The History of New York State
Book 12, Chapter 16, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam



Vehicular roads have developed with commerce and travel and particularly with war, conquest and military control of distant countries. Strabo mentions three great highways running out from ancient Babylon. The earliest systematic roadmaking is credited to the Carthaginians, but the great road builders of olden times were the Romans. The Appian Way, begun by Appius Claudius, appears to have been the earliest notable piece of permanent roadwork. In general, Roman roads were built as straight lines, regardless of ordinary grade, and were paved to a great depth, the several layers of stone and concrete sometimes aggregating three feet in thickness.

One of the earliest English road laws was passed by Parliament in 1285. It directed that all trees and shrubs be cut down to a distance of 200 feet on either side of roads between market towns to prevent the concealment of robbers in them. The first toll in that country for the repair on roads was levied by the authority of King Edward the Third in 1346 on roads which now form part of the street of London. In 1555 an act was passed requiring each parish to select two surveyors of highways to keep them in repair by compulsory labor. At a later period, in place of the compulsory labor, the statute labor tax was substituted. In France, Louis the Twelfth, ordered an inspection of and report on the roads of the kingdom in 1508, while late in the same century Henry IV appointed the Great Waywarden of France. In 1558, a stone road fifteen feet wide was built from Paris to Orleans, with about twenty feet of unpaved public way on each side. France appears to have been the leader in modern road construction, but England forged ahead in that direction also, and both France and England adopted the macadam system of road improvements.

By 1775 Tresaguet had evoked a system of improved road construction in many respect similar to that now widely used throughout the world. First of all Tresaguet prepared a curved bed, or earth foundation, for his stonework, parallel with and about ten inches below the finished surface of the proposed roadway. Instead of laying his large stones flat he set them on edge, broke their upper edges off to an even surface, then covered this stone foundation with another hand-laid course of stone, smaller than the first, and with its edges hammered off. Finally he put on a third layer of stone, broken to about the size of a walnut and spread by a shovel. The hardest stone was chosen for the surface layer. This general system was continued in France until 1820. In that year the plan worked out by Macadam in England was introduced in France, and in 1830 it was officially adopted by the latter country. It involved comparatively little change except in the foundation, as a description of Macadam's work shows.

Macadam and Telford, whose names have been applied to the rival systems of broke stone road construction now practiced were both Scotchmen, born within a year of each other, 1756 and 1757, respectively. Although both of these great engineers built hundreds of miles of broken-stone road construction on modifications of the French plan already described, Macadam departed further from his models. Telford retained the single course of large stone on edge introduced in France by Tresaguet, but he placed them on the road of a level trench and secured a curved surface in this roadway by using large or taller stones at the centre than at the sides. Over these large stones in some cases he spread a layer of gravel one inch deep; then he finished the roadway with about six inches of broken stone. Macadam used nothing but broken stone from the finished surface of the earth foundation, at the same time raising the stone bed above the earth on each side, instead of sinking it in a trench. The latter change was designed to facilitate drainage. Macadam's entire system was founded on perfect drainage and on the thorough compacting of the angular fragments of broken stone into one solid mass.

First American Roads.--Prior to 1800 there were few roads in the United States that deserved to be characterized as improved. In 1796 Francis Baily, in his "Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America," wrote that "there is at present but one turnpike road on the continent, which is between Lancaster and Philadelphia, a distance of 60 miles, and is a masterpiece of its kind; it is paved with stone the whole way and overlaid with gravel, so that it is never obstructed during the most severe season." The road was built by a company charter in 1792. At the start it consisted of boulders rolled in helter-skelter and filled between and above with earth and gravel. Heavy rains reduced the roads to a dangerous condition. It is said that the road was afterwards unmacademized. This was the only one of the many toll roads distributed over the United States, bit it is doubtful whether any of the other early ones could pay claim to having been macadamized. Another toll road, built in whole or in part before 1800, extended from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia westward to Kentucky. It was built and as late as 1895 it was said still to be owned by the Wilderness Turnpike Company. Although many attempts were made to secure toad construction by the National government in the early days of the constitution, the only such work of importance, if not the sole example, was the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland, westerly 800 miles to Vandalia, Illinois. The original plan was to build a road from the Atlantic Coast to the Ohio River. The road had a total width of eighty feet and was macadamized total width of thirty feet. As settlement proceeded, corduroy or log-surfaced roads were built across dangerously wet and soft trenches, and with the advent of the sawmill, plant roads, particularly for the toll ways, became common some sections. When new or when kept in good repaid, plank roads were a vast improvement, but they were expensive to maintain and liable to get badly our of order.

After the wave of internal improvements had swept over the various States of the Union, from say 1835-40 on, road construction companies built long stretches of toll roads. The advent of railways rapidly lessened the demand for extensive single lines of highways. "Working out the road tax" instead of paying the tax is money and having the money laid out by experienced road builders, was the rule, and poor roads were the result. The rapid increase in urban population, in general prosperity, and in municipal improvements which followed the Civil War was largely responsible for the beginning of improved city streets. These led to better roads, and from better roads it was only a step to the agitation for good roads that assumed such great proportion in the Untied States from about 1900 onward. This in turn was largely die to the widespread use of the bicycle, and in more recent years to the motor vehicle. In on State, in 1889, a general county road law was passed which permitted counties, after certain legal formalities, to issue bonds for broken-stone or hard road construction and to assess one-third of the cost upon the property abutting on the line of the road. In 1891 New Jersey passed a State Aid or State Highway Law, which was the beginning of systematic road improvement in the Untied States under the direction of State officials and with the aid of State funds.

The following is quoted from an address by Dr. James Sullivan, on "The Old Mohawk Valley Turnpike":

There is but little doubt that a very large proportion of the traffic which found its way through this valley in the very early history of the country sought the road along the southern shore. The early travelers all state that the population along that shore was dense. This, of course, must be taken with a degree of reservation, for the reason that the disproportion between the two shores was comparatively slight, nor was there any great difference, although there was some.

That the westward movement of travel should have sought the southern store is rather natural in view of the fact that at the outset it did not necessitate the crossing of the Mohawk River at Schenectady, but between the two roads there was not a great difference as the number of stream which had to be crossed on either the northern road or the southern oral was about equal. This, of course, was always an important item in seeking a highway, from each one of these streams had to be forded and in order to ford them a detour was sometimes necessary. In other words, the stream has to ascend until a fording place was found.

Turnpike Company Formed.-- the present highway, which it is your purpose to mark, did in a away take its official form at the time of the incorporation of the Mohawk Valley Turnpike and Bridge Company in the year 1800, Charter 105, Laws of 1800. The law governing the incorporation of the company can be so easily found that it is not my purpose to go into its details. The company was, as you know, to construct a bridge over the Mohawk at Schenectady, which was virtually to take the place of the old ferry; in fact, no ferries were allowed to operate within a mile of the bridge after it was constructed. It was then to lay out a highway which was to be thirty feet wide between the ditches, eighteen feet of which was to be bedded with wood, stone, gravel, or any other hard substance compacted together a sufficient depth to secure a solid foundation. The road was then to be faced with gravel or other hard substance to secure an even surface, rising towards the middle by a gradual arch. They were naturally to keep the road in repair. All the bridges on the road, which was to run from Schenectady to Utica, were to be considered a part of the road and were to be kept in good repair. Tollgates were to be erected every ten miles and the privilege of charging toll at specified rates was granted. Milestones were to be set up as well as guideposts.

You will have noted that this original turnpike was to end at Utica, but in case any inhabitants who lived along the road extending from Utica to Rome desired to become stockholders in an amount sufficient to improve the old road, it was permitted to the Turnpike Company to extend the turnpike from Utica to Rome.

Narrow Tires Discouraged.--An interesting item is the attention paid to the use of narrow tired vehicles. These were held to be injurious to the roads in those days as they are held at the present time and any wagon having a broad tire was permitted to go over the turnpike without charge.

First Highway Law in 1703.--You will have noted from what has been said above that long before the turnpike came into existence there was a road which ran along the north shore of the Mohawk. There was also another road which ran along the south side. Under the Dutch we find no legislation which would warrant us in believing that these roads were laid out as roads during the period of their control, in fact during their ownership of the colony the settlements did not run beyond Schenectady. The matter of roads seems to have been neglected even by the English from the time that they took control in 1664 and resumed control in 1674, down to 1703, when we have the first statutes relating to toads. In the statute of that year the road from Albany to Schenectady is mentioned but nothing beyond. The statute provided for the appointment of commissioners for highways in each county of the State and the names of those who were to be appointed for Albany are given in the provision of the law. They were to serve for three years, have six shilling a day while in service and the county supervisors and treasurers were responsible for the collection of the necessary taxes to pay these fees. If they did not do it there was a penalty imposed. Aside from the general highway which was specified as running from Albany to Schenectady, the commissioners were to provide for the laying out of convenient roads and highways between the several settlements and villages in the county. The maintenance of the roads thus laid out was to be provided for by the people in the towns, villages or precincts through which the roads ran. The roads were to be four rods wide where they had already been laid out, but six rods where new ones were to be constructed.

It is interesting to note that the phraseology of these laws that were enacted in America follows practically the same wording as the statutes of the realm for England. In other words the colonists did not enact new laws, but merely based all of their statutory regulations upon laws which were already in existence for the mother country. Such an institution, for example, as the permissions for the abutting land owners to have singing gates across the road is transferred from the homeland to America. The theory that the title of the land of the road belonged to the abutting property owner, and that the public was merely given the right of way, or use of the highway, was also transferred.

This statute of 1703 was the basis for all other legislation which followed thereafter. Changes were made now and then and supplemental clauses added, and so on, but the nucleus of the legislation was the act of 1703.

The county of Albany, which you know extended to take in all of the western territory over which the English had jurisdiction, was given some special consideration because of practices which had grown up in the county during the Dutch regime and in the reenacting of 1713, for example, the fact that Albany was allowed to continue certain of its practices is made evident.

Highway to Fonda in 1721.--It is not until the statute of 1721 that we have any indication that roads have been carried beyond Schenectady. In that year the commissioners are appointed for highways on both sides of the Mohawk River running to as far as the Christian settlements then extended. The commissioners consisted of two Hansens and a Captain Van Slyck. As in one of the statutes it states the purpose of the law to appoint me who live in the vicinity of the highways, it is interest to find that Hansen had received a patent for land on the Dadanscarie Creek near Fonda, so that we may infer that as early as 1721 the roads were running up as far as this point.

In the statute of 1723, and this statute concerns Albany County in particular, the legislators complained that notwithstanding previous acts the highways in the county of Albany were mightily out of repaid. The same commissioners as those mentioned above were re-appointed as commissioners, in charge of the roads along the north side of the river as far as the Christian settlements then extended in or to the Mohawk country. Some stringent rules and regulations are made with reference to the inhabitants repairing the roads as laid out were to be registered in the county records.

Road to Little Falls in 1726.--In the statute of 1726 we are given further evident that the road had now been extended from Fonda to Little Falls, and from Little Falls some miles to the West, for in this statute the Palatines, Jan Jost Petri, Jurie Cass (or Kast) and others were appointed commissioners of highways and a road was to be laid out from the east side of Caughnawaga, which is the site of Fonda, to a point as for as the Christian settlements extend. As Petri and Kast and others had been given a patent for land which extended from Astenrogen (Little Falls) twenty-four miles to the west, it is evident that the road was working its way up towards the present site of Herkimer.

In the statute of 1729 commissioners are appointed to have charge of the roads on both sides of the river from Schenectady to the site of Fonda, and a different set of commissioners, consisting of Petri, Kast and others, to have charge of the roads from the site of Fonda to as far as the Christian settlements then extended.

Only thirteen Families Between Schenectady and Fonda in 1734.--In the statute of 17344 we are given an interesting sidelight with reference to the maintenance of the road on the north side of the Mohawk from Schenectady to Fonda. There it is related that the distance is about sixteen miles, that the land is extremely rough and not capable of more settlements than those now there, "there being but thirteen families who are unable to keep the roads in repair." The statute thereupon goes on to provide that the inhabitant living on both sides of the river from the site of Fonda to the place called Nelloses (which we easily recognize as Nelliston) were to assist in helping these families on this sixteen mile stretch to keep up the road.

Road Laid Over Stone Arabia.--In the statute of 1741 the same road districts, if we may call them such, were kept up and many of the same road commissioners were re-appointed to take care of them. In addition, however, there were two road commissioners to take charge of the road from Stone Arabia to Canada Creek. At this time the road on the north side of the river branched at Fonda and one road followed along the river bank and the other struck directly west to Stone Arabia and rejoined the river road at what was then called Garoga Creek. This section of the road was evidently thought important enough to call for the appointment of special commissioners.

In 1750 the same road districts are continued, and it is interesting to note that William Johnson is one of the commissioners appointed for the district running from the confines of Schenectady to Fonda on both sides of the river. In the law of 1760 the same districts are continued and we again find the name of William Johnson, this time Sir William Johnson, for the same district.

The work of the citizens evidently was not satisfactory and the roads were not kept in good repaid, for in 1761 it was found necessary to increase the fines for delinquents.

In 1766 the power to lay out new roads in the remote district of the county of Albany was not given to the commissioners appointed by the legislature but to certain commissioners who were to be appointed by the Justices of the Peace in their general sessions. Another important item about this act was that the freeholders in each of these new outlying districts were given the power to choose annually on the first Tuesday of April overseers of the highways who were to have the same power as the commissioners in those district which we have been considering.

The act of 1760, which to a certain extent expanded and replaced the act of 1703, was like its predecessors in turn amended and revised from time to time.

Tryon County Formed.--In 1772, as is well known, Tryon County was cut from Albany. The eastern line began at the western boundary of the township of Schenectady and Port Johnson. Its western boundary was just beyond the present side of Rome and this western boundary was the eastern boundary of the territory of the Six nations. It will be seen from this, however, that the Mohawk Valley road was all included in Tryon except for the small portion which ran from the village of Schenectady to the eastern boundary. The county was then divided into districts and commissioners appointed for the roads. The district which ran from the township of Schenectady to Fonda was known as the Mohawk district and we note that Sit William Johnson and Sir John Johnson were among the commissioners appointed by the statute of 1772 for that district. The district next to it was known as the Stone Arabia district; next west of that was the Canajoharie District, in which we find the name of Nicholas Herkimer appearing as one of the road commissioners; next west to that was the German Flatts district in which we still find the name of Petri as a road commissioner; and next west to that was the district of Kingsland in which we find Johan Joost Herkimer, Jr., Schoolmaster and others.

Old Maps Show Side Roads.--This road very distinctly laid out appears on the early British maps of Montresor which were published in 1775, and also in the Sauthier, published in 1777, not only does this highway to the north side of the Mohawk appear, but that to the south side and the road which connected the hill districts with these main arteries.

Three Hours to go Six Miles.--That these roads were not always in the best of condition is frequently made evident by the comments of the officers about their difficulties with transportation during the Revolution, and that they did not improve after the Revolution is made evident to us by the journal of Elkana Watson, who went to Utica in 1788. He mentions that at the place where the road now goes through the present town of Schuyler it was almost impassable and he was upwards of three hours in going about six miles to the Mohawk River outside the present site of Utica.

The road, however, was probably not as bad for its full length as it was near the place which he mentions, but it was along such a road as this that all of the thrilling scenes took place during the French and Indian wars and during the Revolution, events which you and your group hope to commemorate. Many authors, like Max Reid and Simms, have described these events with a literary style that leaves a never to be forgotten impression upon the mind. When we thing of those stirring times, however, we must keep in mind that it was not along a modern highway with its asphalt surface, its concrete and steel culverts, such as our State Highway Commissioner constructs, but along roads that were at times impassable and only kept up by the citizens under the most urgent prodding. In those days, as in our own, laws were not self-enforcing. In spite of the thunderings from Albany, the average citizen was slow in doing his duty unless the hand of the law fell heavily upon him. The intentions of the legislature were good, but the ordinary citizen who had to do the work was far down from the attitude of passive obedience which might be found in the thickly settled portions of Europe. Each detail was provided for by the law givers, the roads even had to be broken in winter so that they might be passable, but we may imagine that in that region, which was sparsely settled in those days, the winter snows would form a serious blockade. We know how it stops our own traffic in our own day and generation, and we may well believe that those thirteen poor families between Schenectady and Fonda deserved the assistance of their neighbors in keeping a road sixteen miles long in repair in the summer and broken up for traffic during the snows of winter.

Early Statutes on New York Turnpikes.--A good deal of information on the old New York systems of roads, turnpikes, plank roads, highways, and the rest, is given in the early statutes passed by the State. Thus an act was passed on April 18, 1838, in relation to turnpike roads and toll bridges. The leading clause in it was this: "Whenever any turnpike corporation shall become dissolved, or the road discontinued, its road shall become a public highway and be subject to all the legal provisions regulating highways." On May 7, 1847, there was passed an act to provide for the incorporation of companies to construct plank roads, and of companies to construct turnpike roads. On November 24, 1847, there was passed another act dealing with plank road and turnpike road companies. On February 17, 1848, an act was passed for the appointment of inspectors of turnpikes in the several counties of the State. On April 11, 18848, an act was passed for the incorporation of bridge companies.

There were, around the middle of the century, numerous other acts passed for the development of plank roads and turnpike roads. In an act passed in 1848 we get the evidence of more modern methods employed inroad making: "Any plank road or turnpike company within this State which shall have once laid the road with plank may hereafter relay the same, or any part thereof, with broken stone, gravel, shells, or other hard materials, whereby they keep a good and substantial road."

There was an act passed on April 15, 1857, in relation to the sale of plank roads and turnpike roads on execution, and to provide for the incorporation of the purchasers at such sales into companies to own and operate such roads. Previously, from the year 1821 onwards, there were acts dealing certain lines of transportation to be public highways, such as part of the Black River, part of Cayuga Creek, the River Saranac, Racket River, Moose River, Indian River, Beaver River, the west branch of the St. Regis River, Salmon River, Ten Mile River, and the easterly branch of the St. Regis River.

There were numerous other laws. A law was passed to take effect on January 1, 1828, that the commissioners of highways in the several towns in New York should have the care and superintendence of the highways and bridges therein and that it should be their duty to give direction for the repairing of the roads and bridges within their respective towns. The commissioners were to have power to pay out and discontinue roads. They were to account to the auditors of town accounts for their labor. They were to deliver statements of improvement necessary. They were to cause mile-stones to be erected. A definition was given of the duties of overseers of highways. A time was fixed when to make a new assessment on the residents. The commissioners were required to cause guideposts to be erected, and overseers were to keep then in repair. Directions were given as to the procuring of iron or steel shod scraper and ploughs. If it came about that moneys were insufficient for the work in hand, it was directed in what manner the deficiencies might be assessed. Directions were given as to the compensation of overseers for excess of work.

Another article of the law indicated the persons regarded as liable to work on highways and in respect to the assessments therefore. Thus it was decreed: "Each of the overseers of highways shall deliver to the clerk of the town, within days after his election or appointment, a list subscribed by such overseers, of the names of all the inhabitants in his road district, who are liable to work on the highways." Another article deals with the duties of overseers in regard to the performance of labor upon highways, and of the performance of such labor, or of commutation therefore. "It shall be the duty of the overseers of highways to give at least twenty-four hours notice to all persons assessed to work on the highways, and residing within the limits of their respective districts, of the time and place when and where they are to appear for the purpose, and with what implements." It was further decreed that "every person liable to work on the highways shall work the whole number of days for which he shall have been assessed; but every other such person other than an overseer, may elect to commute for the same, or for some part thereof, at the rate of a dollar for each day." The commuter was required to "appear in person or by an able-bodied man as a substitute." Persons not working faithfully the full eight hours a day forfeited a dollar, and there were penalties for not commuting and not appearing.

On April 10, 1832, an act was passed to amend Article Second, title first of the Sixteenth Chapter, part first, of the Revised Statutes, entitled: "Of the persons liable to work on Highways, and the making of assessments therefor," making assessments applicable to non-resident owners. Three weeks later another act was passed of which the following clause was the essence: "Whenever the commissioners of highways of any town in this State shall be of opinion that the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars, as now allowed by law, will be insufficient to pay the expenses actually necessary for the improvement of roads and bridges, it shall be lawful for such commissioners to apply, in open town meeting, for a vote authorizing such additional sum to be raised as they may deem necessary for the purpose aforesaid, not exceeding tow hundreds and fifty dollars, in addition to the sum now allowed by law."

There was an act passed on May 11, 1835, to enlarge the powers of commissioners of highways. On May 23, 1841, an act was passed relating to the joint commissioners of highways. It was decreed that whenever any two or more towns should be liable to make or maintain any bridge or bridges, the same should be built and maintained at the joint expense of said towns, without reference to town lines.

On March 29, 1853, an act was passed to regulate the construction of roads and streets across railroad tracks. One clause said: "it shall be lawful for the authorities of any city, village or town in this State, who are by law empowered to lay out streets and highways, to layout any street or highway across the track of any railroad now laid or which may hereafter be plaid, without compensation to the corporation owning such railroad; but no such street or highway shall be actually opened for use until thirty days after notice of such laying out has been served personally upon the president, vice-president, treasurer, or director of such corporation." On April 12, 1853, there was passed an act in relation to laying out private roads, and discontinuing public highways.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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