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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Duncan Road: A Colonial Highway

As promised, here is the fourth and (for now) final post relating to the Conestoga Wagon, aka, the Yarnall Tavern. In the last post questioning the original opening date of the tavern, one argument I made for a post-1810 timeframe was the fact that the road that became the Newport and Gap Turnpike more or less didn't exist before then. Here now is Walt Chiquoine, who has much more to say on the topic.

By (now frequent) Contributor Walt Chiquoine --

The historical importance of roads is their role in commerce – getting products from here to there. The colonial roads through MCH needed to get local farm products to market, but more significantly, they allowed products from Lancaster and Chester Counties to reach the mills and wharves at Stanton, Newport, and Wilmington. This was as true of beaver pelts and tobacco in 1650 as it was of grain, dairy, and produce in 1750 and 1850.

Many historians attribute early roads to the pre-existing American Indian trails. While in many cases this is probably true, it is also a trap. No one has a 1637 map of the old Indian trails, so there is no hard evidence of those trails, only stories. Any road could be claimed to follow an Indian trail, and none of us would be the wiser.

But there are characteristics of the early roads that may help us understand them. First is grade; that is, how steep was the road? Second is the number of streams to cross, since every ford was a hassle. Third is the drainage of the road. Nobody wanted to go through a swamp or down a muddy lane. So the early roads tended to follow contour lines, avoided creeks when possible, and generally tracked high ground. Possum Park, Polly Drummond Hill, Limestone, and Old Wilmington Roads are good examples – get to the top of the hill and stay there.

Duncan Road runs from McKennan’s Church Road, just below (now) Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, down to Hersey’s Bridge below Marshallton. From there, it bears the name Newport Road and connects with Kiamensi Road close to Newport. McKennan’s Church Road ran from Milltown to the road to Hockessin. Today, Duncan Road seems like just another secondary suburban road, only useful for getting from one subdivision to another. But Duncan Road played a very significant role in the commerce of the 18th century.

Duncan Road may not have been a highway as we think of one today, but it was the main road that moved people and product between Newport, Hockessin, and Pennsylvania. It served this function until the construction of the Gap Newport Turnpike around 1810.

Many historians assume there was an early version of the Gap Newport Turnpike in this area, similar to its current path that took travelers to Newport. But there isn’t much hard evidence of this trail in the 18th century. I would suggest it may have been a few farm paths and a trail to the Yellow Springs (later known as Brandywine Springs), but not much more. This trail has to cross RCC, go up and down two steep hills, and ford Hyde Run twice…not exactly an ideal dirt road.

On the other hand, the parallel path from Newport up Duncan Road via Hersey’s Bridge is a mild climb. There is a bridge over RCC, and the road takes the high ground between Calf Run (to the west) and Hyde Run (to the east), thereby avoiding the major streams. Travelling further up McKennan’s Church Road is also a modest grade. It would seem all downhill from Hockessin to Newport. On paper, it looks like the best route available. And as noted, it still retains the name “Newport Road” at the southern end.

There is evidence for the path of Duncan Road in early deeds. The first appears in a deed from 1763, calling it the “the Great Road leading…to Newport”. It became the boundary between William Foot to the north and Richard James to the south. When Richard James sold his property to William Renfreu in 1767, the same northern line is described as “the Great Road to Newport”. This is along the northern boundary of today’s Delcastle Recreation Area.

Then in 1783, the road to the south became a boundary between Ephraim Yarnall and James Robinson, where it was called the “road leading from Newport to Ocasson”. This was the intersection with what would become Faulkland Road. In 1816, the location would be surveyed to the sons of Ephraim Yarnall Sr., calling it the “Ocasson Road to Newport.” I’ve even wondered if Ephraim Yarnall Sr. ran a tavern at that intersection, where his former dwelling house is noted on the survey. Perhaps it was a precursor to his son Holton’s “Conestoga Wagon” tavern, built later on the Gap Newport Turnpike just ¼ mile to the east. Just speculation.

This is clear evidence that Duncan Road was known as the road from Hockessin to Newport. But there is more evidence from a map made in August, 1777 for General George Washington by James Broom, after Gen. William Howe and the British army landed at Elk Neck. Broom’s goal must have been to lay out the main roads and bridges. But the work is more a schematic than an accurate layout, and is difficult to interpret. Part of a tracing of that map is shown below.

The Broom map shows a road (31) leading north from Newport (30), crossing RCC (22) at a bridge (32), and then proceeding to an intersection labeled “James Walker” (J) in Washington’s own hand. This second road runs south to Milltown (K). [James Walker was a Lieutenant in the Company of Evan Rice of the Delaware Line, serving in the Continental Army.] Recently I located the property of James Walker at the intersection of McKennan’s Church Road and Newport (or Duncan) Road, and put the two together. The road on this map from Walker’s to Newport was Duncan Road, crossing RCC at Hersey’s Bridge.

Ultimately, I assume Duncan Road was a victim of its own success. After 50 or more years moving wagons and livestock to Newport on a dirt track, it was probably worn out by the turn of the 19th century. Wheel ruts, washouts, and overgrowth took their toll, since there was no formal effort to keep the road maintained. This would have been the case on the entire road, into Chester County and beyond.

By 1800, commerce was expanding in our new nation, and it had become clear that new and better transportation was necessary. State governments were experimenting with turnpikes, built and maintained by independent companies that would collect tolls from the travelers thereon. In 1807, Pennsylvania approved a Company to build a turnpike from Gap, PA to the Delaware line; Delaware passed a corresponding bill in 1808 that authorized the turnpike from Newport to the Pennsylvania line near Hockessin. The Gap to Newport Turnpike was completed by about 1815, and remains a major highway today. But it was Duncan Road that literally carried the load in the 18th century.


  1. Nice article Walt!....great information!

  2. Great article...maybe I missed it, but, who was Duncan road named after (for) ?

    1. I've never seen it specifically written, but presumably for the Duncans (probably Benjamin) who lived in the Hersey-Duncan House just north of Kirkwood Highway. You can find more about it here: http://mchhistory.blogspot.com/2010/07/hersey-duncan-house.html
      Incidentally, that would have been after its Colonial Highway heyday. (Also, "Colonial Highway Heyday" would be a great title for a folk album. Just sayin'.)

  3. Thanks for this informative article. I have in the last couple of years started looking at some genealogy in this area and it is very helpful to know the sorts of things you explain in the article.