The Other Main Line

More than 200 years ago, America’s first toll road was established between Philadelphia and Lancaster. E-ZPass would have to wait.

Traveling on early toll roads could be treacherous, and washouts were common.It may seem like a more recent phenomenon, but the toll road era in Pennsylvania actually began in 1791. That year, legislation was passed, chartering the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike Company to connect the two communities. The first such undertaking in the United States, Pennsylvania’s effort was a bellwether for other states—not to mention a vast improvement over the “Old Lancaster Road.” Following closely the route of its predecessor, it boasted smoother, wider surfaces.

The circumstances that set this mise-en-scène in motion happened years before. The earliest roads in Pennsylvania were first trod by moccasins and hooves—used in hunting game—at times becoming a warpath. Many routes traced along rivers and streams. It was along those corridors that settlements sprang up. Those early byways served as routes to transport goods and supplies, but with a fair amount of difficulty. A man on foot could manage terrain that was steep or heavily wooded and also make his way around fallen trees or craggy outcroppings. But with a wagon, those maneuvers were extremely difficult.

In the late 17th century, the citizens of the Pennsylvania Colony argued for improved roadways, as those in existence were “incommodious.” But it wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War that the new avenues of transport came to fruition.

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In the early Colonial period, the township through which the section of road passed was responsible for said route. Local residents had the choice of taking up pick and shovel to improve those roads, or paying a fee. Neither materialized. Later, the routes became the obligation of the county courts—but there was little improvement.

An account of tolls received.As Pennsylvania grew, petitions for new roads multiplied. But the government didn’t have the financial wherewithal to assume responsibility for the construction of a system throughout the Commonwealth. Private enterprise was the answer. From 1791 to the late 1800s, the legislature authorized the issuance of charters, dictating turnpike companies to construct those badly needed toll roads. Their success rested upon the assumption that the money collected would pay the private companies to construct and maintain them.

The Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike Company was the result of the increased population and commerce. Folks showed such enthusiasm, and those wishing to buy stock in the turnpike company were so numerous, that eager investors had to be drawn by lot. Many were turned away.

Other turnpikes followed. Charters were awarded, and stock was proffered to obtain funds to complete and maintain those new toll roads. The design was not without pitfalls. The topography—severe in some cases—caused the departure from the proposed route. Those who might gain financially from a new thoroughfare would, to say the least, lobby hard for the route to allow access to their place of business. Lack of a labor force and shortages of materials like crushed stone were also impediments.

Turnpikes were not always welcome. The new, wider roads increased in number, allowing for more wagon trade. This took business away from those using pack-animal trains to haul goods. Bad blood bubbled over between packhorse drivers and the wagon freighters. Often, fists flew when they came face to face. And with the demise of rutted roads, many a blacksmith was left with idle time, as fewer repairs were needed.

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During this heightened time of business travel, the roads hummed with traffic. Traveling the Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike in May 1810, Sister Catherine Fritsch noticed that tollgate keepers “were usually busily engaged in taking the toll, for sometimes three or four conveyances stood in waiting.”

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The terms “turnpike” and “toll road” were names assigned to thoroughfares years earlier in England. When the colonists laid anchor in this New World, customs, lore and vocabulary from the old country arrived with them. “Turnpike” was derived from the term “pike,” which is a long lance secured horizontally across the road. When the toll was paid, the pike would be turned, opening the way for the traveler to pass. That fee would be paid at the tollhouse, adjacent to the pike.

At that time, the turnpike from Philadelphia to Lancaster was a modern marvel. It was made in the manner developed by John MacAdam—a hardened surface of pulverized stone. Upon its completion in 1796, the Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America described it as “a masterpiece of its kind.” The construction of the 62-mile turnpike that would connect townships in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties was divided into five sections or districts, each having distinct issues.

Addressing some of those considerations, fifth district superintendent Matthias Slough avowed that he was an honest man and turned a deaf ear to those landowners who were suing to have the road run “crooked” to suit their ambitions. He also came under fire, stamped with the odium of progressing too slowly. Defending himself, he decried that his proposed roadway passed through an area of fertile fields. So busy tending those fields, farmers had little time available to offer their labor in constructing roads. Comprised of barren fields, the fourth district, on the other hand, allowed for a ready supply of laborers. What’s more, stone for the roadbed was readily available in that district. Slough’s stone had to be carted from a “good way off,” eating up valuable time.

Building turnpikes was one thing. Maintaining and repairing them was another. Washouts were common. Stumps previously hidden below grade suddenly appeared, and rocky surfaces were sometimes too rough. “The stones are very large and ought to be broken finer,” observed one surveyor as he inspecting the roadbeds in 1806.

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Throughout Pennsylvania, rough roads were the standard. Leader of the settlement in Germantown, Francis Pastorius spoke volumes when he wrote, “The path to Germantown has, by frequent going to and fro, been so strongly beaten that a road has been formed.”

In 1709, those residents in the Germantown environs recognized that more than a beaten path was needed and petitioned the Assembly for a “Publick” road to be laid out at such a distance to reach their “plantacons.” As populations increased and spread westward, the need for more accessible routes became apparent. Travel throughout the boroughs increased to the point that, in spring months, those conditions were exacerbated. The wet weather turned the previously hard ruts into slosh, causing freighters’ wagons to sink in the mire. Many a teamster would rail against the powers that be, shaking his fist toward the sky.

The state of the roads throughout Pennsylvania mirrored the rest of the country. The communities were all in the same rut. Addressing conditions, one was heard to say, “The roads are impassable, hardly jackassable.”

An act was passed in 1801, calling for the charter of a turnpike company to complete the toll road from Philadelphia through Germantown, ending at Perkiomen creek. And so it went. More charters were granted. In 1811, another act called for a route leading from Philadelphia to Wissahickon Creek, and from there to Norristown. The Germantown & Reading Turnpike Company was directed to build an “artificial” road through Hickorytown and on to Pottstown.

As more turnpike companies fulfilled their projects, a network began to emerge. The York & Gettysburg Turnpike opened in 1819, completing a link in a chain connecting Chambersburg and Philadelphia. A number of toll roads served as feeder routes, allowing access to bridges spanning large streams. Routes would connect communities to rivers like the Allegheny, the Susquehanna and the Schuylkill. Goods could then be ferried across the waterways. As the network expanded toll roads connected land routes to Lake Erie commerce.

These new toll roads of crushed stone were a vast improvement; eliminating rutted thoroughfares. Gone were the deep gullies and the numerous stumps extending above grade, along with the need to place logs crossways over the roadbed in boggy areas—what were referred to as “corduroy roads.”

Tolls were set by the legislature, and any income from the said tolls above 9 or 10 percent would be earmarked for paying off the shares of the turnpike corporation. Anyone owning or driving a cart, wagon, sleigh, phaeton or carriage or other like vehicle was obligated to pay a designated toll. Those driving or leading cattle, sheep, hogs, horses or other beasts were also responsible for a specific fee per animal.

Some travelers were averse to, or simply couldn’t afford, the rates. Locals would detour around the gates, creating their own “shun” pikes. This problem so exasperated the turnpike directors threatened to hunt down the scofflaws with shotguns. Fines of up to $10 were levied instead.

In some cases, local residents feared they might be charged to travel the road for attending church services. Farmers wondered whether they’d have to pay each time they moved their livestock from one pasture to another. But such things were often exempt from tolls.

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The storied narrative of the toll-road system in Southeastern Pennsylvania is a barometer measuring the region’s growth and geographical expansion. Two hundred turnpike companies were incorporated from 1800 to 1830 throughout the Commonwealth, with the greater number fueling the economy of the Philadelphia area.

The chartered toll-road companies amounted to almost half of Pennsylvania’s total number of business corporations organized during that same period. Not all charters resulted in completed roads. Common issues, including lack of investors or an inadequate labor force, added to the failure rate. Severe topography, swampy conditions, impassable rocky crags and heavily wooded areas could double or triple the already-formidable construction costs, which averaged $5,000-$7,500 per mile for the MacAdam roadbeds. Such extreme factors could put a project financially out of reach.

In the mid-19th century, plank roads gained popularity as a cheaper improvement over deteriorating dirt roads. In 1848, the aforementioned Philadelphia & West Chester Turnpike Road Company was organized with the goal of improving commerce between townships in Chester and Delaware counties. To alleviate the muddy conditions, Hemlock planks were laid atop wood braces, making a noisy but smoother base for hooves and wagon wheels.

By the late 19th century, quite a number of plank road companies were chartered. In areas where supplies of lumber were available, these were a feasible alternative. The major drawback was the life span of the planks—they would fail due to the heavy loads put upon them or begin to show signs of rot. Within a few years, the members would have to be repaired or replaced. During this period, construction of plank roads went on throughout the Commonwealth. In 1854, the state Legislature set regulations for the incorporation of the West Chester & Wilmington Plank Road Company, which completed a route from West Chester to Dilworthtown. Within a few short years, the plank surface was replaced with crushed stone.

Pennsylvania’s toll road system established a network of arteries connecting the entire state, fueling the Commonwealth’s economy, and allowing supplies and materials to flow from one end to the other. Remnants of the roads laid out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are with us today. A portion of the old Philadelphia & Lancaster Turnpike became part of Route 30 and trails through Paoli, Villanova, Ardmore and Wynnewood. And Route 3 shadows sections of the original Philadelphia & West Chester Turnpike. All are vestiges of a network that was a major link connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the country’s western frontier of Ohio and beyond.

A retired regional planner whose 1951 Chevy pickup reflects his passion for history and antiques, David McCormick has written for America’s Civil War and Wild West magazines. He lives in Springfield, Mass.

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