Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Stop The Presses! (WTPR#22)

Jacket Cover of the book by Eric Jaffe

This is entry #22 from my previous project, Walking the Post Road. I have been slowly transferring the entries over to this project for a number of reasons. The first reason is that they are relevant to this project in that the first dozen or so are ‘rambles’ about Boston. Even the entries that are not about Boston are about the Boston Post Road. Indeed, writing about places outside of Boston gives me a fresh perspective which is useful when I am writing about Boston. The main reason, however, is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and, consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I will eventually revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime readers are welcome to comment upon this entry as part of this project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on Monday, June 31, 2010, as entry #22. As the book in the photo at left is discussed in the most recent entry of my newer project Walking the Upper Boston Post Road and some of the information below is relevant to the discussion in the most recent entry I am using this as an excuse to transfer this entry here at this time.


    College Hill in Providence is littered with libraries, from the Athenaeum, to the Hay Library, to the Rhode Island Historical Society. As I wander through the exhibits of sixteenth-century books about America at the refreshingly cool John Carter Brown Library, I contemplate the books that I have used to research my project on the Post Road.  The publication of a new book, The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America by Eric Jaffe, gives me an opportunity both to review the literature on the Post Road and to give the reader a rundown of books that I have used in my project in the event that I have sparked an interest in King Philip, the Boston Jazz scene in the 1950s, or roadside weeds.


        There are remarkably few books on the Post Road. Prior to the recent publication mentioned above, the last book published specifically about the Post Road was by Stewart Holbrook in 1962. In fact, only 3 books have been published about the Post Road: Stephen Jenkins’s The Old Boston Post Road, published in 1913; Holbrook’s The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road; and the recent book by Jaffe. In addition, Gail Gibbons wrote a children’s book From Path to Highway in 1986, and Lawrie Lawlor published a novel in 2002 using Sarah Kemble Knight and her daughters as a point of departure in American Sisters: Horseback on the Post Road, 1704. I have come across one or two books with Post Road in the title that are either off topic or useless.

        Each of the three books mentioned above has a different perspective. Jenkins, writing in 1913, must be given credit for unearthing the rough path of the various roads from the graveyard of history.  He lingers over stagecoaches too much for my liking, but the book is interesting at least in part because it is almost a century old.

        Holbrook’s is the book that has been the standard and really only source of information specifically about the Post Road for almost fifty years. After describing the formation of the earliest system of postal riders in 1673 in the first chapter, Holbrook describes each branch of the road in the second chapter, then devotes an entire chapter to Sarah Kemble Knight. Holbrook proceeds to cover the stagecoach and turnpike eras, and then introduces us to some of the taverns on the roads.  A chapter dedicated to Washington’s travels on the Post Road is the last section devoted to historical analysis and is followed by many chapters describing a driving trip on the road. I did not find much of his discussion to be particularly revealing, but it is fun to get a sense of what traveling “back roads” was like in the early 1960s. However much of his journey is spoiled by the large number of factual errors, the near absence of any history of the roads from 1800 to the present, and the often vague descriptions of routes taken during his journey. Essentially Holbrook is interested in the early mail, the stagecoach era, and wandering down the back roads of New England in an automobile. None of these is particularly appealing to me but cuique suum.

        The new book by Eric Jaffe, while elucidating the story of the role of the “Post” in Post Road in more and better detail than Holbrook, also rectifies the glaring omissions in Holbrook’s book by devoting almost half the text to a discussion of the development of the Northeast transportation corridor from the beginning of the railroads to the present day, while thankfully devoting fewer than thirty pages to Holbrook’s beloved stagecoaches. Jaffe’s analysis of the development of transportation in the Northeast Corridor is the book’s most important contribution and, it seems to me, the aspect of the Post Road that energizes him the most. He spends only a few pages on the early years of the road and almost none on the precolonial transportation network in favor of a more layered look at how the connection between Boston and New York, and, by extension, the transportation connections between the rest of the country developed from furrowed trails to modern interstate highways and high speed rail networks, as well as contemplating the social, political, cultural, and economic impact the transportation transformation wrought on the places and people it affected.  I was particularly impressed by his astute comments on the often negative impact of transportation policy and the varying success different cities have had in reestablishing vibrant city centers decimated by the interstate highways that plowed through them in the mid-twentieth century.

        In the final chapter, Jaffe travels by car along what remains of the Post Road, describing the changes as well as the vestiges of older roads such as the milestones in central Massachusetts. Overall this section is the least successful as it seemed a belated effort to “connect” with the physical environment of the road he has described in all its protean forms in the previous 200 plus pages, but it often has a staccato quality, in the same way one catches a brief glimpse of something along the side of the road as one’s car zooms by. Ironically it is in Boston and New York, where he gets out of the car and walks short stretches of the road, that his observations about people and places seem to be the most trenchant: overheard snatches of conversation, the observation of small details, the sights, sounds, and smells that constitute the elements of a living community.  I find myself feeling a sense of satisfaction that I have chosen to travel by foot. Like the “slow food” movement, what I will call “slow travel” allows one to savor the moment. No texting, no computer screen or television, no radio in the air conditioned car to shield me from the outside world, no way to avoid the unpleasant but conversely more time to appreciate the pleasant.  

        Overall this is a well put together book. I enjoyed reading it, and I like the way he integrates the stories of individuals like Levi Pease, P.T. Barnum, and Hiram Percy Maxim into the narrative of the evolution of transportation along the corridor. I appreciate his efforts to link the road to most of the political, economic, and cultural developments in American history even if at times the story seems to drift perilously far from the road itself. Plus it is a new book about a topic I have been interested in for many years. Now I don’t have to rely solely on a fifty year-old book for information about the Post Road.  I will definitely find much of what Jaffe says to be useful as I continue my journey down the same road.


        There have been a few books published on the history of roads in general or on turnpikes or old roads specifically in New England that touch on the Post Road. The most useful is Frederic J. Wood’s The Turnpikes of New England and the Evolution of the Same through New England, Maryland, and Virginia from 1919.  Other books in which I have found useful information about the Post Road and about travel in general are Allan Forbes’s Taverns and Stagecoaches of New England (1953), K.M. Abbott Old Paths of New England (1903), and, less useful but still entertaining, Stage Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1900). I also found a short documentary video about the Post Road narrated by Tom Bodett, that I quite enjoyed.

        There is a preoccupation in these histories of old roads with stagecoaches, partly owing I believe to the mystique of the image of the old stagecoaches rumbling through the Wild West hounded by hostile Indians. The stagecoach era was actually quite short-lived, for in the seventeenth century most travelers rode horseback or in an open calash or walked or took a boat. Stagecoaches did not truly become a principal means of transport in New England until well into the eighteenth century. The first stagecoach from Boston to Providence for example was started by Thomas Sabin in 1767. The number of stagecoaches increased with the advent of the turnpikes starting about 1790, but the railroad took over as the principal means of transport by 1840. Thus the “stagecoach era” in New England barely lasted half a century.

        A similar infatuation with taverns seems to be the hallmark of much early history and recent nonacademic history, and even an occasional academic jumps into the discussion. Alice Morse Earle and Allen Forbes above combine both in their titles, while Elise Lathrop focuses solely on the taverns in Early American Inns and Taverns (1946). Ryan Rice published an interesting and informative book Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers (1983), and the most interesting of all is In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial New England by David Conroy (UNC Press, 1995).  Many authors have published interesting monographs on specific taverns for local historical societies. One of my favorites is Solomon Talbot’s Historic Traces of Wainman’s Ordinary, a well researched and interesting typed manuscript in the Sharon Public Library.

        Taverns and stagecoaches, turnpikes and paths; all these books are interesting in their way, but the books that really drive the narrative in my project are the firsthand accounts of travel that have managed to be passed down to the present day. At the pinnacle in my estimation is Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 1744, edited and with an introduction by Carl Bridenbaugh, first published in 1948. Hamilton is very clear and humorous in his description of the people and places that he encountered, and Bridenbaugh’s footnotes add a depth to the diary that makes it the single most valuable resource I have used. Also of great interest is The Journal of Madam Knight, a manuscript of the journey undertaken by Sarah Kemble Knight in 1704. A third interesting and useful travel journal is that of James Birket, whose Some Cursory Remarks, written during a journey made to North America in 1750-1751, is also very descriptive, although he traveled much more widely and the remarks are rather cursory (it is given away in the title!), so Hamilton is the more useful for factual information about the course of the actual route he took.  Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, traveled to the colonies in 1748, spending much of his time in the mid-Atlantic region. While this book is truly fascinating and full of detailed analysis of culture and nature, it is outside the scope of my project at present, as is William Bartram’s Travels, which took place primarily in the South.

        It is the local histories that give this project the sense of serendipity that I find appealing. As I travel from town to town, I search through the local history shelves and the old manuscripts and books locked away in cabinets for kernels of information that allow me to flesh out a trail that is often lost under the sands of time. Occasionally there are howling errors or egregiously offensive racial stereotypes to be found in these books, but, more often than not, the authors have done a prodigious amount of research that often contains information I cannot possibly find on line (although Google Books is rapidly transforming that area of research). Often the local historical society publications will have short articles about a forgotten road or milestone. Or a local author will have painstakingly recreated a map of the town as it looked in the seventeenth century.  Willard Delue’s The Story of Walpole (1925) is precisely the type of book that is not only fun to read and endlessly informative, but also seemed to try to tie the events of local significance to the larger story of the history of America.

        Some people call this antiquarianism and, to be sure, lots of the stuff in these books is useless gibberish, but many of these authors clearly take pride in being meticulous and seem to be interested in linking events with time and place, something that seems to have fallen out of fashion in academic circles, where it often seems events, places, and people don’t rank with a clever turn of critical theory phraseology.  History is about things that happened to people in a certain time and a certain place. The people might be gone and the time has passed, but the places are often still there. All it takes is two feet to head out the door and a willingness to let your senses take over. History seems much more immediate when you are ensconced in the site of an event, when you can see the hill on which the battle was fought, when you can see the Italian or Irish surname of the builder of a tenement house inscribed on a cornerstone, when the epitaph on a gravestone makes you smile as you realize even Puritans had a sense of humor.


        One final thought which occurred to me only as I reviewed the various sources I have consulted for this project, is that, as far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no record of anybody ever having walked the entire road from Boston to New York.  Perhaps there is a long distance walker or a charity walker who can correct me if I am mistaken, but the historical record shows that aside from the junior John Winthrop’s exploration of Connecticut in 1645, all of the recorded journeys on the Post Roads from Boston to New York in their various incarnations have been accomplished with the aid of a vehicle, whether horse, calash, stagecoach, train, bicycle, car, bus, or even airplane (if we contemplate the road as a metaphor for the Northeast Corridor as Jaffe does). If anyone out there can find a record of a journey by foot from Boston to New York please do not hesitate to let me know. Rather than feel this enterprise is moot because it has been accomplished already, I would love to meet other potential members of this eccentric club.

Two seemingly trivial photographs to illustrate my argument about the value of getting out to see places to understand the context that allows one to more fully appreciate history. Above: Narragansett beer bottle left on a wall on the side of the road in Providence, Rhode Island. A local brew that was once the largest brewery in New England, the brewery was bought out and closed in the 1980s. Recently some Rhode Islanders have purchased the rights to brew Narragansett beer and have reestablished the beer in the Providence market.

Below: demonstration of Indian farming at Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence. I have always heard about how the Indians grew their crops but actually seeing the corn, squash, and beans growing together was much more interesting than reading about it. Dare I say it, it is cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>