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article number 330
article date 04-01-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Strange Course of American Trails to Highways, 1700-1900
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy.

§ 1

PERHAPS it need not be said again that transportation is a “sine qua non” of civilization. It is a curious paradox that without it no appreciable static society can exist.

A study of transportation in America, for instance, reveals the use of Indian trails by the European invaders, but their preservation as monuments of civilization depended upon their ultimate use, not as mere paths of movement but as tributaries to static centers.

The trail of the nomad leads only one way: to him what is behind is exhausted, he never follows his footprints back. When men first go back upon the trail they have tramped it is to carry something which has been left behind to men ahead, and such behavior implies a static center at one end.

The pioneers of the Iroquois trails traversed a route which could be adapted without prodigious effort to a highway for wheeled vehicles. Along it, white men static in Holland or semi-static at the mouth of the Hudson had taught red men to transport mountains of furs. These Indians, under the remote control of civilization, had chosen the way easiest for their naked feet and burdened backs.

The pioneers of the Ohio had picked a way on which at least rafts of supplies could follow if, indeed, the rafts must be broken up and built into shelters at the end of the journey. But neither boat nor wheel could follow the pioneers of the Cumberland Gap without prodigies of adaptation.


Daniel Boone began his trace by cutting direct through the wilderness a path for pack horses. He made detours round the larger trees, but having no thought of wagons did not consider grades, and for many years only the second stage of transportation moved over the Wilderness Road that followed his trace.

He came to an Indian path—a war trail—and continued along it with relief, widening it for the pack animals and droves of cattle which would follow and turned at last into a “street” made by the forever moving and gregarious bison.

His road was of fundamental importance to the settlement of Kentucky and hordes of migrant folk, moving often in church congregations led by their pastors, travelled over it, driving their cattle, carrying their full supplies in packs on mules and horses. The women went along with the men, and the babies jounced in willow baskets fastened to the packsaddles.

These were hardy people, moving thus into the wild lands without wheels.

Wheels existed behind them. In 1755, Franklin had assembled a hundred and fifty wagons for Braddock’s unhappy expedition, many of them drawn by four horses. About the same time the Conestoga wagon made its first appearance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The wagons were used, however, in these early years only for transport over short distances and in the East.

Except for stages running between the large cities of the East such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York, wheeled vehicles were used almost exclusively for the transport of goods, not of people. Men and women walked or rode horses.

To drive in a carriage in the eighteenth century was an indication of immense wealth or of physical incapacity.

As Hilaire Belloc points out in his pleasing philosophical essay on the subject, the vehicle creates the highway. Thus, on the Atlantic fringe where business demanded the stagecoach between cities, some effort was made to keep up the roads.

The true art of road-making was unknown to Americans of the period as, indeed, it was in most of the world since the Middle Ages, when the great Roman art was lost. The best they could do was to use logs in the worst places or fill the deeper holes with sand. Even so, there were periods of the year when overland travel was quite unthinkable.

Cross-section of Roman roadway. A. Wearing surface of stone slabs. B. Layer of pounded bricks, tile and lime. C. Rubble. D. Bottom layer of stones. E. Curbstone. F. Natural undersoil.

And, in the West, long after the Conestoga wagon had been adapted to steep grades and mud, the pack horses persisted. This was partly the result of violent commercial opposition reaching the point of what we should call racket—already showing its ugly head early in the nineteenth century.

The pack-horse men had organized. Magnates owning as many as a thousand animals and supplying equipped pack-trains for long journeys fought the wheel with all the bitterness that a modern union fights laborsaving machinery. This helped to keep the Wilderness and Cumberland roads and many other routes into the “promised land” virgin to ruts for more than a quarter of a century.

§ 2

The wheel (except in machinery) was confined, therefore, largely to the great static centers. In New York, Philadelphia and Boston the rich and great drove about in equipages which would be regarded as highly uncomfortable today over streets paved with great labor and doubtful skill, and a few enterprising promoters managed astonishing feats of coach and ferry transport from center to center.


The postal service into which Franklin injected the first germ of speed laid out a highway route which is still maintained.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire the political and economic position of the highway had been doubtful in many parts of the world.

The military need of roads has drawn government attention to highway construction in war time, and dominant rulers like Napoleon have caused government money to be spent on them. In intervals of peace and democracy, however, this burden has fallen upon municipal and county governments, individual landowners or directly, by toll, upon the traffic.

In the vague new United States with its rampant freedom, individualism and angry local jealousies, there seemed to be no way of determining who should pay for the roads. The Continental Congress had voted money for the construction of such military highways as were needed in the Revolution, but no appropriation was made for their maintenance when the war was over.

Private capital was spent on the stagecoach roads, some government money went to the maintenance of postal routes and towns paid for their own paving. In a few instances, state appropriations were made for highways: these were always inadequate.

The first practical solution of the problem was the turnpike with its levies on the traffic—an imported invention.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the turnpike idea spread rapidly. For some thirty years the turnpike companies offered alluring investments to private capital. The roads themselves were bad enough, the rates were high, there was bitter resentment against the system among poor people seeking a promised land, but they furnished the first medium for the covered wagon when settlement in the West began in earnest.


The roads were bad. But consider the difficulties. Here was a virgin country, a forested wilderness. No ancient civilization had flourished upon this land. The cut forest with its pulled or rotting stumps yielded only mud-rich, fertile mud to be sure, but forbidding to the wheel.

Only when it froze was overland transport possible, and we must remember always the immense quantity of winter transport which aided our northern settlement. So, in America, the lost art of road-making must start from the very beginnings from which it must have sprung on the Campagna marshes.

So it seems to us from our distance as we look across the abyss between. Looking into the abyss, then, we find that Americans did not rediscover that art; that it came, when it did come, from Europe. We approached it, timidly, tentatively, appalled by the distances.

In the 1820’s there was real agitation for good roads. In the early thirties many states had highway commissions and state money had been appropriated. Even the Federal Government, emboldened by its dominant attitude toward the western lands, was interested in road improvement.

There was real promise of vast activity in highway development. At this point arrived the railroad and stopped the whole of it.

The iron road did, in fact, kill the necessity. That part of the country which was still unsettled continued its settlement along the railroad. The railroad made a gigantic effort to reach those parts which were already settled. Americans became so proficient in railway construction and capital was so drawn to it that all the efforts succeeded.

The horse-drawn vehicle was adapted to short distances and was made more comfortable for human transport. But the need of long, surfaced highways disappeared. The rails provided them, and over the rails the steam-drawn trains moved at terrific speed.


The highways, then, fell into natural desuetude, lapsed back into mud and forests. The turnpike companies folded up and were forgotten. Capital, all turned into the railroad and the static centers it had created, could no longer be interested in roads—corduroy, plank, or even, when they arrived, asphalt and macadam.

This condition persisted throughout the century and well into the next despite the howls of occasional teamsters, buggy drivers and the late vociferous roar of the cyclists.

It was hardly surprising, then, that the horseless vehicle, demanding a smooth surface for its driving wheels, came into use not in America where mud and wilderness had been conquered by steel, but on the ancient paved foundations of the Roman Empire.

§ 3

On such roads in England in the early nineteenth century one of the inventors of the locomotive was lured to experiment with self-propelled vehicles. Here we find Richard Trevithick in 1801 carrying a load of passengers over a “common road.”

In 1824, William Henry James produced a practical passenger coach accommodating twenty persons and, five years later, made a second one which attained the astonishing speed of fifteen miles an hour.

By 1830 Goldsworthy Gurney was making steam road vehicles commercially. Six years later Walter Hancock established a bus route with steam carriages and, in five months, made more than 700 trips, covering over 4000 miles and carrying some 12,000 passengers.

The other experiments in England, like the abortive earlier attempts of Cugnot in France and Evans in America, have been described in detail in many histories of transportation and histories of the automobile. By 1865, such steam carriages were so common on the English highways that they were regarded as pests, and Parliament passed a law which virtually ended them in England so that in the following thirty-five years (until the law was repealed) automotive experiment was transferred to the Continent.

1830’s critical look at the future of British steam carriages by Henry Thomas Alken.

To us, however, these monsters hardly seem the ancestors of the modern motor vehicle. But for the fact that they ran upon a road surface rather than upon rails they resemble our automobiles no more than the locomotives of the period.

To us the true parents of the automobile seem rather to be the internal combustion engine, combining in its cylinder both fuel and energizing vapor, and attaining thus the essential principle of lightness and, at the moment when the pneumatic tire was attached to it, the bicycle.

Without the great discovery which happened to be made by Charles Goodyear in 1839 and the inventions which followed it, the modern automobile is inconceivable. We may think of other means of power than the gas or oil engine. Steam produced on the “flash” principle did operate light engines in motor cars for a number of years. Electricity was also successful (and is still in use) for short distances.

But without rubber neither these vehicles nor the roads they moved upon could have long survived. Without rubber, indeed, we should have done better to stick to the steel rails.

As far as we know this elastic substance enclosing still more elastic air was first extensively applied to the wheels of bicycles. The bicycle, thus equipped, had a far larger social significance than is usually credited to it.

It introduced the first idea of individual speed and was the first inexpensive means of rapid individual travel. It brought a medium of exercise which was simultaneously healthful and pleasurable to millions of people. It began, in America, the new agitation for good roads which has culminated today in our great highway system.

Besides the pneumatic tire it introduced certain technical principles which were carried on into the motor car, notably ball bearings, hub braking and the tangential spoke. Its makers found it possible to adapt their machinery easily to the manufacture of motor cars, so that we find a number of bicycle industrialists among the first automobile makers.


The bicycle, like its offspring, demanded a reasonably smooth road surface. It originated, therefore, like the automobile, in Europe.

§ 4

The child, mounted on his hobbyhorse, has for centuries imitated the motions of riding. When the horse was mounted on rockers he felt the up-and-down motion of a trotter, when it was mounted on wheels he could achieve the horse’s horizontal motion by pushing it forward by striking his toes on the ground.

The hobbyhorse was taken seriously by adults when two wheels, mounted in the same vertical plane, replaced the horse’s body and the saddle was hung between them. This machine, invented by a German named von Drais and called, when it was manufactured in Paris, the “Draisine,” originally arrived in 1779.

It was the first step toward the bicycle. It incorporated the principle that a rotating body tends to preserve its plane of rotation. It had a large vogue in Europe when, by 1816, the cessation of the Napoleonic wars left time for such pastimes and it reached New York some three years later.

It was propelled exactly as the child propels his hobbyhorse, by striking the toes upon the ground. It expired, perhaps because this motion was too exhausting.

After it there was a long interval in which there seems to have been no effort toward reviving the bicycle. It reappeared, again in France, in 1855 with a crank and pedals attached to the front-wheel axle. The credit for the invention is disputed, though it is probably due to Pierre Michaux.

The first velocipede. Evolved by Pierre Lallement from an old draisine or “hobby horse” by adding axle-crank and pedals to the front wheel.

From this point, the front wheel grew larger and the rear wheel smaller, until we arrive at the “vertical fork” of 1879, the appalling machine used by our grandfathers. That our generations were ever born attests the hardihood and skill of our ancestors in the early days of the “cycling” sport.

Amenities of the Erie Canal tow-path. From Thomas Stevens’ “Around the World on a Bicycle,” Scribner’s, 1887.

In spite (or perhaps because) of its danger and notwithstanding its difficulty of propulsion, except on level ground or down hill, this machine really started the bicycle craze which grew to such mammoth proportions after the assembly of inventions by William Pope of Hartford—quite naturally called “the safety.”

The safety bicycle had wheels of the same size and used the sprocket and chain invented by a Marseillais named Rousseau. It gradually developed its diamond frame of steel tubes, its spring fork, its comfortable leather seat until it became essentially the bicycle of today. Meanwhile, the pneumatic tire arrived.

The double property of air tightness and elasticity has made rubber one of the most valuable materials in the world. Soon after Goodyear perfected the process by which it could retain these properties, an Englishman named Robert William Thomson first used their combination for road transport.

He invented what is virtually the automobile tire of today; an inflated rubber inner tube in a fabric or leather shoe, in 1845. That it had almost no use is evident from the fact that John Boyd Dunlop, an Irish veterinarian, reinvented it in 1888 with no knowledge that it had ever existed.

Dunlop’s patent was for a bicycle tire. In spite of the doubtful validity of this patent, Dunlop, with a capital of twenty-five million dollars, carried his company to success and his tires to the markets of the world. Even in America, where the Dunlop patent was held invalid, competition was not successful until the coming of the automobile.

John Boyd Dunlop out for a ride.

Here we may look at the series of steps through which the pneumatic-tired vehicle moved to create the highway. To begin with, the nature of the road suggested the tire. English roads were often hard, but they were rarely smooth. The elasticity of inflated rubber absorbed some of the shock caused by the uneven surface.

But once the tire became universal on bicycles, another of its properties became evident. This was its gripping effect due to the many small vacuum cups produced by the pores of the rubber as they come into contact with the road surface.

As the tire makes this contact, its own surface enlarges, acquiring (but only at the point of contact) the effect of a broader tire. The theoretical result of this was greatly increased speed on the level and increased power through lessened loss of motion on the grades.

This theoretical result, however, became a practical result only upon a smooth surface where the vacuum cups had a chance to do their work. On loose gravel, or on an uneven, pitted road, there was either lost motion or failure to grip.

So it was soon evident to the cyclist that a smooth, hard road was essential to the bicycle’s efficiency.

The bicycle’s possibilities were soon appreciated by Americans. Here was a new instrument of freedom, a magnificent medium of individual expression. The crowding in trains was a collective matter, repellent to the rugged pioneer memory.

And Paris gave us this Parisian bicycle costume of 1895. From Scribner’s Magazine, 1895.

The horse, for instance, for individual transport had become, since the advent of the railroad, something of a luxury. He must be expensively maintained. He required space or he must be rented from the livery stable, and he was not usually so hired for the transport of a single person for recreation, or a casual errand.

The potentials of the bicycle were intoxicating. It could be kept in some eight square feet of space. It required no upkeep beyond occasional oiling, cleaning and small repairs. On it, one could be as free as the air to escape from one’s friends, or to assemble with them, to explore the farthest reaches of the countryside, to know new beauties, to go what seemed unlimited distances at speeds governed only by gravity and surface, to come and go, somewhere, nowhere, at a boy’s will.

For every one, it was new youth, new health and a new world. It was fully in key with the quickened collective tempo, yet it was essentially, ruggedly, frenziedly individual.

The grown child has overshadowed the beauty of the parent. The motor car, providing the same expression intensified to a point where, like all concerted individual expressions, it has threatened its own independence, has blotted out the fine memory of its sturdy predecessor.

We forget, today, the vigorous freedom of the bicycle age when women shed the cumbrous paraphernalia of their lewd disguise, paraded, for so long, under the pretense of modesty, when boys and girls learned companionship with the obbligato of physical work and fresh air, when hidden worlds opened to city-confined souls and the gypsy trail came anew to life.

It was not long, nevertheless, before it was obvious in America, at least, that the gipsy trail would require the attention of Mr. John Loudon McAdam, before it could perform its new function. The ingenious Scot was long dead, when rubber first encountered the morasses known as roads in the United States, but his practice which had brought a renaissance of highways in England was known here. It was a matter now, first of mass desire, secondly, of organization, and finally, most difficult of all, of finance.

To charge a cyclist toll would have defeated the inherent value of the invention. To tax him for the possession of his bicycle was unthinkable in a nation which resented the most necessary taxes.

Any organization of cyclists was naturally a democratic and impecunious institution. These organizations did acquire, however, a certain political power from their very size and they presently turned their attention to state agencies.

When we consider the extent of the vogue—the quantity of recreation, camping, racing, “nature” and other clubs which sprang up, the use of the bicycle for pseudo-scientific expeditions, for police, in the army, for messenger service, for mail, for newspaper delivery and as an adjunct to the telegraph; the long-distance competitions, the road races, endurance contests and an infinity of other matters—we may understand this power.


And for finances there were, of course, the manufacturers, who saw the necessity of highways to the extension of their business.

There began, therefore, one of the first great campaigns of mass propaganda (in the sense in which that phrase is used today) that the nation had seen. Unlike the earlier collective drives, morally and negatively motivated like the anti-liquor and anti-vice crusades, this one was practical, positive and realistic; it had, moreover, the force of youth (today the object of such extensive ballyhoo) behind it.

Indeed, the bicycle might be looked on as the wedge behind which followed the armies of sport, physical culture, fresh air, girth control, but most of all, triumphant if not flaming youth, which have inundated us ever since and may be observed at their apex in the barelegged processions and carnivals of the totalitarian states.

It is interesting to observe all the familiar propaganda machinery blooming in the nineties; posters, newsprint, mass meetings, societies, committees, lobbies, funds—all for Good Roads. The press took up the cry of the knickerbockered men and bloomered women, and several states revived their highway commissions as a result.

If the bicycle craze had continued, it would have brought much change to the highways. The most we can say is that it began the changes; it fertilized the public mind, made people, as we should say, “road conscious,” constructed the machinery through which later powers, with a more stable and certain industry behind them, could operate.

The propaganda lapsed with the lapse of the bicycle enthusiasm at about the turn of the century at which moment the eyes of the country were turned, with a mixture of curiosity and contempt, upon a new machine.


Curiously, the road propaganda was opposed by many of the farmers. To them the bicycle had the “city-folks” curse upon it. It would bring these aliens into the sacred farm country. It would draw the boys and girls from the soil. It would do something mysterious to hurt the agricultural tradition.

Most alarming of all, it might bring taxes down on their heads—taxes to pay for the sport of the city-folks. They opposed good roads with some success.

They continued to urge their poor beasts to strain at mired wagons, content to struggle through the mud if it would offer resistance to anything new-fangled. Their conservatism was ages old; the fight of the farmer against change is a tradition whose beginning we can scarcely trace. It is, to be sure, a corollary of much of his strength.

Yet the machine had already entered the farm. One of the devices was a thresher run by steam. Even in the seventies this had been accepted on the farm. This machine was pulled along the roads as a trailer to the engine that ran it.

The engine was self-propelled, it looked like a locomotive, it moved slower than a man could walk, but when the harvest came, the countryside turned out in excitement to watch its snaillike progress from farm to farm.

There is a story current that a particular twelve-year-old boy, sweating on a Michigan farm and tortured meanwhile by a mechanical flair, was thrown into a frenzy of excitement by the sight of this monster, neglected his work and followed it for days, unwilling to let it pass beyond the reach of his eager and speculative eyes.

Legend has it that his name was Henry Ford.

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