ConnDOT: Chapter 1 DOT History

Chapter 1 DOT History

Early travel in Connecticut
Before 1895

The first road in Connecticut, if it could be called that, was the Connecticut Path. This trail was already marked by 1633, when an English settler by the name of John Oldham traveled upon it to investigate the Connecticut River Indians' invitation to colonize the area, as English settlers had done in Massachusetts Bay. By 1635, the "New Way" into Connecticut was well marked by John Cable and John Woodstock, agents acting for William Pynchon, who had formed the plantation at what is now Roxbury, Massachusetts, and who had an interest in colonizing new lands and opening fur-trading routes. This "New Way" or Connecticut Bay Path, later known as the upper Boston Post Road, was settled so quickly that by 1638 the General Court, the Colony's legislative body, ordered that roads between Hartford and Windsor be laid out, and in 1640, that roads between the early towns be maintained. Soon thereafter, the construction, care and maintenance of highways was formally placed on the towns by the General Court, primarily to ensure the care of the route between the Connecticut Colony in Windsor and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This route was used by Connecticut Colony founder Reverend Thomas Hooker and his assistant Samuel Stone in 1636. In 1643, the Court ordered each Municipality to appoint two officials, known as surveyors, who were given the power to "call out every Teeme and person fitt for labour, in their course, one day every yeare, to mend said highwayes wherein they are to have a spetiall to those Common wayes which are betwixt Towne and Towne." This compulsory labor statute was enlarged in the 1650 Code of Laws, which authorized financial Penalties on those men who failed to meet their annual road work obligation of two days work a year: "if any refuse or neglect to attend the service in any manner aforesaid He shall forefeit for every dayes neglect of a mans worke two shillings sixpence, and of a Teame, sixe shillings . . ." This act formalized a custom that dated at least from medieval England. It would continue to remain in effect until the nineteenth century, providing the main source of workers for road and bridge construction.
Bridges were also under the jurisdiction of the General Court. In 1651, the Court resolved that a bridge should be built over the Connecticut River at Hartford (although such a bridge was not to be built until 1810). Throughout the seventeenth century, the Court ordered that bridges be built in a variety of locations.
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In 1670, when laying out a highway along the Connecticut River, the Court set the first standard width for a major road, calling for the road to be "six rod wide" (about 99 feet). This road formed a portion of the first post road, known as the Upper Post Route, the first of three declared as such when the Colonial post was established in 1671. These roads were meant to connect the newly conquered colony of New York, formerly New Amsterdam, with the Massachusetts Colony. The Lower Post Road ran along the Connecticut shoreline to Rhode Island, where it turned inland to Kingston, Rhode Island, and connected to Boston through Providence. The Middle Post Road connected Hartford and Boston via Coventry and Pomfret, Connecticut, and Mendon and Roxbury, Massachusetts. The Upper Post Road ran north from Hartford to Springfield, Massachusetts, and then east to Boston. Despite appearances on paper, these post roads were in some places barely passable paths. They were rock-strewn, boggy, and craggy . . . a fright to travel over. In good weather, a person on foot might travel 10 to 15 miles, maybe 18 to 20 miles on horseback. In 1679, the Court, in an effort to improve communication between settlements, ordered that the existing roads between plantations, as the towns were then called, be taken over and designated the King's Highway, but maintenance still remained the responsibility of the citizens of the towns through which they passed. Their poor quality was further attested by the General Court's order that the roads be cleared of brush until they were at least one rod (about 16 feet) wide. In the 1680s and 1690s, the Court ordered the laying out of the major roads between what were to become Connecticut's major cities. The Court also designated a committee method by which adjoining towns could agree on the location of connecting roads. Consequently, by the end of the seventeenth century, many miles of primitive road reached across Connecticut. The Colony's population was approaching 30,000 (the population in 1701) and road traffic had increased correspondingly. Travelers increasingly lost their way, so in 1698 the Court ordered that direction signs be placed at all road intersections or branchings.

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The seemingly equitable method of compulsory labor for road building and maintenance continued through the eighteenth century, with a correspondingly equitable distribution of poor results. Roads were simply not maintained because few were willing to participate in the requirement of compulsory work, and the penalty for not working does not appear to have been well-enforced. There were not enough funds to build roads without compulsory labor, although attempts to raise funds for roadway maintenance were made. Even lotteries were tried - unsuccessfully. Roads in Connecticut generally remained little more than widened dirt tracks throughout most of the eighteenth century. Despite road conditions during that period, there was little apparent desire for dramatically improving existing roads or changing maintenance policies. Most of the trade in the sparsely settled colonies was local, and the proximity of most towns to sea and river travel minimized the need for an improved road system. Most residents were farmers who had neither the time nor the money to construct better roads nor to make adequate repairs on the ones in use. In a sense, because of the primitive nature of the local road system and the reliance on water for trade, the colonies were commercially closer to Europe than they were to each other. Communication, at least by land, between the colonies was very infrequent, as illustrated by the fact that in 1772 there was only one stage coach a fortnight (every two weeks) between Boston and New York. Road building in early America was hardly scientific. There were no highway engineers, and power equipment was centuries away. Road construction consisted of teams of men and horses clearing away trees, brush, stumps and logs and then pushing the remaining earth roughly flat. Heavy equipment might have consisted of a plow or some form of crude horse-drawn scraper.

The American Revolution accelerated the demand for road and bridge building in the late eighteenth century. By the end of the war, however, many roads were impassable. Because Connecticut towns had contributed a great deal of money, material, and manpower to the war effort, they were unable to finance the repair of roads. And yet, improved roads were vital for the livelihood of the growing population of almost 200,000. After Connecticut attained statehood in 1788, the newly formed state lacked sufficient public capital to undertake a wholesale upgrading of the highway system. Subsequently, the Connecticut General Assembly granted franchises for the creation of private toll roads, a common practice in Great Britain. These roads were known as turnpikes because of the shape of the entrance gates on the roads. There were two forms of turnpike franchises in Connecticut. The first was that in which an existing old road, badly in need of repairs and beyond the resources of the town, was presented to a turnpike corporation organized for the purpose of putting it back in good shape and maintaining it properly. The second was for the creation of an entirely new road, cutting across fields and forests to shorten travel distances. To create this turnpike, the General Assembly would first pass an act describing the route and laying out the proposed road. After declaring it a public road, the Assembly would then strip the road of its public character and a corporation would be authorized for the purpose of building the road and operating it as a turnpike. Under this method, the towns were required to purchase the land and to build any necessary bridges, while the corporation merely had to build and maintain the road itself. As a result, the majority of the financial burden was placed on the towns. Despite town protests, turnpikes continued to be formed in this manner through the turnpike era. This form of franchise was not eliminated until the mid-1850s.

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The turnpike era in Connecticut began in 1792 with the formation of the turnpike linking New London and Norwich, which passed through land of the Mohegan tribe. This was not only the first turnpike in Connecticut, but also the first in all of New England and the second in the country. That same year, the Old Post Road in Greenwich was made a toll road, and turnpikes in Connecticut became a boom that lasted into the 1850s. Eventually, turnpikes accounted for approximately 1,400 miles of highway crisscrossing the state. A turnpike usually consisted of a flat stretch of earth about 16 feet wide. Crews of men and teams of animals would plow three- foot deep drainage ditches on both sides of the road and pile all the mud and rocks on the center of the road created. Most of these dirt cuts were not improved any further, and many were often impassable. In the 1850s, an attempt at road improvement was made with the concept of the plank road. A plank road typically had a single track about eight feet wide, over which planks were laid crosswise and slightly inclined to allow the rainwater to drain. In 1851, the Danbury, Redding, Weston, and Westport Plank Road was chartered, but it apparently was not built due to competition from the Danbury and Norwalk railroad, already under construction by 1852. Several other plank roads were authorized, but only one, a short one between Waterbury and Cheshire, was ever built.

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Most operating turnpike corporations were undercapitalized and were unable to maintain the roads with the tolls collected, particularly in the face of increasing competition from the railroads. In 1803, the state's first public service commission was formed to oversee the maintenance of turnpikes, but, without the needed funds for road maintenance, the commission seemed to have had little effect on the progressive decline of road quality. In 1844, the state authorized towns to repair turnpikes and charge the corporations for the expense. In 1854, the state permitted the turnpike corporations to give their roads back to the towns through which they passed, and, at about the same time, provided for turnpike franchise forfeiture as the penalty for neglecting repairs. The turnpike era, despite the vast number of miles of road produced, was doomed to come to an end. With increasing competition from other forms of transportation, turnpikes eventually faded out of existence, with the roads gradually taken over by the towns.

During the early years of the nineteenth century, Connecticut had a brief flirtation with canals. Water transportation had always been popular and favorable on the Connecticut River, for commerce as well as travel, and the river was still a very active waterway in these years. The Connecticut River was easily navigable as far north as the rapids at Enfield, beyond which it was navigable for shallow draft boats from there to Vermont. Later, with the construction of locks and a short canal near Enfield (Windsor Locks) in 1824, boats of deeper draft could make the same journey. Yet, the inspiration of the success of the Erie Canal led some to invest in canal construction throughout the state. Five canals in addition to the Windsor Locks canal were chartered by the state. Only one of these others, the Farmington Canal, was built, connecting New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts, via the Farmington River. Begun in 1822, the canal was not completed until 1835, and it was constantly plagued by poor water supply, damage to the canal banks, and lack of operating capital. By 1847, the canal was closed and railroad tracks were proposed to be laid in its towpath. The first ferry to cross the Connecticut River was located at Windsor in 1641. Other ferries, providing the only way to cross the river, crossed at Saybrook-Old Lyme (1662-1911), Middletown-Portland (1726-1895), and two at Haddam-East Haddam, one operating as early as 1664. The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry was established in 1655. Still in operation today across the Connecticut River, it is the oldest continuously operating ferry crossing in the United States. The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry was once powered by a horse on a treadmill. The Chester- Hadlyme ferry, also still in service, has carried passengers since 1769. The early ferries were canoes or rafts, propelled by paddles, long sticks, or pulled across by a rope. By the 1900s, they had graduated to flat-bottomed boats or scows propelled by a power boat fastened alongside. In 1915, the State Highway Department took responsibility for the ferries. Prior to that time, they were owned and operated by local companies which adhered to federal safety regulations and received state reimbursement for their deficits.

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Railroads became dominant in Connecticut during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1837, just eight years after the first locomotive - the Stourbridge Lion - was brought to the United States from England, the first railroad line in Connecticut was completed, connecting Stonington with Providence, Rhode Island, with connecting steamboats to New York City. Industrial growth and railroad development fueled each other during this period. Suddenly, manufacturers whose plants were close to raw materials and sources of cheap water power had easy, all-weather access to major markets. Investors in railroad companies were primarily wealthy bankers and industrialists, such as New Haven's James Brewater and Joseph Sheffield, but many municipalities purchased stocks in these companies as well. The New York & New Haven Railroad opened in 1848 linking Connecticut to New York by 1849. In the north-south direction, the most important line was the Hartford & New Haven line, which opened in 1839 between the state's alternating capitals. Five years later the line was extended north to Springfield, Massachusetts. Rails ran up the Housatonic River Valley by 1842. The Naugatuck Valley was connected to the sea at Bridgeport by 1849, and Norwalk and Danbury were connected in the early 1850s. Rail lines along the coast opened between New London and New Haven in 1850, and between New London and Stonington in 1858. The trains still had to use a ferry to cross the Thames River until a drawbridge was completed in 1889. Railroad's prominence in transportation seemed assured. In 1840, there were 102 miles of track in the state, and by 1850, there were 402 miles of track. By the Civil War, with 601 miles of track, Connecticut had the highest railroad density in the country. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad was the most prosperous enterprise in New England. In 1872, the Hartford & New Haven merged with the New York & New Haven in 1872 to become the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (New Haven Railroad). Regulation of railroads in Connecticut came on the heels of Connecticut's first major train disaster in 1853. A New Haven Railroad engineer ignored an open drawbridge signal at Norwalk. The train, carrying many doctors returning from an American Medical Association conference, careened into the river, killing over 20 people. As a result, the first railroad commission was formed that year to ensure public safety on the railroad. Authorized by an "Act to Prevent Injuries and Destruction of Life Upon Railroads by Railroad Trains", the Board of Railroad Commissioners was charged with inspecting railways in the state, regulating speeds, standardizing signals, and implementing directives for safer operations. By 1900, virtually every town in the state was connected by rail. Rail expansion continued until 1920, when there were 938 miles of track in the state. This boom in rail transportation was not unique to Connecticut. After the Civil War, the whole country became committed to the railroad as the basis for a national transportation system. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah, and major land subsidies amounting to over 130 million acres were granted to fledgling rail companies to stimulate the construction of new rail lines into the uncharted western territories. By the 1870s, the unrestrained monopoly power of the railroad industry began to be felt by farmers, particularly in rural areas, who had no choice but to pay high prices for shipping their goods into the cities. Widespread complaints brought about government involvement, and in 1887, the United States Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to oversee the railroads. Basically a measure to satisfy the "populous clamor", this legislation had no real teeth because it did not establish rate guidelines or enforcement provisions, although it apparently did result in lower rates to some degree through the requirement for rail companies to post their rates publicly. More than anything, the creation of the ICC was a harbinger of government control that would later become integral in the railroad industry.

While rural areas were the usual targets of highway development, the cities of the rapidly growing industrial northeast needed means for moving large numbers of people efficiently. In addition to railroads, the mass transportation of the mid-1850s consisted of horse-drawn conveyances and stagecoaches. In the early 1860s, street railways -- rails laid down in city streets -- became increasingly common. Street railways maximized the efficiency of moving people; a team of horses that might draw 10-12 passengers in an omnibus over dirt or cobble streets could haul as many as 75 people in a car on steel rails. Street railways, also known as horse-car lines, connected factories, shopping areas, and workers' homes. In the early days of the steam railroads, railway coaches were also used to shuttle passengers out of the city to their travel connection, since the steam railroad terminals were often located outside the cities. By the 1870s, many cities were crossed by a network of street railways. The tremendous costs of maintaining horses for this totally horse-powered transportation network prompted the search for mechanical substitutes. Cable-driven systems came into popular use between 1877 and 1890. In the early 1890s, trolley-equipped cars driven by electric propulsion, first demonstrated at the Toronto Exposition of 1885, quickly became the first choice in the street-railway industry, replacing horses at an astounding rate. In the United States in 1890, there were four and a half times more miles of horse-car lines than electric lines; by 1894, the numbers were reversed, with electric mileage exceeding horse-car mileage by a factor of five and a half.

Meanwhile, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the roads of the country continued their decline. All that existed was a decentralized system of road management, with almost universal dependence on untrained personnel in the construction and maintenance of roads, and the continued use of compulsory labor in lieu of road taxes. There was an absence of any classification of roads according to their use or relative importance; no distinction was made between main roads, connecting large towns, and local roads, which may have provided access to the main road for only two or three farms. Each town generally had complete control over all roads within its boundaries, as well as the financial responsibility for maintaining them. The inability of this system to create and maintain roads severely inhibited any economic activity that required transport outside the limits of a town. Even when there was a desire to create a road, towns lacked funds to purchase road building equipment and phe expertise to construct it. The town surveyor-assisted-by-compulsory-labor method of road construction virtually guaranteed that proper expertise would not be brought to bear on the problem. A small town had to pay for maintaining a principal road if it passed through its boundaries without serving local residents. For instance, a road connecting a farm in an adjoining town with a city market benefitted the farm and the city; however, the town responsible for its upkeep reaped no benefit from it. As a result, such roads were often neglected, jeopardizing supplies to the city. Despite these problems, most town residents were resistant to changing this system because of the fear of additional taxes. During the last few years of the nineteenth century, in recognition of these problems in the roadway network and maintenance, hundreds of individuals, including the Governor of Massachusetts and officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began calling for improved roads. Interestingly, the most effective cry for road improvement did not come from an important dignitary or commercial interest, but from those in pursuit of a leisure activity - bicycling. One of the strongest catalysts for the improvement of our road system came from the newly evolving bicycling craze.

The bicycle made a great change in lifestyle for many Americans in the late 1800s, offering previously unknown personal mobility. Connecticut was at the forefront of this change, thanks to the Afather of the American bicycle@, Colonel Albert A. Pope. Pope began importing bicycles to the U.S. in 1876. In 1878, he began manufacturing them -- in Hartford. Although from Boston, Pope recognized that Hartford was an ideal location for the factory because of its advanced manufacturing facilities and workers skilled in making sewing machines, clocks and firearms. The first bicycles in the United States were manufactured in his Hartford factory, located in the Frog Hollow section. Tens of thousands of bicycles, including the brand-name Columbia, were manufactured annually by the Pope Manufacturing Company. There were about two dozen competing manufacturers in Connecticut by the end of the nineteenth century. When the bicycle craze first reached America, the large "penny-farthing" bicycles were prevalent. They were initially expensive to purchase, difficult to master, and often considered a public nuisance, as the mechanical contraptions scared horses. They were consequently banned from public highways throughout the country. To combat this exclusion, Colonel Pope formed the League of American Wheelmen in 1880. This League, essentially a union of pre-existing bicycle clubs, promoted and aided cycling on a number of fronts by fighting the bans, organizing trips and races, and producing road maps for cyclists. In the northeast, especially, the League became very popular and successful. In Connecticut the initial 88 members grew to over 2,000 by 1897. Because they had experienced miles and miles of poor roads through their recreational touring, League members became avid supporters of improved highways in America. In 1888, led by Lewis Bates of Michigan, the League embarked on a national campaign for road improvement. They favored the enlargement of road districts beyond towns, the abolition of statutory labor systems, the adoption of contracted road work, the classification of roads according to their use, the introduction of scientific methods of road construction, and a taxation system that included state aid for roads.

There initially was a great deal of rural resentment against "elitist" idle rich bicyclists by farmers who feared that road improvements would increase property taxes. The Wheelmen then began an educational program for the "good roads movement". They claimed that good rural highways would increase land values, open new markets for food, provide consumer access to manufactured goods, increase school and church attendance, end rural poverty and isolation, reduce wear and tear on horses and wagons, and save money on road maintenance. To support their cause they placed articles in magazines such as Outing, Century, and Scribner's and produced their own journal, Good Roads. They also allied with other organizations with a rural or agricultural focus, such as the national Grange and the Eastern Seaboard Association, supporting such projects as a continuous highway connecting Boston and Washington D.C., which would include a rebuilding of the Boston Post Road through Connecticut. In 1892, these organizations formed the National League for Good Roads, whose mandate was to campaign for state aid for roads and to push the establishment of the National Commission on Highways. The newly formed League was run by several prominent Wheelmen, including Arthur Pope, as well as some distinguished road reform proponents such as General Roy Stone of New York and Senator Charles Manderson of Nebraska. State divisions of the league worked for state appropriations to improve roads and drafted model state-aid laws. On a national level, their work resulted in an appropriation of $10,000 to the Department of Agriculture in 1893 for the creation of the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI), a bureau whose mandate was to provide information on improving roads. General Roy Stone was to be its head. Placing the ORI (the forerunner of the Federal Highway Administration) in the Agriculture Department signified the federal acceptance that rural roads needed improvement more than city streets, particularly to allow farmers to get their goods to markets. The machinery was now in place to head the nation and Connecticut toward improved roads. The ORI provided a center of information for a locally oriented good roads movement and created model legislation for the formation of state highway departments, legislation that was initially drafted by Stone. New Jersey (1891) and Massachusetts (1892) immediately formed highway departments. Connecticut requested copies of the model legislation and California, Maryland, New York and Vermont also began to plan for state highway departments. Clearly, roads were on their way to improvement.

Content Last Modified on 9/9/2003 10:17:04 AM