History of roads: Lancaster Avenue, Conestoga Road, Paxton Road, the High Street Ferry

Before starting today’s column this writer has leafed through the series of scrap books in which she has kept the clippings of “Your Town and My Town” since the first column appeared in the March 11, 1949, issue of “The Suburban.”

So many subjects have been touched upon in the course of these four years, that there seems but one connecting link – local interest – and there is one subject to which she returns at more or less regular intervals. That is the old Lancaster Turnpike, and its evolution from the days when it was a narrow Indian trail through the wilderness down to the present, when it has become part of one of the great automobile highways of America.

More than any one factor, Lancaster Pike seems to make Wayne and all Radnor township part of a great land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For “our Pike” is now, indeed, the Eastern link of the great transcontinental Lincoln Highway (U.S. route 30) that stretches from ocean to ocean.

Like most of the early dirt roads, especially in the 13 origlnal states, both the Lancaster highway and the Old Conestoga road followed the route of the old Indian trails through the wilderness. Such trails, worn as they were by soft moccasins, were originally usually only 12 to 18 inches wide. How long these particular trails had served the Indians no one knows. But it was in the closing years of the 17th and the early years of the 18th century that they were first traversed by white men, mostly of hardy farming stock, who had come from strife torn countries overseas at the invitation of William Penn. Over these trails they pushed their way westward into the wilderness that the Indians had named “Conestoga”, meaning “Great Magic Land”.

Although some of these early settlers came to trade with the Indians, the majority came to establish homes and farms in this new land. With a rugged heritage from their forebears they were able to cope with the hardships of a new and uncultivated country in order to establish farms for themselves and their families. Many of these pioneers were Germans who settled in Lancaster County. Others were equally hardy Swedish settlers.

For a time the narrow Indian trails were all the roadways that were required by these first white farmers in Pennsylvania. But as their farms flourished, transportation became an increasingly important factor. Most farmers had one or more horses of their own to carry produce to market, and some had enough teams to specialize in transport work. Soon the Conestoga wagon evolved from the first crude vehicle. And then came the development of a special breed of farm horse, known also as the Conestoga horse. Both wagons and horses were so large and so sturdy that soon after the beginning of the 18th century they doomed the old Indian trails and the pack horses.

The first two highways from Philadelphia to Lancaster County completely by-passed the town of Lancaster itself. These were the Conestoga road and the Paxton road, which were the highways between Lancaster County and the Delaware River until 1733. In that year the Governor and the Provincial Council recognized a petition by the Conestoga farmers for a King’s Highway”. Acting on this petition, the Province ordered that a dirt road 30 feet wide be laid from the courthouse in Center Square, Lancaster, “until it fell in with the highroad in the county of Chester” and so through to the High street Ferry on the Schuylklll. This road was opened in 1741.

Transportation across the Schuylkill was by ferry only until 1805. In January of that year a bridge built of wood, on stone piers, was opened to the public. This structure, which was 1300 feet long and cost $300,000, was the first covered bridge in America. In 1875 it burned and was replaced by a temporary substitute, which in turn gave way to a more permanent one in 1881.

In the meantime, improvements in the road that led from the river toward Lancaster had been keeping pace with the changes in the methods of crossing the Schuylkill. As the country developed and as travel increased, it became evident that a better road was needed. And so, in 1792 the legislature authorized a company to construct a turnpike from Philadelphia to Lancaster, the first road of its kind in the country.

It is said that popular enthusiasm ran so high that the stock offered was heavily oversubscribed, and it became necessary to choose the stockholders by lot from among the many applicants. Begun in 1792, the Lancaster Turnpike was completed in 1794 at a cost of $465,000. Extending the 62 miles between Philadelphia and Lancaster, it was the first stone highway in the country and subsequently became the pattern for those that were to follow it.

The Conestoga wagons that had formerly become mired in the mud of the old highway now found the going along the new highway much easier by comparison.

Picturesque was the scene on the old turnpike in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s, when the Conestoga wagon, with its broad wheels, rolled along its leisurely way, pulled by its six horse team. And then there was the dray coach swinging upon its leather springs, and the stage wagon and the mail coach, as well as the farm wagon. Interspersed with these vehicles were the large droves of cattle being driven from their inland pastures to the seaboard – and at regular intervals along the stone turnpike were the many old inns of which we have written frequently.

(To be continued)