1. The Expansion Of The United States
By Highways and Automobiles
PART 1: Building A Country
2. Even before we became a country, getting around
was difficult for “civilized” people. Our forefathers
had little choice but to follow Indian trading and
hunting paths to find their way. But travel was a
must, for both colonization and expansion, as our
population began to increase at a record pace.
During the French-Indian Wars (1754-1763)
the need for reliable transportation roads became
evident. One of the first “constructed” roads was
General Braddock’s Military Road, which, ironically,
followed the old Nemocolin Trail, an old Indian hunting
path, as shown at the left. (side note: Braddock died
en route to Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, and his
Colonel, George Washington, was left in charge).
Afterwards, Forbes Road, also following an old Indian
Trail, completed the conquest of Fort Duquesne.
Braddock’s trail was the forerunner of the
future trails, chopped out and explored by others, for
expansion. US 30 and US 22 still follow parts of this
3. The Iroquois, or Mohawk, Trail was
used to trade and communicate with Atlantic
Seaboard tribes, and the upstate New York
tribes, via river paths, hunting trails, and
mountain passes. The Indian knowledge of the
areas was invaluable to the early settlers.
A quick look at the map on the
bottom left , of the colonies of 1763, will show
how difficult it was to get past the mountains
for expansion to the west.
Luckily, an ancient meteorite crater,
an erosion in the Pine Mountain range of the
Appalachian's, a natural gap in the Cumberland
Range, and a small valley near the crater, all
came together at a point where modern
Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky meet; it is the
Cumberland Gap. The discovery, and widening,
of this natural terrain by Daniel Boone and the
Transylvania Company, made travel by many, in
carts, wagons and on foot, possible to the
Philadelphia is the
largest city, 42,000
New York is 2nd, with
Boston is 3rd with
These cities represented only about 3%
of our new total population, the rest
being farmers, trappers, and smaller
towns and cities.
A large part of the population wanted,
and needed, to expand westward. They
wanted to get away from crowded cities
and the daily hurry of city-folk. Luckily
for them, their future lay before them,
but not without some problems to
5. The United States that emerged from the War of
Independence suffered from a weak government and a
primitive transportation system. The rivers and the
sheltered coastal waters, such as Long Island Sound,
Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound, were the
principal highways for travel and commerce. Travelers
crossed small streams by fording and the larger ones by
ferries. Bridges were few and far between.
“PLANK” road, for rainy weather
Extending back from these arteries were roads in
various stages of development. A very few of these,
near the largest cities, were "artificial roads." ditched
and sometimes hard-surfaced with gravel or with
"pounded stone." The rest were improved only to the
extent of removing stumps and boulders and leveling
the worst irregularities of the ground. Many of these
roads were impassable for wheeled vehicles in winter or
during the spring thaw.
6. Travel in America in 1800
was basically at the speed
of the horse. Contours
show travel time from
New York in days and
weeks. Coastal travel by
ship was a little faster, thus
the contours spread out a
little along the coast.
Travel into remote, road-
less regions like the
Appalachians or northern
New England was slow.
Between steamboats, early
railroads, and canals, it was
possible to get to almost
anywhere east of the
Mississippi in two weeks by
1830. The Erie Canal has made
it possible to reach the Great
Lakes. However, in the
Maine, Wisconsin and
Minnesota, once the limits of
mechanical transportation is
reached, travel is still at the
speed of a horse.
By 1857, travel was rapid east of the
Mississippi, with better and wider
roadways, but beyond about 4 day's travel
from New York, everything was still at horse
speed. Overland stage routes and trails
created two corridors of relatively rapid
(three weeks!) travel to California..
7. The Impact of the Postal Service
Colonial Post Rider
Despite the primitive condition of the roads, a land postal service was
operated by the colonial authorities between the principal cities of the
In 1729, it took 4 weeks to send a letter from Boston to Williamsburg,
Virginia. For the most part, the mail was carried on foot or by post riders on
horseback who averaged about 4 miles per hour, with no night travel.
As the country grew, people in new states and territories petitioned Congress for even
more post routes, regardless of their cost or profitability. The Post Office Department,
and thus the federal government, had to decide whether to subsidize routes that
promoted settlement but did not generate enough revenue to pay for themselves or to
operate in the black. The Department struggled with this issue. With congressional
support and keeping fiscal responsibility firmly in mind, the Department ultimately
made decisions in the 19th century that reflected public service as its highest aim. It
funded post routes that supported national development and instituted services to
benefit all residents of the country.
8. The Impact of the Postal Service
The need to get communications to our Nation’s citizens, military outposts and
businesses was urgent, and the Postal Service used many means to get it
accomplished; stagecoach, Pony Express, Railroad Postal Offices, and
steamships….whatever it took. These methods cast a spotlight on the need for easy,
fast and economical transportation venues across the country.
9. The Impact of the Postal Service
In March 1796, Colonel Ebenezer Zane, the founder of Wheeling, Virginia, petitioned
Congress for permission to build a post road overland through the
territory northwest of the Ohio River to the important river port of Limestone, Kentucky
(now Maysville). Such a route, Zane said, would be 100 miles shorter
than the windings of the Ohio River, on which 15 men with their boats were then
engaged in transporting the mails, and would also be immune to interruption by floods,
floating ice or low water. The road would afford far faster mail service while saving at
least three-quarters of the $4,000 annual cost of operating the mail route. Furthermore,
the proposed road would provide a shorter and safer route for travelers both to and
from the West.
Colonel Zane's request was approved by Congress in
the act of May 17, 1796, thereby becoming the first
of many Federally Aided Roads.
10. Early Roads
Businesses began to increase about 1787, and with the increase in trade came a rapid increase
in road traffic, especially near the larger cities. The local authorities were not equal to keeping
the roads in repair under this traffic, so State assistance was needed. The debt-burdened State
governments met this challenge by appealing to private capital for the funds to build better
highways. They chartered private turnpike companies, conferring on them authority to build
roads and charge tolls to the public for their use.
This illustration is of the 1807 Worcester (MA) Turnpike. Note the “pike”
(pole-arm) which was “turned” to allow passage, on the left.
11. Early Roads
After about 1820, the ideas of the Scotsman, John L. McAdam, who was
responsible for the good roads around Bristol, England, dominated American
road-building. McAdam didn't believe in massive foundation
courses—he asserted that the native soil, alone. was what supported the road
and the traffic upon it and that the function of the road crust was only to protect
the basement soil from wetting and abrasion. His roads, 6 to 10 inches thick,
were made of angular broken stones, all able to pass through a 2-inch ring, and
packed by traffic until they interlocked into a dense mass.
From him we get the name “macadam” road, and when a tar binder is used for
the surface, it is called “tarmacadam”, or “tarmac”
J. L. McAdam
“Macadamized” roads were used until the turn of the century, when cars, and their
enormous tractive forces on the road surface, made it an impractical way of building.
12. Where Do We Go From Here?
A nod to the bicyclists, who had an important part in the laying-out of our roads and highways.
Bicycles became practical vehicles for personal
transportation with the introduction of the
"safety“ design in 1884 and the pneumatic tire
in 1888. Almost overnight cycling became a
national craze in the United States.
The wheelmen (as cyclists were then called) were not content to
do their riding on the relatively smooth city streets, but fanned
out into the country in all directions. They organized
cross-country rallies, road races, weekend excursions.
These activities brought the wheelmen into intimate contact with
the miserable country roads, and they became vociferous
advocates of road improvement.
Cycling - circa 1900
Arguing the right-of-way
13. The “Good Roads” MoveMenT
Much as they do today, all over the
country, the bicyclists formed social
organizations, or "wheel clubs," to
promote cycling as a sport, if only there
were better roads!
In response to the cries from both cyclists
and early agriculture interests, under the
energetic editorship of I. B. Potter, a New
York City civil engineer and lawyer, a new
magazine was formed in 1892, “Good
The magazine ridiculed American roads by
comparing them to those of Europe, and
helped to convince the public about the
inevitable need for taxes to improve and
maintain better roads.
14. The “Good Roads” MoveMenT
As a result of the road improvements, loads such as
this could be hauled by two mules on a
macadamized road in any weather, where formerly
only two bales of cotton could be hauled on an earth
road in fairly good weather.
Since better roads meant better access to
markets, agricultural interests got involved
with highway planning also, in a big way.
Almost all early transportation planning,
financing, and maintenance was put in charge
of various state and local agriculture
Rural roads were deplorable during bad
weather, since they were primarily of earth and
sand construction. Transporting goods to
market effectively became a tax on such goods,
and an unfair one at that.
Railroads became a nuisance for farmers, by
allowing out-of-area interests to sell cheaper,
and often fresher, farm produce at local
15. The “Good Roads” MoveMenT
The high cost of transport from the farms was also a tax on the people of the cities who were
forced to pay higher prices for locally grown food and farm products. In 1901 fruit from California
could be shipped to Raleigh, North Carolina, by rail for less than farmers living only 15 miles
away could deliver their fruit to the Raleigh markets. As an article from North Carolina “Good
Roads” magazine stated:
“You see by this that the railroads enable the fruit growers of California to compete with the fruit growers
of your own county towns. . . . The way to successfully compete with these people is to build good roads so as
to enable us to get to market at any time and carry a full load, thereby reducing cost of transportation. ... A bad
road is a relentless tax assessor and a sure collector."
16. The “Good Roads” MoveMenT
In 1891, road traffic, including bicycles,
wagons, and other non-mechanized
vehicles, was actually looked at in a
statistical manner. These statistics
showed that such traffic was “inter-
county”, and thus problematic for local
officials to decide responsibility.
This led to the passage of the New
Jersey State-Aid Road Act in that year, a
milestone in highway administration.
It was the first to acknowledge that:
“The expense of constructing permanently
improved roads may reasonably be imposed, in
due proportions, upon the State and upon the
counties in which they are located.”
All of which led to:
Office of Road Inquiry
under General Stone is
established in Department
of Agriculture on Oct. 3,
1893, with a $10,000
Office of Public Roads is
established with a new
director, Logan Page, and
an annual budget of
$50,000 and 10
17. The Next Phase
Now that we had the beginnings of good roadways, and administrative plans for
their creation and maintenance, it was time to start traveling on them. It was time
to introduce the automobile to the Nation!
PART 2: Expanding A Country
DOT “America’s Highways, 1776-1976” from Internet Archives (BIG PDF file!) can also be read on-line at this location.
YouTube “How Our Country Grew” 10 minute video from Progressive Films, 1950
“The Conquest of Distance” by Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Wikipedia various articles on military, Indian and colonial roads and trails.
USGenWeb – various articles and maps
US Postal Service Historian
Federal Highway Administration, “Public Roads” magazine series