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Displaying items by tag: Roads

Thursday, 13 January 2022 16:31

Milestones

Last week was our annual clean-up week, a time when we get our facilities prepared for the new year. During this cleaning, I uncovered a large stone marker tucked away behind some boxes. It's far too heavy to safely move it right now, but I did manage to get a few photos of it. It appears to read "18 M to P  1 M to Sp H". 

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Based on the design, it seems to be a milestone. The "M" most likely stands for "miles". So this sign means 18 miles to "P", which I would imagine stands for "Philadelphia". The "Sp H" probably stands for "Spring House", as that town is roughly 18 to 19 miles from Philadelphia.

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Milestones like this one are not unique to the United States. Other examples of road markings date back to early empires such as Rome and Byzantine, just to name a few. Markers were placed along roads connecting various cities. They were used to help travelers identify where they were and ensure they were still travelling in the right direction. Depending on the civilization, culture, and available resources, designs of these markers varied. While some were made of stone and used numbers and letters, others were made of wood and used roman numerals.

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We still use mile markers today, although generally they are made of metal. They are most commonly seen on major highways and are often used to report traffic incidents.

As for this particular milestone, I'm not entirely sure where it was originally placed. I would imagine the most likely location would be roughly 1 mile south of Spring House on Bethlehem Pike. If you are driving along major local roads such as Germantown and Bethlehem Pikes, you can still see some milestones that have survived to this day.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 19 December 2019 18:53

Forty-Foot Road

One of the more interesting road names in Montgomery County is Forty-Foot Road. It runs through Towamencin and into Hatfield. According to every source on the subject, the name of the road refers to its width.

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Forty-Foot Road from the 1877 atlas of Montgomery County

However, Edward Hocker points out in one of his articles in the Times-Herald (May 3, 1957) that most roads laid out in the Eighteenth Century were forty feet wide, but farmers were free to use whatever land they could without interfering with the traffic. Perhaps Forty-Foot Road was left wider than other colonial era roads and thus acquired the name.

This map from our collection shows property owners along part of the road in Towamencin as well as Skippack Creek. The area next to the road is marked as “woods.”

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A 1752 map drawn by Christian Lehman

Forty-Foot Road’s moment on the national stage came early in its existence when American troops marched along the road in October, 1777 after the Battle of Germantown. With them was General Francis Nash who had been wounded by a cannonball during the battle. The wounded were placed in houses along the road, perhaps some on the properties seen on this 1752 map. Nash (after whom Nashville, TN is named) and three other officers died of their wounds. They are buried at Towamencin Mennonite Meeting House at the intersection of Forty-Foot Road and Sumneytown Pike.

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Headline from the Times-Herald

In the 1960’s the road was widened. Landowner Clayton C. Moyer took the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Court and was awarded a payment of $1905. The state appealed and attorney R. Wayne Clemens researched the history of the road and found that before the state widened it to fifty feet, the road had shrunk to thirty-eight feet! The judges agreed with his research and ordered the state to pay Moyer the money immediately.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 09 November 2017 21:05

Turnpikes

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The last privately held turnpike on our county was the Springhouse and Penllyn Turnpike.  It was freed in 1923.

Published in Found in Collection