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America’s first toll road: The Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike

Early Pennsylvania Roads

When European settlers first arrived in Pennsylvania, they found the land crisscrossed by a maze of trails created by Native Americans stretching in every direction. Over time, many of these trails evolved into roads.

William Penn provided for road building. The first record of a public road in colonial Pennsylvania dates back to 1696 in Oxford Township, Philadelphia. As pioneers moved westward, roads were built to transport goods back and forth.

Pennsylvania’s highway system started in 1731 when the Provincial Council provided funds to build a road between Philadelphia and Lancaster. Additional roads were then constructed between Easton, Allentown, Reading, and from Harrisburg thru York to the Potomac. As traffic increased, inns and taverns opened every mile.

British Major General Edward Braddock (January 1695 – 13 July 1755).
British Major General Edward Braddock (January 1695 – 13 July 1755).

One could argue that America’s first highway to the western frontier was cut thru the forests of southwestern Pennsylvania by General Edward Braddock when he led an ill-fated British Expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne in 1755. Sections of this road form most of eastern U.S. Route 40 in Maryland and Pennsylvania and are known as “Braddock’s Road.”

Braddock Road trace near Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania.
Braddock Road trace near Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania.

Simply put, Pennsylvania roads were terrible from the very beginning. Insert the obligatory PennDOT joke here. At the time, roads were what was called “laid out.” That means trees were cut down to clear a path, but their stumps were not removed. The goal was to cut the tree low enough so the axles would pass over them. This gives you an idea of why Conestoga Wagons are so high. In addition to the stumps, large rocks were also not removed.

Worse than the stumps and the rocks was the mud! During certain times of the year, many roads were completely impassable. Enter the Lancaster Turnpike!

A covered wagon getting stuck in the mud. Painted by Alexandre Josquin.
A covered wagon getting stuck in the mud. Painted by Alexandre Josquin.

The Lancaster Turnpike

The Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike Road was the first hard-surfaced road in the United States. Interestingly enough, the Commonwealth could not afford to pay for its construction, so it was privately built. The total bill was $465,000 or $7,500 per mile. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $153,975 per mile in 2020. Modern paved roads cost typically cost $1 million per mile.

The two-year-long construction project was completed in 1795. The 20-foot wide road stretched 62 miles long from 34th Street in Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River in Columbia (then called Wright’s Ferry).

Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike map circa 1796.
Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike map circa 1796.

The road followed a trail initially made by the Welsh traveling from Philadelphia to make their new homes in eastern Lancaster County.

Pop Quiz: Why do we call toll roads a turnpike?

Using a plan devised by Scotchman John Macadam, a foundation of broken limestone and gravel of various sizes were placed on a cleared road surface. Next, a smoother stone was deposited on top of this and then loosely packed. Once opened, the road’s traffic made the materials compacted and firm.

John_Loudon_MacAdam_2_resize_md
Construction of a macadamized in 1823. In the foreground, workers are breaking stones “so as not to exceed 6 ounces in weight or to pass a two-inch ring”.

Ten toll houses were built along the route. It was here that a long pole called a “pike” was placed across the road. At these locations, travelers had to stop and pay the toll. Once that happened, the pike was raised or turned; hence the term turnpike.

The charges for a four-horse-team between gates were 50 cents. A horse and rider paid 6-1/4 cents. School-age children, ministers, and soldiers did not have to pay.

payTollTurnpike2
Turning the pike at a toll house. Image by Patrick M. Reynolds.

Sometimes the gatekeeper’s wife sold food to travelers. Waiting rooms were provided at some tollgates where people could rest.

At the time of its construction, the Lancaster Turnpike was famous. It allowed people for the first time ever the ability to travel rapidly. Horses did not have to work as hard to pull their loads; therefore, they lived longer. Wagons did not need repairs as often, so they lasted longer.

In fact, the Lancaster Turnpike was such a pleasure to travel people did not even mind paying the toll. That’s hard to imagine today!

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