82 DESIGNNEWENGLAND.COM NOVEMBER/DECEMBER2015
written by bruce irving
In the beginning, there were trails, and lots of them. New England was no “trackless wilderness” when the Euro- peans arrived — it was crisscrossed with paths along river ways, up and down valleys, and through mountain gaps, used by the region’s original occupants for sea- sonal moves following food and trading between tribes. For the settlers, most of these trails were no-go areas, neither attractive nor needed given the at-hand
task of establishing villages and then sticking close to them. Over time,
however, colonists too sought trade routes, taking to coastal waterways. Despite their challenges, sea routes were smoother and quicker
than roads, which were dirt or mud or worse.
Still, with an ox and a cart and a rutted track, passage between
population centers became possible. Build a coach, add horses, and
establish way stations that divided a long journey into stages, and
one could cover some real distances over land. The country’s first real
stagecoach, called a “flying machine” and running between New York
and Philadelphia, reduced travel time from three to two days.
Cut to the early 20th century and the arrival of the automobile.
What started as an in-town novelty soon became a stampede of four-wheel ambition, and the region’s patchwork of local roads needed
major improvement, and fast. Indeed, writes highway historian Richard Weingroff, “calling them ‘roads’ gives them more credit than they
deserve. They were often little more than trails that were muddy in
the rain and dusty the rest of the time. Any long trip by automobile
required not only time, patience, and ingenuity, but tire-patching
equipment, tools, spare parts, and emergency food and fuel.” A 1911
survey estimated that of the nation’s approximately 2½ million miles
of rural roads, only 10½ percent were paved in any fashion.
In 1916, just eight years after the introduction of the Ford Model
T, Congress passed the first of several federal highway acts, coordinating with the states to design, build, help fund, and — importantly
— provide a coherent numbering system for a network of interstate
roadways. A welter of local signs and blazes, painted on telephone
and power poles, gave way to the familiar shield of US routes. North–
south roads would be odd-numbered, east–west would be even. More
New England’s most scenic roads proudly track the history of the US highway
a circa 1930–1945
postcard depicts the
popular “Hair Pin
Turn” near Clarksburg,