The Columbia Turnpike was the main east-west route

Part 1: Founding and Operation

FEW DRIVERS RIDING ALONG ROUTE 23 think of it as they proceed along the road. But from 1800-1906 before there were cars (trains came in mid-19th century), Route 23 was the privately owned Columbia Turnpike, one of hundreds of such roads constructed and maintained by stockholder corporations. In the 19th century as many as 3,200 such companies operated in the U.S., vastly improving conditions for travelers.

Why did towns turn to private investors? The problem was that before the 1790s, neither local nor state governments had the employees or the organization to build roads. Instead, townships imposed a road labor tax on eligible males, slightly reminiscent of European feudal practice, a minimum of three days of roadwork per year in New York State. The alternative was for a man to pay 62 cents a day to get out of the obligation.

Government funding to build the roads was difficult to come up with and road conditions were often inadequate. In rainy weather or after snowstorms the roads were frequently impassable. Travelers in horse-drawn vehicles often encountered stumps which, in muddy areas, periodically left wagons and carriages stranded on them, leading to the phrase, “We’re stumped.”

The Columbia Turnpike, built as an alternative to town roads in 1800, ran from Hudson to Great Barrington and was the county’s first turnpike. Constructed, owned and maintained by the Columbia Turnpike Corporation, and funded via investors, it was also the state’s fifth highway, and it contributed to Columbia County’s distinction as having the most turnpike miles in the state at the time. According to the corporation’s charter, the road had to be 50 feet wide, allowing enough room for two teams of horses to comfortably pass each other. The middle of the road was required to be 8 inches higher than the rest of it, to allow water to run down the sides of the road.

The turnpike served as the major link to market for numerous farmers and manufacturers shipping the goods to Hudson aboard horse-drawn vehicles for transit by ship to downstate New York markets. It also enabled travelers on horseback to reach Hudson or the river to go downstate too.

The Eastgate of the Columbia Turnpike is seen here in its heyday. Photo contributed

Along the turnpike’s way were five toll houses with gates, which were lowered to stop travelers until each paid his fare. From west to east, there was one in Greenport near Hudson; one a mile east of Martindale (near the what is now the Taconic State Parkway); and a third one just east of Hillsdale. In addition, there was one on the northern branch of the turnpike a half-mile west of Egremont and one a quarter-mile east of the Massachusetts line.

The fee charged to pass through a toll gate varied from 1-18 cents. Pedestrians paid a cent, people on horseback paid a little more, and horse-drawn vehicles even more. The highest rate may have been for herdsmen with large numbers of animals, with the fee dependent on the size of the herd.

In New York state some travelers were exempt from the toll: travelers on family business or those going to and from church, funerals, town meetings and military duty or blacksmith shops! One strong hint of the turnpike’s initial success is a report that on February 28, 1803, 750 sleighs passed through the Greenport toll gate on their way to Hudson.

For five years, starting in 1835, residents of Egremont and Hillsdale observed one of the most unusual uses of the Columbia Turnpike, as large “Pennsylvania horses” hitched in tandem pulled wagons bearing loads of marble, quarried from a Sheffield, Massachusetts site. The wagons and marble combined ranged in weight from 8-15 tons. Sometimes as many as 10-12 horses pulled a particularly heavy wagon, creating a scene which frightened approaching horses. The marble on board these wagons was bound for Philadelphia to be used in construction of a new educational institution, Girard College.

Often in the fall, strings of teams as much as a half-mile in length hauling butter, cheese, rye, oats, corn and pork were cued up at the toll gates. At a horse’s pace, the round-trip journey from eastern towns to Hudson took a whole day. Stagecoaches owned by a man named Miller brought passengers westward to Hudson, some to visit there, and others to continue downstate or farther south. For a number of years, many of them traveled in groups of 12-18 passengers, in large Concorde coaches pulled by two or three pairs of horses. In Hillsdale, the stage regularly pulled up to Thaddeus Reed’s Hillsdale House. By 1811, six hotels came to line the turnpike.

(This is the first of two parts. Part 2 will appear in next week’s issue of The Columbia Paper.)

To contact Howard Blue, who publishes the Copake History Facebook page and is a former board member of the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society (RJHS), email . The RJHS Copake Falls museum currently features an exhibit on the Columbia Turnpike, weekends, 2-4 p.m. through September 3.

Comments are closed.