and the principal market towns. Boston, New England’s principal commercial center, became the hub of its turnpike system, with toll roads radiating outwards towards Providence, Hartford, the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, and the New Hampshire line. A number of the latter roads connected with turnpikes leading across New Hampshire to the Connecticut River, where they in turn were linked with Vermont toll roads. Other New Hampshire turnpikes led towards Portsmouth and Portland. In western New England turnpikes led towards the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. In Rhode Island they were used to carry farm produce to Providence from rural towns in that state and parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Throughout the region, many of these roads, varying in length from a few miles to fifty or more, were combined into longer chains for through travel. Thus it was possible to journey most of the way from Boston to Burlington, Albany, or New York on toll roads. From Albany other turnpikes led most of the way across New York State.

Connecticut developed by far the most complex network of toll roads in New England. A visitor to that state in 1807 found “in almost every ... direction a turnpike?road; for, these roads being here made objects of private gain, and not as in England, of merely public care, they are established with avidity, on the smallest prospect of advantage.” Unlike Massachusetts or Rhode Island, Connecticut had no great center of wealth and commerce comparable with Boston or Providence and there was considerable competition among its market towns for the trade of the back country. Merchants and other interested individuals in Bridgeport, Hartford, Middletown, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, and Norwich were active in making their towns turnpike centers as a means of furthering that competition. Many of these towns had direct trade with the West Indies and all traded by water with New York or Boston, the principal centers for foreign trade. A number of inland towns, including Litchfield, Tolland, Torrington, and Windham, also became toll road centers upon which vehicles loaded with farm produce or imported goods converged from all directions. Competition for trade may have been one reason why Connecticut corporations continued to build toll roads until the mid?1830’s, while relatively few turnpike projects were undertaken in other New England states after 1808. More than eighty?six per cent of the 113 turnpike corporations chartered by the Connecticut legislature succeeded in raising the capital needed for their projects, while only slightly more than half the companies elsewhere in New England were similarly successful.

Although it was hoped at first that toll roads would return substantial earnings, Fisher Ames as early as 1802 wrote, “Turnpikes with the fairest prospect of success have seldom proved profitable.” Turnpike stock within a few years usually sold at far below its original cost. Although the financial records that have been preserved are far from complete, it is probable that a majority of New England toll roads failed even to earn back the cost of capital expenditures. Maintenance costs were one important factor in holding down earnings; the success of the public in evading toll payments was another. Since tollgates frequently were as far as ten miles apart, much of the local traffic using these free?access roads did so without paying any toll. In addition, toll roads, which usually followed a fairly straight course, often crossed older, winding roads in a number of places; travelers frequently were able to bypass tollgates by detouring temporarily onto one of these “shunpikes.” The Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike, main route between Boston and Providence, crossed one such road thirteen times in the space of a few miles; Ames, its president, once estimated that the company’s earnings would be almost sixty per cent greater if it were not for shunpikes. The owners of the Powder Mill Turnpike complained to the Rhode Island legislature that its road “hath ... so many places for turning Off, that unreasonable designing travellers, constantly take advantage of such old ... roads, avoiding the gate.” Connecticut turnpike companies, which often made only minor improvements (the average expenditure per mile for toll roads in that state was about $550 as against $1300 in New Hampshire), had by far the best earnings. The Talcott Mountain Turnpike, part of the main route between Hartford and Albany, had average profits of 10.9 per cent a year for four decades and at least twenty other companies earned average profits of from three to 9.5 per cent a year for ten years or longer. Elsewhere in New England, only five roads are known to have had earnings within the same range.

While turnpikes seldom returned direct profits to investors, they did benefit many merchants and tavern keepers in the form of new trade. Real estate values in the vicinity of toll roads tended to rise. Those who used the new roads also benefited. Timothy Dwight, in describing the turnpike between Norwich and New London, wrote that before it was built

“few persons attempted to go from one of the places to the other, and return, on the same day. The new road is smooth and good; and the journey is now easily performed in little more than two hours. These towns, therefore, may be regarded as having been brought nearer to each other more than half a day’s journey.”

Robert Rantoul wrote of the Salem Turnpike in 1872

“How much the new route, only twelve miles and a fraction long, did to bring us and the metropolis together, will be recalled with pleasure by some yet living who enjoyed for the first time, in the fall of 1803, an evening ride to Boston with a ball, a concert, or a play in prospect to give zest to the excursion.”

Most importantly, perhaps, turnpike companies introduced and popularized improved methods of road building. Roads that once had been little more than cleared paths, narrow and winding, were widened and straightened. Crowned surfaces and ditches were used to provide drainage. Gravel also was used on the better toll roads. Turnpike builders, to be sure, often were so preoccupied with the shortening of distances that they chose to follow a straight line over steep hills that should have been avoided. Many such mistakes eventually had to be corrected, but in general grades on turnpikes probably were less steep than those on many earlier roads, which had been built from farm to farm with little regard for either distance or grade. Efforts were made, moreover, to reduce some of the worst grades by means of cutting and filling.

These methods soon were put to use by some towns to improve roads still under local control. A resident of Goshen, Connecticut, wrote in 1812

“The common roads in this town have for the last ten years been in a state of rapid improvement. This has been owing partly, to the running of two turnpike roads through the town, crossing each other at the meeting house, which not only throws more [of the townspeople’s] labour on the common roads but gives us ... a precedent [for their improvement].”

Daniel Webster recalled in later years that before the turnpike era there had been no road usable by carriages between New Hampshire’s three major rivers. “Perhaps,” he said, “the most valuable result of making these turnpike roads was the diffusion of knowledge upon road making among the people; for in a few years afterward, great numbers of the people went to church, to electoral and other meetings, in chaises and wagons, over very tolerable roads.”

Following its decline after 1808, road building activity became intensified again between 1820 and 1840. A number of new highways were built as New England began to turn toward manufacturing and as older communities situated near suitable sources of water power began to grow and new ones came into existence. Private investors by then seldom were willing to undertake risky toll?road projects. As a result, despite continued opposition, the burden of building roads “of general use and importance to the public” once again was thrust upon the towns. In Massachusetts and New

Hampshire the counties occasionally shared part of the cost. New laws gave the counties firm authority over the towns in matters relating to roads, particularly in Massachusetts and Maine, where elected county commissioners were empowered to order and supervise the building of any road they considered necessary and to have the work done at the expense of any town that refused to carry out their orders. These laws were unpopular and similar ones soon were repealed in Vermont and New Hampshire. Before 1840, however, public roads once again had become the dominant element in New England’s highway system.

These newer roads in many instances took traffic from the turnpikes, a number of which went out of business between 1820 and 1840. By the latter date some toll roads also were affected by competition from railroads. Those that remained in business came to be regarded as obnoxious vestiges of a period when governments had granted special privileges to favored groups. Petitioners to the New Hampshire legislature, in 1834 complained that

“In the early days of this country, such corporations tended greatly to facilitate the public travel; yet, when towns became sufficiently wealthy to support Free Roads, Turnpikes became a grievance to the inhabitants, and a burden to the traveler.”

New Hampshire in 1838 enacted a law under which town selectmen were permitted to condemn a turnpike company’s property and take it over as a public road. But even in New Hampshire it appears that the towns usually permitted companies to continue maintaining their roads until declining revenues forced them out of business. By this time their property was virtually worthless and the towns were compelled to award them very little in the way of damages. Probably half the toll roads in New England had ceased to operate by 1850; nearly all were gone by the end of the century. The last company abandoned its road about the time of World War I.

New England’s highway system in 1840 was still the best in the United States, although far below the standards of such advanced countries as England and France. The best roads were in eastern Massachusetts and in the vicinity of Hartford, Providence, and other large towns. These were in good condition nearly all year except for short periods during the early spring and fall. The worst roads may have been in Maine, where it was reported in 1832, “the communication is uniformly good only for a few months in summer, and a few weeks in the winter.” According to the same account, however, New England roads were considered “generally fine,” [and] are thronged with stage coaches, most of which are good.”

Fifty years after Levi Pease went into the coaching business, nearly 300 stage lines served almost every corner of the region. In 1790 most travel had been on horseback and private pleasure vehicles had been a rare sight out side the largest towns. In 1840 there were more than 6,000 such vehicles in Connecticut alone and a traveler on horseback had become a rare sight. The two?wheeled oxcart commonly had been used for hauling heavy loads in 1790. Before 1840 four?wheeled wagons drawn by horses were “used in almost every family in the country” and were to be found on the roads hauling wool and other supplies purchased throughout New England and parts of New York from agents in Boston and Providence to mills in Oxford, Southbridge, and Webster, Massachusetts. They returned with finished cloth. They carried great loads of mackerel barrels from coopers’ shops in southern New Hampshire to the wharves of Boston, Newburyport, Portsmouth, and Salem, iron, marble, and lime from western Connecticut and Massachusetts to shipping points along the Hudson River.

Farmers throughout the period continued to make winter journeys to market and drovers brought large numbers of cattle and hogs to the great Brighton market near Boston from all over northern New England and parts of New York. Country storekeepers also continued to take farm produce in trade, sending it to market in return for store goods. Brimfield, Massachusetts, had three stores and according to the recollection of one resident:

“Every Saturday afternoon the sheds and hitching post were surrounded by the horses and, wagons of the farmers who had come into town with their wives and daughters to trade off their poultry, butter and eggs for store goods, and in the fall of the year, when the hogs had been killed and the turkeys fattened and dressed for market, the store keepers would purchase them, and some Monday morning when they had made up a load would start a man and team for Boston with them, who would return Saturday night with a wagon load of new goods, the arrival of which was an occasion of great interest.”

Transportation needs grew sufficiently before 1840 for teaming to become a regular form of employment. Regularly scheduled baggage wagons operated between the larger towns; independent teamsters also worked for store keepers, factory owners, and other businessmen. A survey in 1828 of the transportation needs of thirty?five towns near the route of a proposed railroad from Boston to Albany showed that an estimated average of 740 tons a year was transported by land between each town and its markets. It was reported at the same time that an average of forty loaded wagons a day carrying 14,000 tons a year passed through Bolton, Massachusetts, on their way between Boston and towns in the vicinity of Greenfield, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont. One teamster, Moses Peck, made more than 100 trips between Montpelier, Vermont, and Boston between 1820 and 1828, drawing loads of up to four tons with his six?horse team. Vehicles such as Peck’s were part of what Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837 described as

“the endless procession of wagons loaded with the wealth of all regions of England and China, of Turkey, of the Indies, which from Boston creep by my gate to all the towns of New Hampshire and Vermont. With creaking wheels at midsummer, and, crunching the snows, on huge sledges in January, the train goes forward at all hours, bearing this cargo of inexhaustible comfort and luxury to every cabin in the hills.”

By present standards the roads and vehicles of the time were still primitive and Emerson’s “endless procession” was but a trickle. Although they declined somewhat during the period, transportation costs (often as high as $20 per ton for 100 miles) continued to affect prices and to exclude bulky, low?value products from distant markets. Dairy products and meat, along with wool, were still among the relatively few items of farm produce that could be transported profitably long distances. The price of wool, which in December 1830 sold in Boston for from thirty to sixty?seven cents per pound, was little affected by transportation costs. Hay, on the other hand, sold for only sixty to seventy cents per hundred pounds, and it cost about as much as that commodity was worth to transport it by land sixty or seventy miles. The distance i it could be transported profitably was much less than that. The farmers of New Braintree, in central Massachusetts, sent 200 tons of cheese, butter, and pork to market in Boston in 1822, but it was complained that transportation costs prevented them from growing oats or potatoes commercially and from purchasing plaster of Paris for use as a fertilizer. Vermont, because of its distance from most markets, was particularly hard hit by freighting costs. Governor Samuel Crafts complained in 1830 that “the more bulky products of our agriculture, of our forests, and our mountains, excepting so much as are necessary for the use of our inhabitants, are valueless.” Worcester, Massachusetts, was only about forty miles from Boston, but the charge for overland freight during the 20’s and early 30’s was about $10 per ton; “it costs less to transport a ton of heavy goods from Liverpool ... to Boston, than from Boston to Worcester.”

After the opening of the Boston and Worcester Railroad in 1835 the cost of freighting was reduced to about $3.50 per ton. Such reductions led many New Englanders to hope that railroads would permit farmers and manufacturers to do a much greater volume of business and to market a greater variety of products than was possible as long as they had to rely on highway transportation. But some changes that the railroads were to bring were not anticipated. Cheaper transportation enabled western farmers to compete successfully with their New England counterparts in supplying some types of food to the region’s growing cities. And the residents of more than one village that had been outstripped by towns closer to the railroad probably came to echo the complaint that “railroads are sometimes feeders and sometimes drains.”

Developments in transportation during the decades after 1840 far surpassed the “wonderful results” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet even before the railroad era, the physical isolation of New England’s inland communities had been broken down to a considerable extent. “Of late years,” the editor of a Concord, New Hampshire, paper wrote in 1839, “such has been the passion for improving roads, for evading bad hills, shortening distances and turning travelers by particular locations” that transportation had been facilitated “to an extent beyond what . . . settlers fifty and sixty years ago would have anticipated.” Even during muddy periods of spring and fall, “so much has travel increased, so great is the transit of heavy goods, as well as of many travellers to and from the interior and seaboard, that at the worst period of the roads there seems, if possible, to be most travel.”

The road, Horace Bushnell wrote shortly after 1840, “is that physical sign or symbol by which you will best understand any age or people ... for if there is any motion in society, the road, which is the symbol of motion, will indicate the fact.” Better roads and increased traffic during the period 1790 to 1840 resulted from and contributed to a quickening pulse in the economic and social life.


Roger N. Parks, Roads and Travel in New England 1790-1840, (Sturbridge, Mass.: Old Sturbridge Village, 1967).

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.