Turnpikes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Turnpikes, combined with other types of roads, provide a reliable, networked way to move goods from one location to another, contributing to the growth of the economy as towns and cities grow up around major road junctions and increased markets for goods and services are created. Private turnpikes are also business ventures designed to make a profit for their owners.

Following the American Revolution, state and local governments became responsible for the creation and maintenance of public roads. Some elected to charge tolls for the use of these roads. The first such public toll road, from Alexandria, Virginia, to Snickers Gap in the Shenandoah Mountains, opened in 1785. The condition of the roads, the need to link various towns and cities, and problems related to predictability of revenue generation and the enforcement of fees caused states to reach out to the private sector for a more workable solution to public transportation needs. Precedent for this overture had been set by the success of private toll bridge companies that were chartered in the northeast, beginning in 1786 with the Charles River Bridge in Boston. These toll bridges brought their investors a healthy annual rate of return.Turnpikes

Toll booths at the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1942.

(Library of Congress)

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted the first charter for a private turnpike to merchants in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1792. Constructed over a two-year period, the sixty-two-mile Lancaster Turnpike opened in 1794 and quickly became the principal means by which goods were shipped between points throughout the route and on the smaller non-toll roads that connected to it at principal junctions. Many other jurisdictions followed suit, such that by 1800, there were sixty-nine chartered turnpike companies and six times as many just ten years later, accounting for about one-third of all business incorporations for the period. By the mid-1840’s, well over a thousand such enterprises had been chartered, although due to various regulatory and economic conditions, a large percentage of these companies failed. In some states, governments insisted on exempting large numbers from having to pay a toll. The cost of building these turnpikes varied considerably according to whether they were using already existing road surfaces or had to build a road from scratch. States such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio subsidized private turnpike companies, but other states refused. The bulk of these turnpikes did not become profitable, although many managed to cover annual operating expenses.

The huge benefit of turnpikes was the manner in which they opened up large parts of the growing nation to commercial activities. Merchants, farmers, land owners, and residents in the vicinity of such roads benefited from lower costs of obtaining raw and finished materials and of transporting goods to markets even in faraway places. Over time, towns emerged at important junctions, and some of them grew into cities. The network of roads formed by turnpikes and other roads greatly enabled the push westward of the young nation.

Further Reading
  • Baum-Snow, Nathaniel. “Did Highways Cause Suburbanization?” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122, no. 2 (2007): 775-805.
  • Fein, Michael R. New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.
  • Wood, Frederic J., and Ronald Dale Karr. The Turnpikes of New England. Pepperell, Mass.: Branch Line Press, 1997.

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