Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam

Post Roads & Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam

by Richard DeLuca

Hardcover(New Edition)



Post Roads & Iron Horses is the first book to look in detail at the turnpikes, steamboats, canals, railroads, and trolleys (street railroads) that helped define Connecticut and shape New England. Advances in transportation technology during the nineteenth century transformed the Constitution State from a rough network of colonial towns to an industrial powerhouse of the Gilded Age. From the race to build the Farmington Canal to the shift from water to rail transport, historian and transportation engineer Richard DeLuca gives us engaging stories and traces the significant themes that emerge as American innovators and financiers, lawyers and legislators, struggle to control the movement of passengers and goods in southern New England. The book contains over fifty historical images and maps, and provides an excellent point of view from which to interpret the history of New England as a whole. This is an indispensable reference book for those interested in Connecticut history and a great gift for transportation buffs of all kinds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819568564
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2011
Series: The Driftless Connecticut Series & Garnet Books
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 268
Product dimensions: 7.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

RICHARD DELUCA has worked as a transportation planner in Connecticut for ten years and written on regional transportation for Connecticut History and the Encyclopedia of Connecticut History Online. He is the author of We, the People! Bay Area Activism in the 1960s, and lives in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


Colonial Connecticut

With the growth of the Connecticut colony in the seventeenth century, a network of local, inter-town, and intercolony roads developed, poor though they were, and the first ferry and bridge crossings appeared. Since most towns did not set land aside for roads, the laying out of roads was a troublesome process. Likewise, since these early agricultural communities were largely self-sufficient, inter-town roads were often reluctantly built and poorly maintained. With the establishment of the Post Road from New York to Boston in the 1690s, communication improved along three post routes through Connecticut, which together became the backbone of intertown transportation in and through the colony. The eighteenth century brought increased travel, and the construction of additional roads, ferries, and bridges, as Connecticut moved away from its Puritan roots and toward a secular society in which small-scale manufacturing and market capitalism were on the rise.

Settlement of the Connecticut Colony

The pattern of settlement and the process of town founding, along with the colony's geographic position in southern New England, were strong influences on the evolution of transportation in colonial Connecticut.

During the first 140 years of English colonization, the land was brought under English control and governance in three phases. Settlers and their offspring moved first into the fertile lands of the central valley and coastal slopes, then inland across the eastern highlands and southwestern hills, and lastly into the colony's northwest hills, until all the land within the bounds of Connecticut was in English hands. Given the importance of agriculture to the early colonists, the first regions settled contained the colony's best farmland, while subsequent phases of settlement corresponded to geomorphic regions of decreasing agricultural productivity.

The first phase of settlement began in the 1630s and extended to the conclusion of King Philip's War in 1675. In this phase, towns were established throughout the central valley, along the coast of Long Island Sound west and east of New Haven, and within the lower reaches of the Connecticut, Housatonic, and Thames river valleys. A total of twenty-five towns were founded in this period, each containing some of the most arable farmland within the colony. So thorough was the search for good farmland that colonists in this first phase discovered and settled the secluded Pomperaug Valley of Wood-bury, an area within the southwest hills whose soil, by geologic happenstance, was as productive as that of the Connecticut River valley. By 1680, Connecticut colonists reported to their superiors in England: "Most land that is fit for planting is taken up. What remains must be subdued, and gained out of the fire as it were by hard blows and for small recompense."

Because travel by ship was the principal means of transportation for the early colonists, most of these first settlements were readily accessible by water. Indeed, the original settlement of river towns such as Hartford and New London included land on both sides of the Connecticut and Thames rivers respectively, thereby incorporating the waterway directly into the community.

The second phase of settlement lasted from 1686 to 1734, during which time twenty-eight new towns were founded. Here, colonists moved into the Windham Hills of the eastern uplands and, to a lesser degree, the southwest hills of the western uplands, with all but seven of the new towns being founded east of the Connecticut River. The defeat of the Ninnimissinuwocks in King Phillip's War allowed settlers to occupy these two upland regions without fear of reprisal.

During the third phase of settlement, from 1737 to 1761, the northwest hills — where topsoil was thinnest — were settled, with the founding of fifteen new towns. The established towns of Suffield, Enfield, Somers, and Woodstock, which had been settled as part of Massachusetts, were placed under Connecticut jurisdiction, thereby rounding out the colony's borders. From this point forward, all new towns in the colony (and state) of Connecticut would be carved from the landholdings of these seventy-two original English settlements.

The impetus behind the founding of new towns was population growth. Following the arrival of the first settlers during the Great Migration of 1630–42, Connecticut's population grew almost exclusively through natural in crease. Growth was rapid, and large family size was the norm, with families of eight or more children not uncommon. What was a fledgling colony of four thousand English souls in 1650 reached a population of twenty-six thousand by 1700. By the time the third phase of settlement came to a close, the population of the Connecticut colony exceeded 150,000 persons.

Under its charter of 1662, the governance of Connecticut was directed by a General Court (later called General Assembly) that consisted of the colony's governor, a governor's council of twelve magistrates, and two deputy representatives from each town. Any action of the General Court, from town founding and tax collection to the establishment of roads and ferries, required the majority approval of both the magistrates and the deputies. A Court of Assistants (later called the Superior Court) composed of the governor or deputy governor and four designated magistrates, conducted the judicial business of the colony, since Connecticut's colonial charter did not provide for a separation of powers.

Following the merger of the New Haven and Connecticut colonies, the General Court created Connecticut's first four counties in 1666, with county seats in Hartford, New Haven, Fairfield, and New London. Each county had its own court, where certain judicial matters, including road-building disputes, were handled at an intermediate level. As settlement spread to the eastern and western hills, additional counties were established at Windham (1726), Litchfield (1751), Tolland (1785), and Middlesex (1785).

Rounding out a trilevel system of colonial government was a variety of locally elected officials who ran the affairs of each town. These officials included a board of selectmen who managed town affairs; a lister, to compile a record of the taxable property in each town; one or more constables to collect the taxes, and monitor mischief; and one or more surveyors to oversee the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges within each town.

While the general and county courts provided a combination of executive, legislative, and judicial guidance for the colony — from authorizing the incorporation of new towns to passing the laws of the colony and adjudicating disputes between towns — it was the individual towns, and the men who ran them, who were charged with executing and financing the responsibilities passed on to them by the general and county courts. Guiding each level of colonial governance in its various functions was the tradition of English law that the settlers brought with them from their old world to the new.

With regard to transportation matters, the General Court's policy of town founding strongly influenced the colony's transportation infrastructure. The establishment of separate towns, each with its own civil authority, was a natural response to the demand for new lands to settle, but the result was a patchwork of numerous communities, of more or less equal size, spread out over the landscape, with most town centers having no more than eight miles between them. This pattern of multiple population centers required a larger network of intertown roads relative to the land area of the colony than might otherwise have been the case. Together with the colony's surface topography, this pattern of multiple population centers, imposed on the land by the General Court, remained an important influence on the development of transportation routes within Connecticut throughout the colonial period.

Early Roads, Ferries, and Bridges

By 1700, a crude yet adequate network of roads, ferries, and bridges had appeared in the Connecticut colony.


There were two main types of roadways in the Connecticut colony: town ways, or roads that led to various locations within a given town, and country ways, or roads that connected each town to neighboring settlements. Town ways were further subdivided into two kinds: public town ways that were of benefit to the entire community, such as the road to the local gristmill or sawmill; and private town ways that were of benefit to an individual landowner, such as a road to a farmer's pasture or woodland. Since early Connecticut towns were founded with little consideration for growth, and with no land set aside for roadways of any type, the laying out of early colonial roads was often a cumbersome process.

A request for the construction of a public town way was typically discussed in an open town meeting. If the town's selectmen decided that the road petitioned for was necessary, a committee was appointed to lay out its route, after which compensation was set for those whose land would be taken, with the understanding that the affected landowners could appeal the damage payment to the county court if they thought it unjust. If the request for a public town way was denied, the petitioner could appeal the decision to the county court, and ultimately to the General Court of the colony.

Providing for private town ways, which were numerous in an agricultural community, was more troublesome. Most early towns were founded as Puritan villages, with a central green and church and a wide main street, along which were situated home lots for the community's founding members. Beyond this residential core were farmlands, grazing pastures, and woodlands, portions of which were assigned to every household. Within this configuration, private town ways were laid out under the direction of the town selectmen so as to allow each family access to their outlands while causing minimal impact to the property of other inhabitants.

As a town's population increased and home lots for new residents were established farther from the center of town, providing convenient access for these newer residents to their outlands, which were often some distance away, became increasingly difficult. In 1678, when a number of Guilford farmers found their fields landlocked by the property of others, the town appointed a committee to resolve the problem by mapping out an improved road system for the entire town. In many communities, however, the resolution of a private town way problem was often not as harmonious, with petitions and counterpetitions being debated for months.

By the early eighteenth century, as land speculators began to exert an influence over the founding of new communities, the layout of new towns began to change. Eager for a quick return on their investment, speculators laid out an entire town at one time, incorporating two or more public town ways within their design. The size of home lots was also increased to ten acres or more, thereby bringing pasture and woodland within the boundaries of each home property. The result was a more dispersed community of family farms that eliminated many of the difficulties associated with the laying out of private town ways in earlier communities. This new concept of land division continued into the third phase of settlement.

For most of the colonial period, the private town way problem remained a local issue, with a town's board of selectmen being the final arbiters of the peace. In 1773, however, the laws of the colony were amended to allow dissatisfied petitioners to appeal a town's decision concerning a private way to the county court, which then had the power to reverse that decision, lay out the road as it saw fit, and allocate the expense of construction to the individual who was to benefit from the road. The petitioner could then pay the assigned cost in either money or land.

The construction of country ways between towns was particularly problematic. Because Connecticut towns were to a great extent self-sufficient, providing adequate roads from town to town was of little interest to many communities. When a need became apparent for a country way between an inland town and a coastal port, for example, intervening towns usually resented the clearing and maintaining of a road through their community for which they might have little need. As a result, the clearing of intertown roads was frequently accomplished only after an order from the General Court. As with other roads, the laying out of country ways was originally a town responsibility, but as neglect and a lack of cooperation between towns became the norm, in 1702 the job of laying out country roads was given to the county court. The General Court decided the location of country ways that crossed from one county into another.

The first country way to be mentioned in the records of the Connecticut colony was a road between Hartford and Windsor that the General Court ordered built in 1638. Through the early years of the colony, other country ways were initiated by the General Court between Hartford and New Haven; Hartford and Waterbury via Farmington; Hartford and Simsbury; Woodbury and Stratford; and Norwich and New London. In this way, despite the difficulties involved, a network of crude highways connecting newer towns with more established communities evolved, slowly but surely, as the colony expanded.

Road building in the colony was accomplished through the English system of statute labor, under which every man aged sixteen to sixty and his team of horses or oxen were required to labor one day each year on the roads in his town. Within each town, roadwork was supervised by one or more town-appointed surveyors, who were responsible for the participation of the men in their district. The work was compulsory; neither laborer nor overseer was paid for his efforts, and both were subject to a fine for failing to perform their duties. Likewise, the General Court could fine any town that neglected its road-building obligations.

The use of statute labor first appeared in the laws of Connecticut in 1643, and was revised periodically thereafter to require additional days of service under increasing penalties for noncompliance. As time went on, exemptions from roadwork were given to magistrates, selectmen, ministers, physicians, and others. To replenish the labor supply, the law was revised in 1750 to include Native Americans, mulattoes, and slaves among those subject to compulsory road service. Men who were able to buy their way out of their service by paying the appropriate fines did so, and the money was used to hire other workers in their place. Despite the efforts of the General Court to require adequate road-building in the colony, most men saw compulsory road work as a burden most of the time, and this attitude was reflected in the poor quality of the work performed. Still, compulsory statute labor remained the backbone of Connecticut road-building and maintenance throughout the colonial period.

Given the limitations of manual labor and homemade tools, the alignment of many roadways was chosen so as to avoid physical obstacles where possible, as the following remark in the town records of Cheshire indicates: "all difficulties about rocks, swamps and other impediments the surveyors and sizers shall have power to regulate by turning the highways a little out of a straight course as convenient." Road construction usually amounted to little more than clear cutting a right-of-way of moderate width through forest and brush. If a marshy section proved too big to avoid, whole logs might be laid perpendicular to the direction of travel, with sand spread beneath and on top of the logs to create a travel surface through the muck. Such travelways were termed corduroy roads for their resemblance to the ribbed fabric, and not only made for a bumpy wagon ride but also presented a serious hazard to horses from the shifting of the logs.

Once a road was established, maintenance was never-ending, and involved the repeated repair of ruts and mires caused by rain and ice, the twin enemies of all New England roadways. Given these facts of colonial road building, it should be no surprise that travel by sleigh after a heavy winter snowfall often provided colonists with the best travel conditions of the year.


Ferries have existed in Connecticut from the earliest days of the colony, many rivers and streams being too wide to cross by any other means. Ferries were also utilized at crossings where bridges, though feasible, were too costly to construct. Unlike the construction of a bridge, whose capital cost was a drain on a town's treasury, a ferry was a low-cost alternative whose revenue income became an asset to the community. With Connecticut's drowned coastline and multiple river systems, ferry crossings became a fact of life for the colonial traveler, especially in the southern and eastern portions of the colony.


Excerpted from "Post Roads & Iron Horses"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Richard DeLuca.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Land and Its First Inhabitants
Colonial Connecticut
Turnpikes and Stagecoaches
Steamboats and Canals
The Railroad, Part I
The Railroad, Part II
Conclusion: A Period of Transition
Population by Geomorphic Region, 1800–1920
Corporation Charters
Connecticut Rail Lines

What People are Saying About This

Walter Woodward

"This is the first comprehensive history of the development of transportation in Connecticut, as well as the first major work of each of the fields covered in over a generation. Post Roads & Iron Horses strikes the perfect balance between rich detail and highly readable prose."
Walter Woodward, Connecticut State Historian

From the Publisher

"This is the first comprehensive history of the development of transportation in Connecticut, as well as the first major work of each of the fields covered in over a generation. Post Roads & Iron Horses strikes the perfect balance between rich detail and highly readable prose."—Walter Woodward, Connecticut State Historian

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