turnpike

Development of Turnpike Roads

In England tollgates were first authorized by law in 1346. Although American colonists from Scotland and Ireland, as well as from England, knew the turnpike system, it was not introduced in the United States until after the Revolution. It was then that the business interests of growing cities first required through roads, most of which could not be built and maintained by local funds in unsettled or sparsely settled regions. The tollgate, like the later gasoline tax, was a device to make the traffic pay for the road.

Early Turnpikes in America

The first American turnpike road was a state enterprise, authorized by a Virginia act of 1785. The first American turnpike to be constructed and operated by a private corporation was the Lancaster Turnpike built (1792) in Pennsylvania. Thereafter turnpikes were regularly private enterprises, and turnpike corporations held the leadership in the development of the American corporation system. The construction of turnpikes proceeded rapidly, and by 1825 a map of the Eastern states showing the turnpikes would have looked much like a present-day map showing the railroads. Famous turnpikes included the post road from New York to Boston (now part of U.S. 1), the two roads from New York to Albany (on the two sides of the Hudson River), and the roads from Albany to Buffalo, main lines of communication with the developing West.

Construction and Traffic in the Early Nineteenth Century

Construction of one of the early roads usually began with felling trees and uprooting stumps. Swamps were crossed by corduroy, i.e., logs laid side by side. The surface of the turnpike was sometimes of earth, but often of broken stone or of planks. American turnpikes thrived from c.1800 to c.1840, as did the passenger stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon. The coach had places for 8 to 14 passengers and was drawn by four or six horses; the wagon, for freight, was drawn by six or eight horses. The traffic over the turnpikes also included droves of horses, cattle, and sheep. Settlers going West often used turnpikes on the first part of their route. Tollgates were 6 to 10 mi (9.7–16.1 km) apart, and tolls were commonly from 10¢ to 25¢ for a vehicle, depending on its type. Turnpikes that were not profitable were turned over to the states. After the coming of canals and railroads, abandonment became general.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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