Monday, October 03, 2011

Those Were the Days, 2: Requiem for the Post Roads


      Look about you. You won’t have to go very far from your dooryard to find them. Post roads are everywhere, unnoticed reminders of the past.
      They began as Indian paths. Improved as horse trails for use by post riders, they were later widened to accommodate wagons and stagecoaches.
      Eventually, dirt roads became all-weather roads, often financed with the proceeds of lotteries. Post roads were the sinews that linked the original thirteen colonies. After independence, they helped to bind the states and territories together.
      Except in the dead of winter, a post rider would leave New York once a week, following the Boston Post Road through New Haven to Saybrook, where he exchanged mailbags with the Boston rider, who had come down via Providence, Stonington and New London. In 1785, the first stagecoach to Boston--little more than a horse-drawn wagon--began operating.
      Designation of a road as a post road was highly desirable, for it brought coveted postal service to the burgeoning communities along its route. In 1792, when the young nation's first postal law was enacted, less than 6,000 miles of post roads existed and only 195 post offices.
      The original City Hall on Wall Street marked the official starting point from which all post road distances and milestones were measured. Stagecoaches would drive north through the sparsely settled farm country of Manhattan until they reached the King's Bridge at the northern tip of the island. After crossing Spuyten Duyvil Creek and entering what was then Westchester but is now the Bronx, the post road split into two roads.

Westchester’s Two Major Post Roads
In 1664, King Charles II requested that a post road be built from Boston to newly conquered New Amsterdam. Called the King’s Highway, it proceeded east from the King's Bridge through West Farms to Eastchester and northeast to New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Rye, Port Chester (then called the Saw Pits) and into Connecticut. The Boston Post Road largely followed what is now Route 1 to New Haven, where travelers had a choice of three separate routes to Boston.
      Designated a post road in 1669 and named the Queen’s Highway for Queen Anne, the Albany Post Road continued on from the King’s Bridge through Yonkers and a succession of quiet Hudson River hamlets: Dobbs Ferry, Irvington (then called Dearman), Tarrytown, Sparta, Sing Sing, and Collabaugh Landing (Croton) to Peekskill and thence inland to Fishkill and beyond. The Albany Post Road is essentially today's Route 9.
      After the Revolution, finding their financial resources inadequate to meet growing needs, the newly formed states chartered turnpike companies to build roads with private capital and collect tolls. By 1821, New York could boast of some 4,000 miles of such improved roads. The first turnpike company in Westchester was operated by the Westchester Turnpike Company, organized in 1800 to build a road from East Chester to the Byram River. In 1806, the Highland Turnpike Company was incorporated "for the purpose of making a good and sufficient road" from the King’s Bridge to the city of Hudson.
      Specifications for turnpikes were remarkably detailed. For example, turnpike operators were required to erect milestones at intervals. Toll gates could be no closer than every ten miles. The bridge over the Croton River was to be "at least 24 feet in width, with draw gates not less than 18 feet in width to allow the passage of vessels."
      In their heyday, turnpikes were scenes of lively activity. Typical toll-paying customers included stagecoaches transporting travelers and mail, emigrants moving west with their household goods in covered wagons, wagoners driving heavily laden freight wagons with broad-rimmed wheels hauled by six- and eight-horse teams, drovers herding cattle, sheep or pigs to market, and Yankee peddlers with their light wagons filled with needles, buttons and thread to delight farm wives.
      The turnpike era lasted about 30 years. Few turnpikes showed a profit, largely because of high maintenance costs. At best, even in times of peak travel they paid investors small dividends. Competition, first from canals and later from railroads, hastened their demise. Most turnpikes were eventually surrendered to the state and dedicated as public roads.
      By the 1830's, stage lines were carrying the mail over more than seventeen million miles of post roads annually. One stipulation in every mail stage contract was that space be provided for seven passengers.

Early Postal Practices
No account of post roads would be complete without mention of the hectic state of early mail service. In the 18th century, postage was paid by the recipient.
      Letters were written on one or more sheets of paper, then elaborately folded and sealed, either with hot sealing wax or a paper wafer. The address was written on the outside. Envelopes would not be introduced from France until the mid-19th century.
      Exorbitantly high letter postage rates persisted, even though the means of transport had improved and expenses had been reduced. From 1816 to 1845, it cost 18 and a half cents to send a letter from Manhattan to Troy, north of Albany--but only 12 and a half cents to ship a barrel of flour the same distance.
      Prepayment of postage was a complicated system based on the number of sheets in a letter and the distance traveled. Posting a letter became a slow and exasperating process. Each letter mailed was inspected by the local postmaster for unlawful enclosures and to discover whether it had been carried part way by someone to defraud the Post Office. A romantic billet-doux containing a pressed violet was a "double letter," charged at twice the single rate. A single-sheet letter enclosing two small newspaper clippings was subject to triple postage.
      Mailing a letter became tedious and time-consuming. Most letter writers let the recipient pay the postage, leading to many abuses. When opened, some letters turned out to be of little interest or someone's idea of an expensive prank.
      Evasion of postage was rife, extending through every stratum of society, business and the professions. Letters became a convenience only for the wealthy--and even they avoided paying postage whenever they could.
      Elaborate codes were developed for writing messages on the outside of the folded sheets of paper, usually as variations in the return address. After reading and deciphering the coded message, recipients would refuse the letter, thus avoiding payment of postage.
      Another onerous curse of the mail service was "franking." the privilege afforded members of Congress, postmasters and government officials of applying their signatures to letters instead of postage. Many were not above using rubber stamps (or "facsimiles," as they were called) to reproduce a signature. These devices were so frequently copied, lent, handed out to friends and constituents, or even stolen that soon thousands of unauthorized persons were using them to frank their mail.
      The Post Office Act of 1792 had set the postage rate on a one-page letter going 100 miles at 12 cents. Paradoxically, it allowed a bulky newspaper to go the same distance for one cent. For one and a half cents, a newspaper could be sent any distance. The postage on a one-page letter going more than 400 miles was 25 cents.
      Not surprisingly, senders took advantage of the lower rates for mailing newspapers to convey messages secretly. One method was to mark selected words with underlining in pencil or with pinholes through them.
Those who had devised no code system or who had no access to franks or who were too poor even to buy a newspaper to mark with hidden messages were literally cut off from correspondence.
      To avoid paying exorbitant postal rates, friends leaving on a trip were often asked to carry and deliver letters and parcels. Some travelers and stage drivers made illicit letter-carrying a regular business. Private express services soon sprang up to carry packages and mail, circumventing the Post Office. In fact, as many letters were regularly being carried outside the system as in it.
      The introduction of standardized rates and postage stamps in Britain in 1840 aroused great interest in the U.S. Adhesive stamps were introduced here in 1847 in two denominations: five cents (Benjamin Franklin) for a letter weighing less than one ounce traveling less than 300 miles, and ten cents (George Washington) for a similar letter traveling more than 300 miles. These rates were later reduced. By 1885, the basic rate was down to two cents.

Competition for Mail Contracts
Meanwhile, a new competitor to post roads had appeared: steamboats, which carried letters for the first time in 1813. Ten years later, Congress declared the navigable rivers of the country to be post roads. Wherever steamboat and stagecoach routes were in competition, steam vessels won mail contracts and took mail as well as passengers away from the stage lines.
      In 1838, although railroads were still comparatively rare, Congress declared all existing and future railroads to be post roads. The postmaster general was authorized to pay as much as 25 percent more for transporting the mails by rail than was paid to stagecoach operators.
      Beginning in 1848, the New York & New Haven Railroad carried passengers and freight on tracks virtually paralleling the Boston Post Road. Similarly, Commodore Vanderbilt’s Hudson River Rail Road, laying tracks along the east bank of the Hudson, reached Poughkeepsie in 1849 and Albany two years later.
Thereafter, Westchester’s post roads would carry only local traffic and the few stubborn, die-hard passengers who feared that the boilers of the new-fangled railroad locomotives would explode.
      Today, buried under layers of macadam and concrete, traces of original post roads have all but disappeared. Except for a 6.6-mile section of dirt road near Philippstown in Putnam County, post roads were never formally designated as historic sites. They persist only as remnant names on road signs, their paths marked by the few weathered milestones that have survived the ravages of time.

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