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Railroads America - Travels In The Colonies

( Originally Published 1927 )



THE first white settlers in North America travelled overland as did the Indians, on their own feet. Through forests they made their trails and over streams they improvised bridges of fallen trees. These paths were trodden by the heavy shoes of the colonists, widened by the passage of cattle, going to and returning from pasture, and improved to permit the passage of carts and other vehicles. In New England these primitive roads were called in the court-records "trodden paths," and one of the earliest, that between Boston and Ply-mouth, was officially established by the General Court in 1639. Paths or roads were ordered to be built "between towns and towns for horse and foot," and in this fashion settlements along the coast were linked with each other and with other towns as far west as Albany.

The settlers soon acquired horses, importing various breeds, and everyone who could afford it travelled astride. Dignitaries maintained private coaches and so did some wealthy people. A visitor to Boston in 1740 wrote : "There are several families in Boston that keep a coach and a pair of horses, and some few drive with four horses; but for chaises and saddle-horses, considering the bulk of the place, they outdo London. They have some nimble, lively horses for the coach, but not any of that beautiful black breed so common in London. Their saddle-horses all pace naturally, and are generally counted sure-footed; but they are not kept in that fine order as in England. The common draught-horses used in carts about the town are very small and poor, and seldom have their fill of anything but labor. The country carts and wagons are generally drawn by oxen, from two to six according to the distance, or the burden they are laden with."

Travel by horse was convenient for short journeys, but not for long distances nor for the transportation of goods. Commerce was carried on by water, and to facilitate this most of the settlements were made on the coast or along rivers. As the country developed, however, trade could not be dependent altogether on waterways, and for inland commerce it became customary, as in Europe, to employ packhorses.

These packhorses were driven along Indian trails through the wilderness. By such a primitive route General Braddock had to march his troops when he set out in 1755 on his expedition into western Pennsylvania. For his use the trail was widened to a wagon-road, and this road became the favorite route for the pioneers who crossed the Alleghany Mountains and settled southwestern Pennsylvania and western Virginia.

Over this route every autumn trains of packhorses carried furs and hides to Baltimore and the eastern markets and received in exchange the iron and steel and various commodities desired by the pioneers. The packhorse system became a regular common carrier business and all the important towns along the road had their packhorse companies.

On the track of the packhorse trains came the Conestoga wagon. This famous vehicle, which played an important part in the history of America, had a body shaped like a boat with a curved bottom, which kept the freight in place regardless of how the wagon might tilt. The body was usually painted gray or blue, with red sideboards. The rear end could be lifted. From the back was suspended a feed-trough for the horses, on one side was a tool-chest, and under the rear axle-tree hung a tar-bucket and water-pail. The tires of the wheels were very broad, sometimes almost a foot wide. Over the body of the wagon arched six or eight bows, those in the middle being lower than those at the ends. These bows were covered with a strong hempen top that was corded tightly at the sides and ends of the wagon, which could be loaded with freight right up to the top. The wagons carried from four to six tons each, or about a ton of weight for each horse.

The Conestoga breed of horses were fine, powerful animals, admirably adapted to their work. Their harness was of the best leather and frequently each horse except the saddle-horse wore a set of musical bells. Sometimes the driver walked alongside his team, sometimes he sat on the saddle-horse or on an adjustable seat called a lazy-board that hung at the wagon's side.

These Conestoga wagons were the great freight-carriers of pioneer days. There were three thousand at one time travelling back and forth between Philadelphia and western Pennsylvania towns. In the Revolution they rendered great service to the Continental army and during the War of 1812 transported arms and supplies to the troops on the frontier. From Pennsylvania the use of the Conestoga spread to every section of the country and under the new name of "prairie schooner" the Conestoga wagon carried the early tides of emigration across the plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.

As roads improved stagecoaches after the English fashion were introduced into the colonies. A "stage-chaise" ran between Salem and Boston in 1767 and a "stage-chariot" between Boston and Marblehead in 1772. The first line of stages between New York and Philadelphia took about three days to make the journey. This advertisement was carried in the Weekly Mercury of March 8, 1759:

`Philadelphia Stage Waggon and New York Stage Boat perform their stages twice a week. John Butler with his waggon sets out on Monday from his house at the sign of the `Death of the Fox' in Strawberry Alley, and drives the same day to Trenton Ferry, where Fran-cis Holman meets him, and the passengers and goods being shifted into the waggon of Isaac Fitzrandolph, he takes them to the New York Blazing Star to Jacob Fitzrandolph's the same day, where Rubin Fitzrandolph, with a boat well suited will receive them and take them to New York that night : John Butler, returning to Philadelphia on Tuesday with the passengers and goods de-livered to him by Francis Holman, will set out again for Trenton Ferry on Thursday, and Francis Holman, etc., will carry his passengers and goods with the same expedition as above to New York."

Among the most important of the early turnpikes was the one known as the National Road, which was first built from Cumberland to Wheeling and afterwards extended. This was a fine highway and during one period there were four lines of stagecoaches employed on it, the National Line, Pioneer, Good Intent, and June Bug. It was over this road that the first mail-coach carrying the United States mail travelled in August, 1818. The mail-coach left Wheeling at six in the morning and drove the one hundred and thirty-two miles to Cumberland in twenty-four hours. Often as many as fourteen stagecoaches loaded with passengers started off together over this road.

After the Revolution a great many people moved west from New England and in the winter of 1795 twelve hundred sleighs passed through Albany bound for the Genesee Valley. Other prospectors came on horseback, and among these were two young surveyors from Connecticut who noted the bad roads and heavy travel and set about constructing a turnpike. This turnpike first reached from Albany to Schenectady and was later continued to Utica; it was called the Mohawk Turnpike and over it journeyed an immense volume of traffic; there was a tavern at every mile and sometimes a tavern would be stabling a hundred horses at a time.

Although there was so much travelling in the colonies and young republic there was little of that high-way robbery that was so common in England. One reason for this is that while Englishmen persisted in carrying gold and banknotes Americans early adopted the habit of using drafts and bills of exchange. Plenty of rascals came out to the colonies; but few took to the career of highwayman, and there were no American "knights of the road" of the same stripe as the English Claude Duval or Dick Turpin.



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