Stories from PA History
Crossing the Alleghenies
Crossing the Alleghenies
Chapter One: Early Turnpikes and the Old State Road

During the colonial and revolutionary eras in American history, inland travel was slow, difficult, and expensive. The "King's Highways" established by Pennsylvania's colonial governments followed and improved ancient Indian paths, but hardly allowed for freight wagons or anything beyond single-file trains of pack-horses. Inhabitants of the colony were required, by a law passed in 1683, to work on the construction of roads and bridges or pay a fee, but maintenance of the "King's Highways" was sporadic. Beginning in the 1790s, Pennsylvania and the rest of the new nation embarked on a massive road-building campaign to improve inland trade and open marketplaces in hard-to-reach areas.

Three types of new roads appeared during what historians now call the "turnpike era." The first and most durable roads of crushed stone proved to be the best suited for the often harsh weather of the eastern United States. Opened in 1794, the markerPhiladelphia and Lancaster Turnpike was the first extended example of these new paved roads. It was also the nation's first major toll road. Stretching more than sixty miles between two communities, the pike became a major artery for commercial travel within the Commonwealth and a gateway for travel westward.

Six white horses are hitched to a covered wagon with an advertising sign hanging from it.
Pennsylvania Conestoga Wagon, circa 1890.
The builders of the Philadelphia and Lancaster pike borrowed from the ideas of English engineers Thomas Telford and John McAdam, rivals who had helped devise the modern system of road paving. Telford's principles required using a base of large cobblestones topped with multiple layers of different-sized crushed stones. The Philadelphia and Lancaster pike followed this formula. McAdam (whose name inspired the terms "macadam" and "tarmac") disagreed with Telford over the most efficient sizes of crushed stone, but his belief in raising the center of the road to promote drainage was an innovation that the builders of this great early Pennsylvania turnpike also embraced.

Other early turnpikes employed wood rather than stone in their construction. "Corduroy" roads were fairly common in the western part of Pennsylvania, and were employed by the military in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution. They involved logs laid perpendicular to the roadway, covered by soil. They provided better traction than simple dirt roads, but proved difficult to maintain. Wooden "plank" roads required even more challenging maintenance. These were wood roads made of thick, flat planks placed in the direction of the road and supported by crossbeams. They were easier to drive over than corduroy roads, but even more costly to repair and maintain.

In this snowy scene a tavern owner welcomes an arriving carriage with passengers.
The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road-1795, by Carl Rakeman, circa 1933.
Many of the early commercial roads in central and western Pennsylvania grew from old military supply routes, such as Braddock and Forbes Roads, which had been cut during the French and Indian War. Other early roads in the Commonwealth developed out of crude pathways that led to and from ferries where travelers crossed the Susquehanna, Allegheny, or other large streams and rivers. One of these early routes was the markerSimpson Ferry Road in Cumberland County. This roadway eventually became the main route for travel through the heart of south-central Pennsylvania, west of the Susquehanna, into the town of Carlisle.

On all of these early roads, the markerConestoga Wagon became one of the most popular vehicles for transporting goods and resettling families. Originally developed in the middle of the eighteenth century, these large wagons had curved bottoms that helped prevent supplies from spilling out during the often bumpy journeys. Their use in the westward movement by settlers would make them an enduring symbol of the early frontier.

The success of Pennsylvania's early roads helped expand the trade horizons of the state's eastern businessmen, allowing manufactured goods to be taken to the frontier in return for the agricultural products of the west. Private companies soon opened a series of turnpikes designed to link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. These toll roads, such as the Stoyestown-Greensburg Turnpike in the western section of the state, formed the backbone of what came to be known as the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Road.

Not all roads connected the state's cities. Traders who wanted direct access to Lake Erie looked for the best routes to the northwest corner of the state. The main path for early travel to this region of the Commonwealth was along the Old State Road or Bald Eagle Road, a route that later proved pivotal during the War of 1812.

A major obstacle along the Old State Road was the Allegheny River in Forest County. This was rough country and the Allegheny was too deep and wide to attempt fording during most times of the year. It was not until the early 1800s that Eli Holeman opened the markerHoleman Ferry to help transport people and goods across the river.

The improved turnpike system that developed in early nineteenth century Pennsylvania came at a price. The problem was profit. Private companies managed the roads and needed to recoup their investments. They collected tolls every five or ten miles with a complicated system of rates based upon season, vehicle type, and produce being transported. The results were higher costs and new frustrations.

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