Today, most of us spend our lives moving around on paved streets and roads, and we tend to view our world as a series of locations connected by lines on a map. But the earliest European settlers in North America encountered a vast, amorphous wilderness. In this wilderness there existed no roads, nor any convenient means of transporting objects and people from place to place.
The very first roads in the US were bison paths. These were useful for human purposes, because they tended to link water sources and followed the most level routes. Similar to these were the network of Indian trails, which also followed paths of least resistance. With the help of Indians, early American colonists were able to improve these trails, widening them to accommodate wagons.
During the colonial period, mail was an extremely important means of communication. The first highway in America, the Boston Post Road, dates to 1673. It took a post rider two weeks on this unpaved road to deliver the mail from New York City to Boston. Deputy postmaster Benjamin Franklin personally toured the 500 miles of the Boston Post Road to mark the route with milestones. Eventually, all the major cities in the thirteen colonies were connected by a system of post roads.
In the late 1700s, the introduction of stagecoach passenger and mail service made road improvements necessary. By the time of the Revolutionary War, larger colonies were actively building roads, especially the type known as “corduroy” roads, constructed of wooden planks.
But after the war, federal and state governments quit building roads, and private companies took over. Land companies bought right-of-ways and cleared land to build wagon trails. The first hard-surface road in America was constructed by a private company, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turn Pike Company. It was a 62-mile toll road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania that was made of broken stones and gravel, built in 1794.
During the next forty years, private companies built many more “turn pikes,” so called because of the toll gates, known as “pikes,” at which travelers were required to stop and pay a fee. These fees went to cover the cost of road maintenance. About 3,000 miles of these roads were built in the early 1800s.
But as the 19th century progressed, interest in road construction began to wane. Toll fees could no longer cover the costs of road maintenance. The cheapest and most common means of transporting men and materials was by water. To facilitate east-west traffic, a system of canals was built. The 1840s saw the brief appearance of both the steamboat and the fast clipper ship. These technological advances caused road building to fall out of favor for a time.
America’s westward expansion was conducted mostly by horse-drawn wagon train along a few main routes. These famous pioneer trails included the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail and others. By the mid-1800s stagecoach passenger travel had also become commonplace; each stagecoach company developed its own preferred route to the west coast. All these “roads” were actually just crude pathways of dust and mud.
Disputes over routing helped to delay the development of overland mail service until 1857, when Congress passed an act offering mail contracts to private companies. The first contract went to Butterfield’s Southern Overland Mail; they chose the 2,795-mile Oxbow Route from St. Louis to San Francisco, with stages at ten-mile intervals. Mail service took nearly a month. The famous Pony Express offered an expensive, yet high-speed alternative – mail service in less than a week! – until the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete in 1861.
The years following the Civil War saw the development of transcontinental railroad service, and for the remainder of the century domestic land travel in America was dominated by trains.
Most cities at that time had only crude, dirt streets filled with garbage and animal waste. While urban residents struggled with congested, dirty, smelly city streets, rural America had to make the best of rutted, muddy or dusty earthen paths. Travel time to transport livestock or ripened crops to the nearest railhead was critical for farmers, but in favorable weather, a horse and buggy could travel only about five miles per hour along such roads.
Then in the 1890s a new invention helped to shift the nation’s focus back to the need for paved roads. That invention was the bicycle. Thousands of people got caught up in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. But because of the bad condition of most city streets, bicycle enthusiasts were forced to crowd onto the few paved surfaces that existed. Cyclists organized what was called the “Good Roads” movement, petitioning state and local governments for all-weather hard-surfaced roads and streets.
At the same time, the federal government also began to recognize the need for road improvements; after the institution of free rural postal delivery, the US Post Office was in dire need of better roads along its postal routes.
Finally, at the very end of the century, the invention of the automobile would usher in a new era of unprecedented road construction and change the landscape forever.