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Highway History

U. S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
OFFICE OF INFORMATION
PRESS SERVICE

Released for Publication, Sunday, October 9, 1927

United States Route No. 1 is a Highway of History

Stretching from end to end of the thirteen original colonies, from Fort Kent, Maine, to Miami, Florida, the connecting sections of the Atlantic Coast Highway known as United States Route No. 1 have formed a highway of history for three hundred years. Washington traveled it repeatedly in peace and war. Now the 94-mile section between New York and Philadelphia carries a heavier average traffic than any other road of equal length in the world. Route No. 1 connects New York, Princeton and Philadelphia, the three cities at which the capital was established in the early years of the Republic, with Washington, the final choice; and it passes near or through nearly all of the Revolutionary battlefields and many of those of the Civil War. It grew from blazed footpaths of the settlement era to its present condition which the Bureau of Public Roads of the United States Department of Agriculture reports as surfaced for 84 percent of the distance, graded but unsurfaced for 15 percent, and unimproved for less than 1 percent. Work is proceeding on the less improved sections.

The motorist traveling the road today is reminded frequently of the life and customs of the early days by the old inns which have survived the passage of time, and which now boast - in many cases with truth - of having sheltered the Father of his Country.

A Great Industrial and Tourist Route

Much more than mere chance governed the location of United States Route No. 1. The fact that it follows the "fall line" from New Jersey to Georgia has both a physical and an historical reason. Along this line - the ancient shore line of the continent - the Atlantic Coast rivers tumble down out of the hills into the coastal plain. This physical fact influenced the location of Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia, and Augusta, all situated at the head of navigation on their respective rivers.

Colonial settlements were made at these points because they were the most inland points to which the colonists could penetrate by boat. Later, as intercourse began and grew between the settlements, the road which is now United States Route No. 1 was blazed as a trail, quickly widened into a wagon road, and early established as the most important inter-colonial road as it is now - from the standpoint of traffic at least - the most important interstate road.

Economically it is important because it connects the great manufacturing and industrial cities of the Atlantic Seaboard, and also because it is the most eastward through road on which all streams are bridged. Consequently, it draws a very considerable local traffic from the peninsular territory to the east.

Connecting semi-tropical Florida with the north-temperate Maine, the road is the principal tourist route from the large eastern cities to the winter resorts of the South and the summer resorts of New England. Its strategic value as a military road in time of war is the conclusive element which stamps this road as the most important, everything considered, in the United States.

Less Than Fifteen Miles Unimproved

According to the Federal bureau's report, the road is now in good condition throughout its entire length, although nearly 363 of its 2,321 miles are still unsurfaced. Between the Canadian line and Ellsworth, Maine, a distance of 338 miles, there are 72 miles of earth road, the remainder being improved with surfaces of gravel or higher type.

From Ellsworth through the large eastern cities to Richmond, Virginia, there is a dustless, all-year pavement for practically the entire distance of 884 miles. South of Richmond, with the exception of a 15-mile unimproved section, there is continuous improvement with sand-clay surfacing or better as far as Augusta, beyond which there are 68 miles of earth road in Georgia much of which is now being surfaced and will be open for traffic by the end of the year.

On the designated route in Florida there are 112 miles of earth road. It should be explained, however, that the road in this State follows a new location which eliminates a number of railroad grade crossings and which will be rapidly improved. Until this improvement is completed travelers are using an alternate parallel route which is surfaced throughout.

The present condition of the road, classified according to types of improvement, is indicated by the following tabulation:

Summary of Improvement of United States Route No. 1
Type of ImprovementMiles
City streets203
Hard-surface pavements 1,062
Gravel, sand-clay and similar surfaces683
Graded and drained earth roads348
Unimproved roads15
Bridges10
Total2,321

A Main Road for Three Centuries

Although the present improved condition of the road is the result of no more than thirty years of intensive work by the highway departments of the several States and the Federal Government, the route has been a traveled way of the first importance for more than three centuries.

It was first developed as an artery of communication in the five principal localities from which radiated all the primary travel movements in this country. These foci of settlement were located in eastern Massachusetts, in the vicinity of New York Bay and the valley of that Great River of the Mountains which we now know as the Hudson, in the Connecticut River Valley and the shores of Long Island Sound, in the country surrounding the shores of Delaware Bay and the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, and in the Chesapeake Bay region including the valleys of the James and other Virginia rivers.

As early as 1636 efforts were made to facilitate travel over the general line of the present route. At first these were limited to the blazing of trees to mark the way, the building of crude bridges over the deeper ravines, the locating of fords over shallow streams and the establishment of canoe ferries across the wider rivers.

Later as, first the pack horse and subsequently the cart, and stage coach, and Conestoga wagon came to replace the primitive foot travel of the earliest days, the road was widened, the low places were "corduroyed," and finally there were added, in places, artificial surfaces of stone and gravel similar in many respects to the macadam and gravel roads of the present day.

By the close of the 17th century Boston, New York and Philadelphia had become bustling and thriving towns and travel between them by horseback and pack horse was common.

The first coaches appeared in the streets of Boston in 1687 and were severely frowned upon by that puritan community for their luxury. Almost coincidentally there came into use for freight carriage a form of crude cart of which, by 1697, there were 30 in Philadelphia and a number in New York.

It was perhaps with one of these that the first common carrier service in America was established over a part of Route 1 under a franchise granted by the Governor of New Jersey. That such a service had been established between Philadelphia and New York sometime prior to 1707 we learn from a complaint laid before the Governor by the Colonial Assembly in that year. Probably at the instigation of the pack horse owners, the Assembly asked that the monopolistic privilege be revoked; to which the Governor replied, as many a public service commissioner since has replied to similar complaints, as follows:

"At present everybody is sure, once a fortnight, to have an opportunity of sending any quantity of goods, great or small, at reasonable rates, without being in danger of imposition; and the sending of this wagon is so far from being a grievance or monopoly, that by this means and no other, a trade has been carried on between Philadelphia, Burlington, Amboy, and New York, which has never known before, and in all probability never would have been."

Perhaps it was the cogency of the Governor's reasoning that won the public over; perhaps it was simply Time the great compromiser. At any rate we learn that the inauguration of a regular stage service for passengers between New York and Philadelphia, over this same route in 1732 was greeted by the populace with enthusiastic appreciation.

With regularity and comparative comfort these stages made the trip between the two terminal cities in five days; but, having had a taste of speed, the good colonists were not satisfied, and efforts were made to reduce the time, culminating, in 1771, with the introduction of the "Flying Machine," an ornate and brilliantly colored coach that negotiated the distance of a hundred miles in two days. Then, and then only did the speed-mad tourists of the day feel that they had reached the acme of perfection in inter-city travel.

While these improvements in the facilities of travel were taking place between Philadelphia and New York, similar developments along the line of United States Route No. 1 were occurring in the other colonies, and these proceeded at an accelerated pace after the Revolution when trade and communication were stimulated by the awakening of a national consciousness in the newly fledged States.

By 1802, stage coaches were operated regularly between Boston and Savannah, and travelers made the journey of 1,200 miles at an average speed of 53 miles a day for the remarkably low fare of $70.00. The schedule of time and fare prevailing at this period was as follows:

 DaysFare
Boston to New York4$10.00
New York to Philadelphia5.00
Philadelphia to Charleston1550.00
Charleston to Savannah25.00
 $70.00

It was at this time - the dawn of the new century - that the earliest turnpikes were built. Traffic on the main roads had increased to a density which demanded a greater degree of road improvement than could be carried out with the available public revenues; and private initiative undertook to meet the need. The turnpike companies, operating under public charters, were our first public service corporations; and the roads they built during the early years of the 19th century were the equal in many respects to the best the country possessed until the beginning of the modern period of improvement nearly a century later.

For a few years the construction of turnpikes went on apace - so rapidly that the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, reporting to Congress on the state of public improvements in 1808, noted the completion of 770 miles in Connecticut, more than 3,000 miles under construction or completed in New York, and hundreds of miles in other States. The section of the Boston Post Road near Greenwich, Connecticut, now a part of United States Route No. 1, was built by the third turnpike company chartered in the United States, and within a few years many other sections of the route were improved in like manner.

One of these sections - that between Trenton and Brunswick, New Jersey, - according to Gallatin, was constructed with a grade 36 feet wide surfaced for a width of 15 feet with 6 inches of gravel. The road was nearly straight and had a maximum gradient of three degrees, to attain which in one section it was necessary to excavate a cut 30 feet deep. Wooden bridges were constructed on stone abutments and piers; and the cost of the road, according to the Secretary's report was $2,500 a mile.

But the turnpikes proved to be unprofitable investments. Few of the companies were able to show, even at first, net earnings of more than two or three per cent, and as time went on and the cost of maintenance increased - as, finally the railroads came to take away a large part of the traffic, even these small profits vanished. Most of the companies had failed and their roads had reverted to public control by 1850; but a few remained in operation after a fashion, and it was not until very recent years that the last toll gate was removed from the line of Route No. 1.

The railroads sounded the death knell of the turnpikes and ushered in the "dark ages" of highway travel in the United States; and, by a strange coincidence, Route No. 1 connects all the points at which the earliest railroad experiments were made, as if the old road had carried the new idea of transportation from place to place to its own eventual undoing.

It was on the western slope of Beacon Hill in Boston that the first quarter miles of track was laid, in 1807, as a temporary gravity road for hauling gravel. Three years later Thomas Leiper of Philadelphia constructed the first permanent tramway in America to haul stone from his quarry to the river landing three quarters of a mile away. Another twenty years, and the first section of the Baltimore and Ohio was opened from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills, 14 miles away; and, in the same year, way down the road, "The Best Friend," first American-built locomotive, was placed on the rails at Charleston.

Thus, at four points, the road bore the first shock of the railroad advance. That it could not compete with the superior advantages of its steam-powered adversary, and that it fell into general disuse and almost complete decay for well upon seventy years - these adversities it suffered in common with all other American roads, but -

When, finally, the bicycle, the automobile, and motor truck came to give new facility to highway travel and transportation, Route No. 1 was one of the first to feel the tingle of new life.

Five of the States through which it passes were among the first seven to establish State highway departments, and it was consequently one of the first American highways to benefit from the more scientific methods introduced by these efficient engineering agencies. What remains of its story is succinctly told by the figures of the Federal road bureau which show that it is destined to be one of the first of the great interstate highways to be completely improved throughout its entire length.

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000