Sunday, June 18, 2017

Salt and Mud: Early Roads and the First Turnpike in Western Pennsylvania

A turnpike being raised

Today, a trip from Meadville to Pittsburgh takes about an hour and half. The worst travelers have to deal with today are the occasional storm, constant road repairs, and the terror of witnessing a driver attempting to merge while texting. Two-hundred years ago, the story was quite different. Obviously 79 did not exist, but neither did many other roads save for the one carved out of the woodlands by the French prior to their expulsion by the British or the many trails left by the native Americans. These same paths became the roads of the pioneers that would settle the area fifty years later until, due to pressure from trade, the first turnpike in Western Pennsylvania was built.

To describe the old roads as terrible would be an understatement. Not only were the French roads dirt and mud, decades of neglect led to them being even more difficult to traverse as new trees began to block the path and underbrush clogged the road. In addition, the extensive hills and valleys of western Pennsylvania made travel of any kind difficult. The French path were still better than the Native American ones, as the native paths were cut along high terrain to watch for enemies. They were also often only several feet wide, making wagon travel either incredibly difficult or altogether impossible along many routes.

This would not have been a problem for the small farming communities that dotted the landscape between Erie and Pittsburgh, had a growing salt shipping industry not begun to thrive during the first two decades of the 19th century. The salt traders mostly relied on water transportation, with the initial journey from New York being across Lake Erie, and the destination being Waterford and French Creek where the barrels could be floated south to Meadville, and from there to Pittsburgh. By the 1810’s, Meadville and the other villages and farms along French Creek relied on the salt trade, as the traders frequently made supply stops in these towns, provided much of the trade that the area experienced.

The trade was heavily relied on by some families, as they could barely grow enough crops to support themselves, and the excess was turned into whiskey which could only be shipped south. The salt trade became so ubiquitous throughout the region that barrels of salt served as a form of currency for a time, with livestock, land, and slaves being traded for barrels of salt. There was only one small wrench in the whole system: the only way from Erie to Waterford, and thus French Creek, was via the old mud lanes carved through the forest a half-century before by the French. Often, entire salt shipments had to be abandoned in the mud, and another trip had to made to haul the wagon out during drier weather. This added precious days to what was already a three month journey from the salt wells of Salina, New York to Pittsburgh, and an even longer journey south on the Mississippi to the markets of Dixie.

While the golden age of W. PA pioneers makes for good stories, the slow speed and general unpleasantness of travel along the old routes was unacceptable to the merchants that used them. The easiest solution was to build a turnpike. Turnpikes were originally private toll roads, often owned in shares by nearby communities. Barricades, the ‘pike’, blocked the entrance to the road until payment was received, at which point the barricade would be raised, allowing passage. What made them better than the old dirt roads were that they were paved with wooden planks. It was not a comfortable ride, but was better than losing a shipment in the mud or becoming stranded attempting to navigate the overgrown native paths. It also guaranteed that a capsized or otherwise in distress wagon would be able to wait for help, knowing other travelers would come. A successful turnpike already existed between Philadelphia and Lancaster, having been built in 1794, but no turnpikes had been established away from the East Coast. The natural conclusion was therefore to build one in Crawford County.

The high society of Crawford County, especially landowners like David Mead, were highly interested in the construction of a local turnpike. It was estimated a turnpike would save over $10000 to the area annually. In today's dollars, that is nearly $300,000 a year. The cost of a barrel of salt would be reduced by ¾ its original price, from $2 to $3 all the way down to $.50 a barrel. The pike would also open up trade to Canada, allowing what few goods Crawford County produced to be sold not only south along French Creek, but also north on Lake Erie. There was still one minor issue.

Stock Certificate for the Mercer & Waterford Turnpike Company
Turnpikes were created by private businesses, and therefore could not look to the government for funding. Not only that, but the cost was monumental. While the road would save money in the long run, it would still cost $1200 per mile to build, often intersecting with the already monstrous condition of the old French road. That would be $36,000 a mile today. To raise the money, locals were solicited to purchase stock in the road. Persuasion was not difficult, luckily. The benefits the road would provide for the entire community far outstripped the input cost. Still, a single share was out of reach of many of the normal residents of the area.

In response, it was recommended that neighbors pull together funds to purchase shares if they cannot on their own. The funding was found surprisingly quickly, with construction starting in 1806, only a year after the Erie & Waterford Turnpike Company was established. Construction was complete in 1809. The road was not a straight shot, and followed the old French path. This is because the shareholder did not wish for the road to pass through their property, nor did stock owning innkeepers wish to have their business ruined by being bypassed by a road they financially supported.

The road was a massive success, and created a drive for infrastructure building throughout Western Pennsylvania which led to new roads, bridges, and other private turnpikes being built that would end up connect Meadville, Waterford, Bellefonte, Erie, and rest of the region to the East Coast over the next few decades. Sadly, the era of the turnpike was cut short by the growing popularity of canals in the 1820’s, canals which were then overtaken by the popularity of the railroad in the 1830’s. With the toll roads no longer being profitable, almost all became public roads by the end of the 40’s. While profit dwindled, the motivation to build and improve upon infrastructure allowed the region to increase trade.

This is not a bad thing, as many of these roads are still in use today, some even making up pieces of the modern highways that connect Crawford County to the rest of Pennsylvania. Still, turnpikes paved the way for infrastructure improvements that we still use today, and a new age of turnpikes would begin only a half century later as the automobile began to take over America’s roads.


1885. History of Crawford County Pennsylvania. Chicago: Warner, Beers, & Co.

Cupper, Dan. 1995. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, A History. Lebanon: Applied Art Publishers.

Stewart, Anne. 1993. A Concise History of Meadville. Meadville.

Wright, J E. 2014. Pioneer Life in Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

About the Author

Kyle Dilts is a rising senior at Allegheny College. He is majoring in history and environmental science, and is also a member of the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society. Kyle is a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, and has always been fascinated by the history of western Pennsylvania. He is currently an intern at the Crawford County Historical Society where he helps manage the organization’s social media. He hopes that this experience will further his education on the history of western Pennsylvania, and that he will prove to an asset to the Historical Society.

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