Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Newport and Gap Turnpike

Gap and Newport Turnpike near Avondale, PA, 1896
Houses, schools, churches and factories are not the only man-made constructs vital to the growth of a community. There is one other piece of engineering that is crucial to every aspect of our economy, but which is often overlooked until it is in disrepair -- our roads. And while we often think of road-building and upgrading as a 20th century phenomenon, they were just as vital in the 19th century. In fact, the first two decades of the 1800's saw a flurry of road-building in the area, and for the most part, the roads put down then are still our major thoroughfares today, two hundred years later. One of the first of these new roads to be laid out was the Newport and Gap Turnpike (or, the Gap and Newport Turnpike). This road, now known as Newport-Gap Pike (Rt. 41), is still one of the major routes though Mill Creek Hundred today.

At the end of the 18th century, the state of our nation's roads was, well, not good. The war was over, the government was stable, the economy was coming to life, but most of the young country was connected by poor, unreliable roads that often amounted to not much more than glorified cowpaths. Then, as now, there was much debate over how large a role the government should play in the upgrading of the road system. The compromise that emerged was the turnpike company -- a private corporation, sanctioned and regulated by the government, that would build and maintain their road. To recoup their costs, the company would be permitted to erect toll gates along the route and charge a fee to use the road. This originally took the form of a long pole (or pike) that would bar passage until the toll was payed, at which point it would be turned upwards to allow the rider to pass. That was a turnpike.

The first turnpike completed was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, which opened in 1795. It was built to facilitate the easy transport of grain from the fertile fields of Lancaster County to the markets in Philadelphia. In 1807, a company was incorporated in Pennsylvania to build a road from the Lancaster Turnpike in Gap, PA to the Delaware state line. This road hoped to divert some of that traffic away from Philadelphia and down to Newport, Wilmington, and beyond. In 1808, the Gap and Newport Turnpike Company was created to complete this road through Delaware to the then port town of Newport. The following year, the Wilmington Turnpike Company would be formed to build a connecting road from the main road to Wilmington. This would become what we now know as Lancaster Pike.

Construction of the Newport and Gap Turnpike was started shortly thereafter, but there were some financial issues along the way. By 1811, the company had raised $45,000 through stock sales, and had received $5,000 more from the state of Pennsylvania. They still needed $70,000 to complete construction, so in that year the Delaware Legislature authorized the company to hold a lottery to raise $30,000 of it. By 1813 there were four and a half miles of the turnpike finished. The entire length was completed and opened in 1818. The turnpike generally followed the route of an older road that may have even begun as a native american trail. The road was, however, substantially upgraded. Bridges were put in to replace earlier fords, and there were specific legal requirements placed on the make-up of the road itself. Here is what the act itself (Chapter LIX) had to say:
That the said manager, president and company [...] shall cause a road to be laid out, not exceeding one hundred feet in width, of road, exceeding one hundred feet in width, from the Gap to Newport, by the aforesaid route, and shall cause twenty feet thereof in breadth, at least, to be made an artificial road; which shall be bedded with wood, stone, gravel, clay, or other proper and convenient materials, well compacted together, a sufficient depth, to secure a solid foundation for the same; and the said artificial road, shall be faced with clay, gravel or stone, pounded, or other small hard substance, in such manner, as to secure a firm, and as nearly as, the nature of the country, and the materials will admit, an even surface rising towards the middle, by a gradual arch; and shall forever hereafter maintain and keep the same in perfect order and repair.
In other words, in an era when most roads were just dirt paths, this was a smooth highway by comparison. It had to have a secure bed and be "paved" with clay, gravel, or stone. Also, it had to be crowned to aid in drainage. Of course, travellers had to pay for the privilege of using the turnpike. The law set out exactly what could be charged for tolls, ranging from a few cents to about 20 or 30 cents. And if you think the signs by tollbooths now listing prices for cars, buses, and trucks with different numbers of axles is confusing, you should read this. It goes on for about a page listing every conceivable combination of livestock, horses, carts and carriages, and even the size of their wheels. A sign listing the rates was required to be displayed at every toll gate. However, they were barred from charging "any person passing or repassing from one part of his or her farm to another, or to and from any place of public worship, or funeral, on days appointed for that purpose."

There were other provisions as well: signs were required at every intersection showing the direction and distance to the nearest town or place; milestones [Edit: See picture below of milestone located by Brandywine Springs Park] had to be erected along the route; tolls would cease if the road was not kept in good shape; penalties were laid out for damage to the road, milestones or signage; penalties were set for travellers evading the toll, and toll takers for extorting too much from travellers. Also, there was a provision that the state could buy out the road anytime after 1830. It didn't happen then, but it did in the 1850's. After that, it became a public road under the care of the road commissioners and the county's Levy Court.

Milestone by BSP. Inscribed: 3 (?) M[iles] to N[ew]P[ort]
The Newport and Gap Turnpike was the first private toll road in the state, and it started a boom. Soon after would come the Wilmington Turnpike (Lancaster Pike), the Newcastle and Frenchtown (Rt 273/40), the Wilmington and Kennett (Kennett Pike, Rt 52), the Wilmington and Great Valley (Concord Pike, Rt 202), the Wilmington and Philadelphia (Philadelphia Pike), and the Wilmington and Christiana (Rt 4), to name a few. The Newport and Gap was fairly successful, even though it lost a fair amount of traffic to Limestone Road, which had only one ford, had easier hills, and was free. All these roads began to suffer, though, later in the century, as the railroads became the kings of commerce. It wasn't until the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century that roads would again be the center of attention. That story, however, will have to wait for another time.

1 comment:

  1. There is still one milestone left on Newport-Gap Pike. It is on the east side of the road as you approach the intersection with Faulkland Road. I'll try to remember to get a picture of it some day soon.