In this article, we journey back in time to when settlements first developed along streams and rivers, while farther inland population spread somewhat slower. Outside of the larger towns and cities, the road system was deplorable. One visitor from London wrote that "To travel day after day, among trees a hundred feet high, is oppressive to a degree which those cannot conceive who have not experienced it."
The subject today from my seat on the fence is "turnpikes," a name derived from the gate or bar that was suspended across a road to stop the traveler until he paid his toll, after which the gate was turned to permit his passage. There are also two related articles in the FEATURES section if you have further interest in the subject of local turnpikes.
The idea of turnpikes probably originated with the Romans, but then the idea fell into disuse until the latter part of the eighteenth century when companies in Great Britain and France reintroduced the idea. As early as 1792, the General Advertiser noted that the House of Representatives of the United States indicated that the time would soon arrive when "turnpike roads would be opened in every part of the union."
The first record of a private turnpike company to improve the condition of roads in England dates to 1663 and by about 1700 turnpikes were becoming common in that country. The idea spread to the United States and between 1790 and 1832, there was a flurry of activity in building turnpikes so that farmers could get their produce to the markets in the larger cities. Residents of those cities wanted lower cost produce so turnpikes made sense to them, too.
Pennsylvania's first turnpike was authorized by the General Assembly incorporating the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company in 1792, only three years after the inauguration of President Washington. The sixty-two mile long Lancaster Pike, completed in 1794, was built for $7,500 per mile. The cost of construction was derived from the sale of stock at $300 a share, sold to 600 people, selected by lot. It seems that 2,276 people tried to buy the stock and so a lottery system was derived to select the lucky buyers. Many others objected to the turnpike idea, saying that the building of roads should be a function of government.
The charter for each turnpike company in Pennsylvania required it to construct to certain specifications and to keep the turnpike in good repair (although there is little to suggest that the state paid much attention once the turnpike was authorized). Turnpikes were allowed to collect tolls according to a set-rate schedule. The charter permitted tolls to be raised if stockholders did not get a 6% return on investment, and they could be lowered if dividends exceeded 15%.
The Lancaster Pike was a success and even the three large bridges on that route were wonders of its time. There was the final link in the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike known as the "Permanent Bridge" at what was then High Street (Market Street) over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, the bridge over the Brandywine at Downingtown and the "Conestoga" outside of Lancaster. The company made some rules, like not using a "wagon or other carriage" with wheels less than four inches wide between December and April if the weight of the wagon exceed two and a half tons. Tolls were less expensive for wagons with wider wheels. The Lancaster Pike continued in successful business for the next 25 years, paying good dividends and was widely touted as the most successful turnpike in America.
The success of this turnpike stimulated the building of other turnpikes. The Lancaster and Susquehanna Pike Turnpike opened in 1803. Then came the Germantown and Reading Turnpike Company, followed by turnpikes that ran between Philadelphia and Trenton, Easton to Wilkes-Barre, Sunbury to Reading, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. There was a Nanticoke and Hughesville Turnpike Company which made a stop in the village of New Columbus. It was during this environment that the Susquehanna and Tioga Turnpike Company was chartered in our area and over the next few days we'll spend some time examining the turnpike as it was viewed about 200 years ago.
The Union Turnpike in Luzerne County came along in 1877, well after most turnpikes had reached their prime. The turnpike ran along the gap in the hills where Shickshinny creek flowed and eventually made its way to Huntington Mills. It is generally the path of the modern Route 239. According to a Times Leader article of August 3, 1908, the company consistently returned 12% on the investor's dollar. There was also a turnpike company in New Jersey in 1804 with the same name.
In 1822 the Committee on Roads, Bridges and Inland Navigation of the Senate reported that the Susquehanna and Tioga Turnpike, and others, "will afford facilities for traveling and transportation unequaled, as to extent, in the United States."
To give you an idea of some of the turnpikes in the local area we'll skip ahead in time and tell you about an article in the Wilkes-Barre Weekly Times of April 22, 1899, which gave some insight into the deeding of turnpikes and toll bridges from private ownership to the public sector. Petitions for the acquisitions by Luzerne County of the various toll bridges and turnpikes were presented to the court and judges returned them with the names of private citizens who viewed the roads and reported their value to the county. Here are some of the matters taken up by Luzerne County back in 1899...
• There was a toll bridge at Pittston belonging to the Pittston Ferry Bridge Company.
• The matter of the Union Turnpike belonging to the Union Turnpike Road Company was referred to W. F. Fessler, S.F. Lynch, John Pascoe, C.W. Kline and Thomas Malone. A. W. Jackson, master, presided in the matter.
• A similar matter was taken up about the acquisition of the turnpike road belonging to the Dallas and Kingston Turnpike Company and the Hunlock Creek and Muhlenberg Turnpike Company.
• The toll bridge at Wilkes-Barre belonging to the Wilkes-Barre Bridge Company (Market Street).
• The acquisition of the toll bridge at Shickshinny belonging to the Paddy's Run Bridge Co.
• A toll bridge at Pittston belonging to the Water Street Bridge Co.
• The acquisition of the toll bridge at Nanticoke belonging to the Susquehanna Coal Co.
• The acquisition of the toll bridge at Wilkes-Barre belonging to the Wilkes-Barre and Kingston Bridge Company. (North Street).
• The acquisition of the toll bridge at Plymouth belonging to the Plymouth Bridge Company.
• The application for the acquisition of the toll bridge at Berwick.
The Wilkes-Barre Leader newspaper of December 26, 1878, felt that the Union Turnpike was so important to the Huntington Mills high school that an advertisement for the school prominently mentioned the Union Turnpike. The advertisement read, in part, "The design of the school is to give young men and women a practical education and prepare students for college. The opening, or first academic year, will begin Monday, Sept. 2d, 1878. The location of this new institution is at the above named village in the healthful valley of Huntington, on the Union turnpike road, five miles from the depot" of the railroad at Shickshinny. The "Terms of Tuition" for eleven weeks, by the way, was $3 for the Primary Department and $5.50 for the Academic Department. "Instructional music" was extra.
Turnpikes generally didn't make the newspapers and were generally free of scandal, although one incident in the Shickshinny area touched on the bizarre according to a Wilkes-Barre Weekly Times edition of August 13, 1899. William Campbell was found dead one August afternoon in 1899 in his outhouse with a bullet hole through his heart. On the floor beside him lay a revolver with one exploded cartridge with all other chambers loaded. His body was immediately carried into the house and medical aid was summoned, but death had been instantaneous. A rumor began that the Director and Treasurer of the Union Turnpike and former Luzerne County Commissioner had committed suicide. Crowds gathered and sides were formed; one side representing the suicide claim and the other side claiming that suicide was preposterous.
Campbell was, after all, the "esteem of his townsmen and a large circle of friends" and his "home life all that could be desired." He was in the "best of health and spirits" and seemed to be "enjoying life to its utmost." The friends of Mr. Campbell claimed that his revolver fell from his pocket "and was discharged by striking the floor and the bullet was discharged upwards entered his body causing death." They based this claim on the fact that the "shirt he wore showed no signs of powder marks, which they claim would have been the case had he committed suicide." Doctors immediately secured another of Campbell's shirts and began holding the same gun at arm's length to determine if powder marks would be left on the shirt. I could find no record of any doctors being shot or otherwise injured in this experiment. The matter was unresolved.
The Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike was intended and built as a continuation of the Susquehanna and Lehigh Turnpike which ended at Nescopeck Falls. The legislation that established the turnpike that passed over Jonestown and Red Rock mountains called it a "trifling addition of a few miles more" to "form a chain of communication" from Philadelphia to the "head of the Seneca Lake." Building the turnpike would "open up a vast extensive country." The promise was that the turnpike would be the "nearest and best from Philadelphia and from New York to the shores of Lake Ontario and Upper Canada, as well as to Niagara" through "connections and dependencies." It was to be the "safest at all times."
The distance from Philadelphia to the head of Seneca Lake was estimated to be 212 miles over the original turnpike, compared with the 260-mile trip it would be today traveling the modern Pennsylvania Turnpike and New York State Route 17 to Watkins Glen at the bottom tip of Seneca Lake. The section of six miles from the Pennsylvania/New York line to Newtown, New York, the termination of the original turnpike, was in "open country" through which there was a good road."
The men who pitched the turnpike knew how to pursuade people. The state Legislature was told that "To dwell on the immense importance of such a communication to the United States, in the states of Pennsylvania and New York, in the city of Philadelphia or to the interior country would be superfluous to the enlightened Legislature which the communication is intended.
This advertisment appeared in Paulson's American Daily in the edition of October 27, 1806.
The first section of the turnpike was authorized by an act of the Legislature "March 19th, A.D. 1804" enabling the Governor to incorporate a company by the name of the President, Managers and Company of the Susquehanna and Lehigh Turnpike to make an "artificial road from Nescopeck on the N. E. branch of the Susquehanna, to the Lehigh River." The original capital stock was authorized in the amount of $60,000, composed of 600 shares at $100 a share. The success of the Susquehanna & Lehigh Turnpike carried over to the need to continue pushing north into New York state with a turnpike.
A company incorporated in 1807 to build a turnpike from Berwick to what is now Elmira, New York, began construction at the Susquehanna River at Berwick and moved north as fast as the limited subscription to its stock would permit. The turnpike was not completed to Elmira until about 1825. The road became important to the local economy as early as 1810.
When the legislature chartered a turnpike, it specified the details of width, grade, and surfacing and detailed its maintenance responsibilities. Most turnpikes were specified to be four rods (A rod is equal to 5.5 yards or 16.5 feet) wide, sometimes a bit wider if population and usage demanded. Looking at the standards established in the rest of the state, it is evident that the Susquehanna & Tioga marched to a different drummer. In most places, it was not as wide as specified, it was not an artificial-stone road, it didn't have 9 to 15 inches of crushed rock on a bed of 5- to 8-inch rocks.
On top of Red Rock mountain, much of the road was the width of a modern car, plus a foot or two, and the bed of the road where it crossed swamps was corduroy--logs placed perpendicular to the direction of travel.
It appears that the state laid down specifications for construction, but then rarely inspected to insure that the instructions had been followed. When the state finally inspected the Erie and Waterford turnpike because of complaints, for example, they found that the roadbed was "no harder than the natural soil of the land through which it passed."
Based on the experience gained in the building of the first 30 miles and the testimony of the surveyor who "explored the whole of the section from Berwick to the state line," the early thought was that the turnpike could be built for about $1,000 a mile, which would mean that the entire turnpike could be built for $71,000. But by 1809, the outlook was grim for completion of the road. The assets of the corporation included money from individuals payable in money and in land and totaled 113 shares of stock sold at $100 each, leaving the company short by 597 shares at $100 per share--a deficiency of $59,700. The estimated cost per mile was based on experience gained during the construction of the Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike.
The surveyor noted that "the only mountains of any consequence in the whole distance are the Nob Mountain and the 'Bald' or North Mountain," the "ascent of which will require an elevation of not more than six degrees, or twenty-one inches in a perch." The exact route of the original turnpike up Red Rock Mountain is no longer exactly known, but I doubt that these elevation standards were met! The Act of Incorporation required no specific degree of elevation.
The "breadth" of the road, to be formed "by an arch of about eleven inches," was to be twenty feet exclusive of ditches on both sides of the road. The road was to be "bedded where necessary," with "wood, stone, gravel or other proper and convenient material, sufficient to secure a solid foundation." The wording permitted the use of corduroy "over a hilly country."
The original conception was that there would have to be eight bridges of any consequence. The faded type of Poulson's American Daily is almost illegible, but the bridges that I could read included one of 76 feet on the "south branch of the Loyalsock," one of 40 feet on the middle branch of the Loyalsock, one of 40 feet on the middle branch of the "Towandee," one of 65 feet on the main branch of the "Towandee," one of 40 feet over the Sager Creek, one of 25(?) feet over the Jack Creek, a branch of Sager Creek, and 20 feet over Bentley Creek.
In 1807, the Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike charged tolls for every five miles according to the following schedule: for every score of sheep 4 cents; every score of hogs 6 cents; every score of cattle twelve cents; every horse or mule with rider three cents; every sulky, chair or chaise with two wheels and one horse six cents or with two horses eight cents; every coach, stage-waggon (sic), or light-waggon (sic) with two horses and four wheels 12 cents; or with four horses 20 cents.
To give you an idea of the usage of the Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike, the gross amount of tolls from the time tolls were first taken in November, 1806, to July, 1807, was $1,339.07. The rates of tolls were originally the same as those of the Susquehanna & Leigh Turnpike.
By 1832, during the height of turnpike usage in this country, there were 220 companies chartered serving approximately 32,400 miles with another 600 miles in construction. A system of canals and the introduction of railroads subsequent to 1832 led to more turnpikes being abandoned than constructed from that time forward. Construction of turnpikes after 1840 was practically unheard of; even the profitable Lancaster Pike closed in 1873, with its last ten miles sold in 1899 after over a century of use. The Union Turnpike in Luzerne County was an exception.
The state took over most of the turnpikes and local governments took over some. Public funds then maintained the roads, although America's new-found love of the train kept roads from much development again until about 1900.
Outside of the Lancaster Pike, it appears that an investment in a turnpike company would have been a poor investment and one report we found dating from 1832 indicated that not a single turnpike company after the Lancaster Pike returned a dividend "sufficient to remunerate the proprietors" although we admit that the Union Turnpike at the time they were being purchased by Luzerne County "claimed" that they returned 12% to their stockholders.
Most revenue came from long-distance travelers and tolls were high. Local travelers hated the system and did everything in their power to avoid the toll system and the inconvenience of having to stop and shell out money. Often the turnpike company granted special privileges for those on their way to worship and some early pictures of turnpikes show riders in wagons holding up their prayer books. Users heading to the grist mill or on their way to a funeral were exempt from paying toll on certain turnpikes. Some turnpike companies even exempted all farm-related travel.
There were ways around the system. It didn't pay to hire a guard for overnight travel, so most turnpike gates were thrown open for the night at 10, although that was not true around the larger cities the morning of "market day."
By 1821, Pennsylvania had chartered 146 turnpike companies, mostly in populated areas of the state.
Turnpikes were expensive to build and to maintain and to keep in toll-keepers. After all expenses, there wasn't much left for the stockholders. The turnpikes served the farmer well, helping them transition from substance farming to commercial farming. Because of turnpikes, farms dotting the Pennsylvania backwoods increased in value and helped promote a more satisfying life outside the big city. Even so, the turnpikes mostly served the more populated areas of the state, leaving little farmers to survive in the mud with little ability to get his farm-produced goods to market farther away than the corner store.
--Most specific history of the Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike came from Poulson's American Daily of March 3, 1809. Other references as shown.
The subject of turnpikes is covered in this web site in three FEATURES locations; i,e.,
• The Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike: The History of the Berwick Turnpike
• Sketches from the Susquehanna-Tioga Turnpike, by Kenneth T. Wilson, Jr.
• Turnpikes, Including the Union Turnpike, the Susquehanna & Tioga Turnpike and the Susquehanna & Lehigh Turnpike
The turnpikes of the area are also discussed in other FEATURES locations, including an article on Ricketts and the history of Jamison City. No, Interstae 80 is not mentioned in any of these articles!