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July 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Commuting in the Good Ol' Days

You think that commuting is a modern phenomenon?  Guess again!  “Getting there” (to work) is as old as our state.

As early as 1699 Connecticut had roads that had been laid out on routes we still use today.  But whereas today those roads are lined with trees, by the mid-1700’s most of southern Fairfield county had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming. 

In the 1770’s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals.  Every able bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape.  But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians. 

By 1785 there was only one privately owned “pleasure” vehicle in all of Stamford, a two-wheeled chaise owned by the affluent Major John Davenport.

At the end of the 18th century it was clear that we needed more roads and the state authorized more than a hundred privately-funded toll roads to be built.  The deal was that after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were revert to state control.  Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal!

One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road.  Another was the Norwalk to Danbury ‘pike, now Route 7.

Four toll gates were erected:  GreenwichStamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge and Fairfield.  No tolls were collected for those going to church, militia muster or farmers going to the mills.  Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.

The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls, which got them the nickname “shun-pikes”.

Regular horse-drawn coaches carried passengers from Boston to NY.  And three days a week a local coach to Stamford connected to a steamboat to New York.

The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York & New Haven Railroad started service.  An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Stamford to NYC, each averaging two hours and ten minutes.  Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour.  The one-way fare was 70 cents (that’s about $21 in today’s money) vs today’s fare of $15.25 at rush hour.

In the 1890’s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.

In the 1890’s the trolleys arrived.  The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road connecting with the Norwalk Tramway; the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.

Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride.  There were so many trolley lines in Connecticut that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.  The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.


Fast forward to the present where we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in some cities and T.O.D. (“transit oriented development”) is all the rage.  Has “getting there” really changed that much over two hundred years?


Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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