Sometimes, I venture out into the world and meet new people, not very often, but it happens. Inevitably, someone asks what I do. The conversation goes like this:
“What do you do?”
“I’m an archivist.”
“Oh, an architect!”
“No, an archivist. It’s like a librarian but with unpublished papers instead of books.”
“Oh, you mean an arCHIVist.”
[Suppressing a sigh] “Sure.”
Then my new friend says how interesting it must be and ask what I’m working on, and lately, I’ve been working on records from turnpike companies. This gets more questions, and many people are surprised to learn that many roads were built by private companies. They were toll roads, operated privately, and usually ran as corporations with stock holders and dividends.
The earliest turnpike to come through Montgomery County was the first in Pennsylvania. It was built in 1792 and ran from Philadelphia to Lancaster, passing through four miles of Lower Merion along the way. Germantown Pike was built by the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike Company, beginning in 1801.
According to Frederick C. Swinehart’s article “The Turnpikes of Pennsylvania” (HSMC Bulletin, V. IX, April, 1955), by 1821 there were 146 turnpikes authorized in Pennsylvania. Not all of them would be built, however. It was not uncommon for the companies to fail to sell all their stock.
The Historical Society has records from several of the turnpike companies, including the Norristown, Bridgeport and King of Prussia Turnpike Road Company, now DeKalb Pike. Originally chartered in 1848, construction began in 1853. Shares in the company were sold for $10 apiece. Investors didn’t see a dividend until 1885. Soon after that, the road was “freed,” meaning it was transferred to public ownership (the company received $11,000 in this case) and tolls were no longer collected.
We also have records for the Plymouth and Upper Dublin Turnpike (Butler Pike). Started in 1853, it wasn’t until 1857 that the company was ready to collect tolls. Charles Dewees was paid $5 a month and use of a house and two acres for manning the tollgate at Broad Axe.
A toll house on York Road in Cheltenham
When automobiles began appearing on the roads, some of the turnpike companies decided to take advantage of what was then a luxury only the very rich could afford. The Chestnut Hill and Springhouse Turnpike (now Bethlehem Pike) raised the toll from 1 or 2 cents a mile to 25 cents a mile. When the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike did the same, drivers in Norristown went to court. The company settled outside of court. Rates were lowered to 2 cents a mile for a 1 seat car and 3 cents for a two seat car.
The tolls on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike in 1917
Cars brought new problems as well. In 1913, an automobile accident on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike caused headaches for the company. Soon after the accident, correspondence of the board of managers begins to question if the company could be maintained much longer. It was freed in 1921.
The last privately held turnpike on our county was the Springhouse and Penllyn Turnpike. It was freed in 1923.