Pennsylvania's Roads

Pennsylvania's Roads Before the Automobile

Among the states of this nation, Pennsylvania not only is outstanding for its present network of highways—including the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Keystone Shortway —but it has played a prime role in the development of American roads. This role, which antedates both the invention of the automobile and America’s founding as a nation, has been strengthened by Pennsylvania’s strategic location as a gateway between the more settled East and the developing West.

Pennsylvania’s first roads were the paths which the Indians made and traveled. After the European arrived and as settlement advanced, many of the old paths were widened, first for the whites man’s pack trains and then for his wagons.

In 1681 King Charles II ranted a charter to William Penn creating the Province of Pennsylvania. As early as July 11 of that year, an agreement in England between Penn and various purchasers of land in the new province stipulated that “Great roads from City to City not to contain less than forty feet in breadth shall be first laid out and declared to be for highways . . .” An act of the General Assembly on March 10, 1683, ordered each county court to appoint overseers every September to “summon . . . inhabitants . . . to Come in and Work at the Making of all highways and bridges . . .” By an acted dated May 20, 1699, the justices of the county courts could provide for the laying out of “land roads or cartways,” but all “king’s highway or public roads” were to be laid out upon orders from the governor and Council.

Until the mid-eighteenth century it was the roads in southeastern Pennsylvania that received major attention. Goods could be transported by wagon in the eastern part of the Province, but west of Lancaster or (later) Carlisle the roads were generally inadequate. Goods for the “back county” were transferred to pack horse trains, usually of twelve to fifteen horses each. This greatly increased the cost of both imports and exports, and it was inevitable that the westward push of settlement would bring pressure for better roads in this region. There was, however, another factor, the military needs arising from the French and Indian War (1754–763).

Uncovered Conestoga Wagon, Courtesy of the PHMCThe first wagon road in western Pennsylvania was opened in 1752 from what is now Cumberland, Maryland, to the Youghiogheny River. In 1755 it was improved and extended to the Monongahela River by several hundred troops of the British General Edward Braddock, and thereafter it was known as Braddock’s Road. The main force of the General’s army then set out with its artillery and supplies over the rough roadway; its aim was to capture Fort Duquesne, recently erected by the French at the Forks of the Ohio where Pittsburgh now stands. Only a few miles from its objective, on July 9, 1755, the army suffered a disastrous defeat and Braddock himself was killed.

Another road, from Shippensburg to the summit of the Allegheny Ridge, had been opened in 1755 under the supervision of James Burd. Three years later, troops under Brigadier General John Forbes reopened it to near Bedford and from there opened a road along the Indians’ Raystown Path to about ten miles West of Ligonier. Known as Forbes Road, this route was used by the general’s troops in a new effort to take Fort Duquesne. They arrived on the scene November 25, 1758, one day after the French had blown up the fort and abandoned it. During the remainder of the war, Forbes Road and other routes were maintained by the British forces to transport military supplied, but with the coming of peace they were allowed to deteriorate.

A Stagecoach stops at the Logan House, an inn in TyroneBetween the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the close of the Revolution in 1783, some new roads were opened, but improvement was slow. In 1778, the Supreme Executive Council of the new state, taking note of complaints about the ruinous condition of many roads, ordered that the supervisors of roads and highways repair them or be prosecuted.

By the mid-1780s the tide was beginning to turn. On September 21, 1785, noting that “no state highway hath been heretofore laid out by public authority between the western parts of the county of Cumberland and the town of Pittsburgh,” the General Assembly enacted legislation providing £2,000 for such a road. Following in part the route of the old Forbes Road, this Pennsylvania Road (as it was called) was finally completed in 1818. It became a main route for settlers and others traveling west into the Ohio Valley, and a century later it became the approximate route of the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30).

In 1792 construction began in northern Pennsylvania on the famous Williamson Road. This was named after the land agent Charles Williamson, who had bought more than a million acres in Pennsylvania and New York State and wished to open them to settlement. During the next four years, at his direction, this road was built through the wilderness from Trout Run to Lawrenceville—on at least one occasion the builders faced starvation until supplies reach them. After the road’s completion in 1796 it became a key route for emigration into the northern country, and today U.S. 15 follows its general course.

The main road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, today in part the Conestoga Road east of Paoli and the King’s Highway (Pa. 340) west of Downingtown, had proven inadequate. On April 9, 1792, however, the General Assembly incorporated the first private turnpike company in the United States to build the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road—135 years later an important segment of U.S. 30. Construction of the sixty-two-mile road began late that year and was completed some two years later at a cost of $464,000—less than half of what an average mile of superhighway costs today. It was built of broken limestone and of gravel of different sizes, compacted and made firm by traffic. Later, after the success in England of a process called macadamizing, the road was relaid with crushed stone. The turnpike pointed the way for other turnpike companies in Pennsylvania and neighboring states.

Maps of the period show that the toll roads were most numerous in older and more populous areas of the state, whereas even the most important highways in the great north-central portion of Pennsylvania were generally “common roads,” maintained by state and local authorities. In 1831, as Pennsylvania’s turnpike movement was reaching its peak, there were 220 companies with approximately 2,400 miles in use.

Addison tollhouse on the National Road (now U.S. 40) in Somerset County.The early nineteenth century also witnessed the construction by the federal government of the National Road. This highway was authorized by Congress in 1806 to facilitate transportation between the seaboards and the fast-developing West. The road began at Cumberland, Maryland—thus earning the additional title of “Cumberland Road”— spanned the Ohio River at Wheeling and continued to Illinois. As first projected the road was to pass through only a very small portion of this state, but Pennsylvania politicians succeeded in having it moved northward to pass through Uniontown and Washington.

Construction of the twenty-foot macadamized road proceeded slowly, however, and it was not until 1818 that the Ohio River was reached. In 1822 President Monroe refused to sign legislation for its repair, holding it unconstitutional. Although other appropriations for this purpose were approved thereafter, the funds generally were inadequate and the condition of the road declined. Finally the states agreed in 1835 to take over their portions. Thenceforth, toll was charged at six tollhouses in Pennsylvania, with different rates for various types of vehicles, animals, and pedestrians. Today this route forms a part of the transcontinental U.S. 40.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, wagoning (also called freighting) accounted for the greater part of intersectional trade in Pennsylvania, although individual travel on horseback remained common (even for long distances on improved roads) until the advent of the railroads. Some heavily loaded wagon traveled great distances. Fortescue Cuming, journeying westward in 1807, met two wagons from Zanesville, Ohio, near Shippensburg, each drawn by six horses and bound for Philadelphia; they had been a month on the road. Emigrants traveling west and livestock constituted two other important users during this period. Cuming met
. . . families removing further back into the country, some with cows, oxen, horses, sheep, and hogs, and all their farming implements and domestick utensils, and some without; some with wagons’ some with carts and some on foot, according to their abilities.

A vehicle of prime importance both in freighting and in the immigrant traffic was the Conestoga wagon, first developed in about 1750 and built by Lancaster County artisans well into the nineteenth century. Also significant for passenger travel were stagecoaches, each generally drawn by four horses. The coaches were varied somewhat in size and design, with one type accommodating about twelve passengers on fur wooden benches arranged crosswise. As early as 1784 a stage line began operations between Philadelphia and Lancaster, and by 1804 had reached Pittsburgh via Lancaster, Harrisburg, Carlisle, Bedford, and Greensburg. The trip required six or seven days and the fare was twenty dollars; this service was partially subsidized through a contract for carrying the United States mail. For several years before and after 1835, when stagecoaching was at its height, two four-horse stages passed each way daily over the Pittsburgh Pike; on the National Road, where competition between rival lines was intense, eight stages daily transported passengers and mail.

Adding to the picturesque character of many roads, especially the main thoroughfares, were the taverns. The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike was reputed to have one for every mile of road, and on the National Road they apparently were almost as numerous. These inns tended to be of three types—catering respectively to stagecoach riders, wagoners, and drovers of livestock—with prices and accommodations varying in relation to their trade.

Most roads, particularly local, were not so much built as simply cleared, with perhaps a little digging on the sides of hills or the erection of crude wooden bridges over smaller streams. Plank roads, made of heavy wooden boards laid across the road, were built about 1850, but proved too expensive to maintain. The best roads were generally the turnpikes and other main thoroughfares that were macadamized—graded and surfaced with stone and gravel—and indeed some roads on which toll was not charged came erroneously to be called turnpikes simply because they were improved in this manner.

The Ringgold Road, now Pa. 997, passes beneath the Western Maryland Railroad between Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and Ringgold, Maryland.The dominance of roads in Pennsylvania’s inland transportation was first seriously challenged by the canal building which took place on a large scale during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. This dominance was conclusively ended by an even more formidable competitor, the iron horse. For long-distance and intercity transportation of both passengers and freight, people turned from the old highways to the mighty steam railroads and, by the last decade of the century, to electric trolley car lines as well.

The rural farm-to-market roads, unpaved to begin with and under local government jurisdiction, suffered relatively little. It was what had been the better roads—the main through routes, and especially the turnpikes—that felt the most devastating effect. Increasingly, these roads yielded insufficient revenue to permit proper maintenance and many of them fell into serious disrepair.

Thus it appeared that roads had become the inevitable victims of progress in the form of the railroad. But, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, developments occurred which were to dramatically turn the tables. Progress in a new form—that of the automobile—was to put the state’s highways once more on the center stage of the transportation scene.

Pennsylvania's Roads: The Twentieth Century

This road in South Fayette Township, Allegheny County, was a sea of mud in early April, 1916.“During the 1890s,” the automobile historian Ralph Stein has observed, “America’s towns were tied to each other by the railroad, not the highway. At the edges of the cities the pavements suddenly disappeared and gave way to mere scratches across the landscape. These were the roads.” The reason for this sad state was simple: people who had once used roads extensively now depended on railroads and, for shorter jaunts, electric trolley lines.

However, a challenge to the supremacy of the iron horse was beginning to take form. In 1893 J. Frank Duryea built America’s first successful gasoline-powered automobile. (His brother Charles E. later manufactured motor cars in Reading.) By 1900 about 8,000 motor vehicles were registered in the United States; by 1905, 79,000. In those days motoring in the country often meant struggling through deep ruts or, in wet weather, through rivers of mud. There were no gasoline stations. Crude repairs were often made by the blacksmith or at the bicycle shop, and motorists whose car had broken down might wait for a horse to tow him to town.

On April 15, 1903, the state Highway Department was created. (The name was changed to the Department of Highways in 1923.) At first the department had no highway mileage, but administered grants to counties, townships, and boroughs for road improvement and maintenance. Provision was made for the state to pay two-thirds of the cost of reconstruction—in 1905 it became three-fourths—with the balance to be shared by the county and township. An improved highway was to be “a macadamized, or a telford or other stone road, or a road constructed of gravel, cinder, oyster shells, or other good materials . . . at all seasons of the year [to] be firm, smooth and convenient for travel.”

There was, however, a growing conviction that responsibility for highway improvement needed to be more centralized to keep pace with the number of automobiles. On May 31, 1911, the General Assembly set up an 8,835-mile system of roads to be improved and maintained by the state Highway Department. These would be taken over from counties and townships or purchased from private turnpike companies. Some of the many miles still under local government jurisdiction were designated as state-aid highways, for which the state would now pay half of construction costs. By the middle of the decade Pennsylvania had about 98,000 miles of roads, the majority dirt.

Motoring on main highways—with a top speed limit of twenty-five miles an hour—was becoming easier. Not only were cars and tired much superior to those a decade before, but road conditions were gradually improving. Most highway construction consisted, until many years later, of improvements to existing roads. This included widening, the laying of hard surfaced (increasingly concrete or asphalt), and the occasional relocation of short stretches to eliminate especially sharp curves or steep grades. Repair garages and filling stations were becoming more numerous; indeed, what is said to have been the world’s first “drive-in” gas station opened in Pittsburgh in 1913.Workmen pave a road in Eden Township, Lancaster County, 1908.

Two and a half million vehicles were registered in the United States in 1915—over five times as many as a half decade earlier. Pressure increased for federal aid to the states for road building, and on July 11, 1916, President Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act. The declared intent of this measure was to promote farm-to-market communication. It provided for grants to the states for the construction of “rural public roads,” defined as “any public road over which the United States mails now are or may hereafter be transported.” Then, in 1921, the Federal Highway Act provided that up to 7 per cent of non-urban road mileage in each state be designated as “primary” and eligible for 50 percent federal assistance. These two acts set a pattern for federal-state cooperation in road building which has endured.

Traffic on U.S. 30 in Ardmore, 1931.The Twenties was a period of quickening progress, with greatest emphasis still on improvement of the main through routes. The first official Pennsylvania highway map, issued in 1925, shows that principal traffic arteries were for the most part paved, as were the secondary roads of the state’s southeastern corner. America was becoming the motorized nation we know today. The number of persons traveling by railroad and trolley was starting to decline. Congestion and traffic were becoming serious problems on city streets. Families on weekend drives to the country were choking the two-lane roads on their return. Principal highways, far from bypassing towns and cities, generally followed their main streets into the central business sections—a fact that was regarded with satisfaction by civic leaders. The maximum speed limit on the open highway has risen to forty miles an hour by 1929; in town it was twenty. Roadside restaurants and filling stations were increasing in numbers, as well as tourist homes (private houses with accommodations for travelers) in the towns, and tourist courts or “cabins” on the outskirts. These, like the downtown hotels, and occasional taverns remaining from an earlier day, were almost invariably locally owned and partook of the particular character of their localities.

Pennsylvania writers and publicists sang the praises of the state’s “picturesque” highways. Maps and guide books, in which hotels advertised prominently, were furnished by automobile clubs and publicity offices. Pennsylvania’s improved highways, wrote John T. Faris in 1927,
. . . make easy the access of all who will to the treasures of beauty and scenery, to the forest, the lakes the rivers, the mountains. Merely to think of the long stretches of perfect surface on the Susquehanna Trail, the Lackawanna Trail, the Lincoln Highway, the William Penn Highway, and a dozen other arteries, is to long for the touch of the hand on the steering wheel and the pressure of the foot on the gas.

Outstanding was the Lincoln Highway, connecting the state’s two largest cities. Stretching from New York to San Francisco, this route was proclaimed in 1913 by the Lincoln Highway Association, which fostered its improvement. By 1928 the transcontinental system of U.S.-numbered through highways was in use in Pennsylvania, and at about the same time, an expanded state-numbered system came into being.

Campaigning for the governorship in 1930, the noted forester and progressive Gifford Pinchot promised to “get the farmers out of the mud.” The following year, after Pinchot had taken office, the state took over 20,156 miles of township roads and began paving them, using light construction costing less than $7 thousand a mile. As the depression deepened during 1931, this road-building program through the use of a minimum of machinery and maximum of hand labor became an important means of providing work relief.

U.S. 22 and 322, on the Juniata River, ahs been transformed into a scenic four-lane highway in Perry and Juniata counties.  Note a stretch of the old two-lane highway beside it.Special federal programs also benefited the state’s highways during the Depression years. Thus an allocation of the National Industrial Recovery highway funds in 1933 amounted to almost $19 million. Beginning late in 1935 and continuing for the next seven years, men were assigned to various Pennsylvania road projects under the work-relief program of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). At its peak in November, 1938, 143,000 men were working.

The most important single highway development of the late thirties was the creation, May 21, 1937 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. With a $29,250,000 federal grant and a $40,800,000 purchase of turnpike bonds by the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, construction began late in 1938. On October 1, 1940, the first long-distance superhighway in America opened, a 160-mile, four-lane toll road from Middlesex (West of Harrisburg) to Irwin (east of Pittsburgh). Whereas motorists crossing the mountains on U.S. 30 had climbed an accumulated 13,880 feet up 9 per cent grades, Turnpike travelers climbed a mere 3,900 feet on 3 per cent grades.

America’s entry into World War II ended the production of civilian cars and trucks, brought gasoline rationing, and reduced speed limits to thirty-five miles an hour to conserve fuel. Built for higher speeds, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was now used largely to transport military men, munitions, and equipment. In 1943, traffic on other roads was less than half of what it had been two years earlier.

With the end of wartime controls, traffic volume returned to and then exceeded pre-war levels. New rights-of-way were mapped out and cities and towns were bypassed to facilitate high-speed traffic. Such projects included the Penn-Lincoln Parkway in Pittsburgh, the Schuylkill Expressway into Philadelphia, the new U.S. 22 connecting Harrisburg and Easton, and the Harrisburg-York Expressway. Among the major post-war improvements were the extensions of the Turnpike to Valley Forge in 1950, to the Ohio line in 1951, to the Delaware River in 1954, and to Scranton in 1957. The turnpike was joined by the New Jersey and Ohio Turnpikes to form part of a high-speed toll road connecting New York and Chicago.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 established a new 41,000-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate system. Ninety per cent of the cost of constructing toll-free highways in the system was to be paid by the federal government. These are all limited-access highways, built with four lanes or more and with gentle curves and easy grades. The construction costs for Pennsylvania’s 1,576 miles have ranged from a million dollars a mile through rural areas to several times that around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The most celebrated is probably the 313-miles Interstate 80, known as the Keystone Shortway, part of a 2,899-mile interstate highway between New York and San Francisco.

By the opening of the 1970s there were 113,000 miles of roads and streets in Pennsylvania. The Department of Highways had responsibility for some 44,000 miles, the townships about 49,000 miles. The number of motor vehicles registered in Pennsylvania in 1970 was 5.8 million—two and a half times the 1949 figure—and it was estimated that 8.4 million licensed drivers would operate some 7.6 million vehicles by 1990. Highway travel accounts for about 95 per cent of Pennsylvania’s intercity traffic. Concern has been increasingly expressed about traffic congestion, pollution, the inadequacy of public transportation, and the need for alternatives to new freeways in built-up areas.

Two developments have occurred which help point the direction for the future. One is the creation on July 1, 1970, of a Department of Transportation (Supplanting the Department of Highways) and a state Transportation Commission. Another is the establishment of procedures, by federal and state legislation, for determining the environmental impact of proposed highway projects and for minimizing any adverse effects before such projects are approved. Thus, concrete recognition has been given to two increasingly accepted principles. First, highway development should be carried out not apart from or in competition with other forms of transport but as a part of a balanced transportation system. Second, the finished highway should be in harmony with the total environment, whether rural or urban.

The future may bring new means of locomotion impossible now for us to visualize. But so long as there are cities and valley and mountains and horizons in Pennsylvania, and so long as there are people with the need and the desire to travel forth, there will be roads— different though they may be from the roads of today.


George R. Beyer, "Pennsylvania's Roads Before the Automobile" Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 33 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1972).

George R. Beyer, "Pennsylvania's Roads: The Twentieth Century" Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 34 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1972).