[Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun Photo]
Marylanders contemplating a trip or shipping goods in the pre-railroad era of the 19th century were faced with traveling over poorly maintained and often bone-jarring muddy and rutted roads. Or they had to endure the slow clip-clop of a mule- or horse-drawn towed canal boat.
This was the era when those traveling on horseback, wagon or stagecoach could expect a day’s journey to be between 15 to 35 miles, depending on road and weather conditions. And then there was the additional threat from highwaymen who plied their trade on the darkened rural roads.
In addition to teamsters at the helm of freight wagons, other travelers included farmers headed to or from markets and peddlers with their wagons jammed with goods, looking for buyers.
In his book, “A Journey from Roads to Rails,” David Shackelford, curator of the B&O Railroad Museum, writes that the roads helped establish Baltimore’s prominence as an East Coast port and that its “port trade was critical to the city’s development and would dictate the growth of Maryland’s transportation mediums.”
Shackelford says that today’s Frederick Road was actually a feeder road to the National Road, which had been created by an act of Congress in 1806.
Signed into law by Thomas Jefferson, the National Road, which is often compared to Rome’s Appian Way, was truly the nation’s first interstate road, stretching 750 miles from Baltimore to Vandalia, Ill.
Through the years, Frederick Road has had numerous names: the Baltimore & Frederick Town Turnpike, Baltimore & Frederick Turnpike, the Baltimore Pike, the Frederick Pike, the National Pike, Route 40, Route 144 and “Main Street in many towns,” according to Shackelford.
The earliest road that linked Baltimore and Frederick was nothing but a mere trail but by 1760 was listed as a public road that handled some wagon traffic.
The state legislature saw the economic need of improved roads, and in 1787 passed a law that allowed counties to build and maintain turnpikes, which in those days were owned by private companies that collected tolls to maintain the roads.
In 1805, the Baltimore & Frederick Turnpike Co. was established to construct a road from Baltimore to New Market, Frederick, Middletown and Boonsboro. It was completed in 1818.
The road to Cumberland then stretched for another 74.5 miles over the Hagerstown & Boonsboro Turnpike and the Cumberland Pike, which linked Baltimore and Cumberland.
Before 1818, it took freight four to six weeks to travel between the two cities. But with the improved turnpike, travel time dropped to two to three weeks.
Heavy winter snows often clogged the roads and made life miserable for the drovers who might only travel three miles.
“When there was ice, and there was much of it in winter, they had to use rough locks and cutters, and the wagon would sometimes be straight across the road, if not the hind end foremost,” recounted a teamster in Thomas B. Searight’sÖ book, “The Old Piker: A History of the National Road.”
Travel by stage coach in 1803 between Baltimore and Frederick, observed Shackelford, consumed a day and a half. By 1842, the distance from Baltimore to Wheeling, W.Va., could be traveled in 42 to 48 hours.
The ride could be an uncomfortable and unpredictable one, often requiring passengers to get out and push when a coach was mired up to its hubcaps in mud.
“There were numerous problems associated with stage travel that included out of control teams, accidents, tired or drunk drivers, adverse weather conditions, and muddy and rough roads,” wrote Shackelford.
This would all change with the coming of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation’s first chartered common carrier railroad, founded in 1827. It went into the passenger business in 1830 when it opened its line between Pratt Street and Ellicotts Mills.
When the first train steamed into Wheeling, W.Va., on New Year’s Day in 1853, travel time between Baltimore and the city on the Ohio River had dropped from days to just 16 hours.
“Flying ash, burning cinders, frigid temperatures in the winter, and hot, dusty trips in the summer made rail travel uncomfortable and dangerous,” wrote Shackelford.
In what historians have called the Transportation Revolution from 1800 and 1860, it was inevitable that change had come and the freight and passengers who once traveled the turnpikes would now turn to railroads.
Shackelford will present a lecture and book signing at noon Saturday at the B&O Museum, 901 W. Pratt St., Baltimore. Information: 410-752-2490.