The Columbia Turnpike was our main east-west route

Part 2: Problems and Closure

(Part 1 last week described the turnpike’s founding and operation. This is the second of two parts.)

LIKE MODERN ROADS the Columbia Turnpike, the road now known as state Route 23 in Columbia County, was beset at times with problems, some of them caused by people. Some, travelers on fast horses avoided paying tolls “racing the gates,” galloping fast enough that toll keepers could not have time to lower their gates. More commonly, travelers took advantage when they could, of “shunpikes,” routes they could take to avoid a tollgate. Thus in Hillsdale, some travelers going West would make a right turn heading northward on present-day Oxbow Road, travel parallel to the turnpike for about half a mile and then make a left on present-day Mitchell Street to return to the turnpike.

Occasionally travelers who had issues with toll collectors or perhaps with the very idea of paying to use a road expressed themselves violently One irate farmer hitched one of his strongest animals to the Hillsdale toll gate and pulled it down. He then dumped it in nearby Prospect Lake. JD Bell, a Hillsdale attorney, was en route to Hudson one day when he got into a dispute about the amount of the toll the gatekeeper of the middle gate wanted to charge him. When the toll collector lowered the gate and refused to let Bell through until he paid, Bell borrowed an axe from somewhere nearby, cut off the end of the gate, then swung it out of the way and proceeded on his journey.

The extension in 1852 of the New York and Harlem Railroad northward through Ancram, Copake, Hillsdale, and farther up the valley brought problems to the turnpike. Until then the railroad had only reached as far as Dover Plains. Now, because of the railroad’s competition, the turnpike’s traffic and revenues began to decline.

A modern street sign marks a road once used to bypass tolls collected at tollhouses along Columbia Turnpike, now state Route 23. This is the corner of Mitchell St. and Shunpike Road. Mitchell, part of the route used by toll evaders, intersected with the turnpike west of the East Gate Tollhouse. Photo by Howard Blue

Linked with the decrease in revenues, the Columbia Turnpike Corporation reduced its maintenance of the pike, resulting in complaints about damage to wagons and horses as they tried to get to Hudson. In September 1879, these problems led to five meetings of interested Hillsdale citizens who drew up formal complaints. The Hillsdale commissioner of highways then gave the corporation 48 hours to correct the problems in his area. Otherwise, he said, the corporation, would not be permitted to lower its toll gates and travelers would be able to use the turnpike for free. The following year when the same commissioner was running for reelection, rumors circulated that because of his tough stance against it, the corporation was planning to help fund his opponent’s campaign. Also in October 1893 in Hillsdale, turnpike employees plowing the turnpike created and left large piles of soil in front of people’s houses, obstructing access to them.

Elsewhere in New York state, in the town of Fayetteville, in the spring of 1894 resentment regarding the poor maintenance of the area’s toll roads and, more generally towards the very notion of having to pay to use them, led to creation of an anti-tollgate society. In Hillsdale, four months later another meeting was held, this time to deal with the Columbia Turnpike Corporation’s plan to abandon the portion of the road between the Massachusetts state line and Hollowville, west of Hillsdale.

By then the county was in the process of taking over the turnpike. Records show that in April 1906 the county Board of Supervisors adopted resolutions to pave two large sections, likely with macadam. One, between Hollowville and Craryville, a distance of slightly more than 7 miles, was to be done at a cost of $84,300. The second, a 6-mile section from Craryville to the Massachusetts line, was authorized to be done for $74,000.

Finally, on the 23rd of the next month, a lone horseman set off from Hudson to carry a message for all of the toll collectors. “The corporation has been sold today to the county,” he advised them. “So immediately you have to stop collecting tolls.”

There is a postscript to this story which is perhaps related to the currently popular notion among some people that the federal and even state governments are too large and they need to shrink. Not surprisingly, there has been a revival of construction of private toll roads. However, these recent efforts also have a checkered history. In Texas, Virginia and California, some of the companies that built and maintained these roads–and which received federal loans–have gone bankrupt. But that is a story for another time.

The Roeliff Jansen Historical Society (RJHS) Copake Falls museum currently features an exhibit on the Columbia Turnpike. The museum is open weekends, 2-4 p.m. through September 3.

To contact Howard Blue, who publishes the Copake History Facebook page and is a former board member of the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society email .

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