america’s earliest factories and roads -- 8/30/21

Today's selection -- from The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 by Robert C. Alberts. The years immediately following George Washington’s inauguration as America’s first president saw a proliferation of factories, roads, and other commercial developments:

"Despite the wild speculation in stock and land, an industrial base was being laid for the nation. Factories had been built in the towns and along the water courses of the middle and eastern states. Penn­sylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey had fifty-three paper mills; these states were producing 350 tons of steel annually, and their produc­tion of iron rods for nails had soared to 600 tons. Newburyport, Massachusetts, had a machine for making nails. A woolen mill in Hartford, Connecticut, was turning out 5000 yards of cloth a year, and a cotton mill just started in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had two water-powered carding machines built from designs smuggled out of England in the head of an apprentice. Steam power was being adapted to several manufacturing processes; the nation was startled to hear that a peck and a half of coal could do as much work as a horse in a whole day.

"These industrial developments were accompanied by a wave of public improvements -- bridges, dams, canals, roads. Since there was opposition to the use of public funds for such purposes, most were financed by lotteries or by the organization of private stock compa­nies, operating with the blessing of the state legislatures. [Pennsylvania] Governor Mifflin was authorized to incorporate a company to build a lock canal between the Schuylkill and the Susquehanna rivers. There was talk that someday the canal would be extended the entire length of the state, west to the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, and that a good, solid road would be built all the way to the Susquehanna.

"In June, 1791, a private turnpike company was formed 'for mak­ing an artificial road from the City of Philadelphia to the Borough of Lancaster' -- a distance of sixty-six miles. It was the first stone turn­pike of substantial length in the country, and the most costly and ambitious public works project undertaken up to that time. One thousand shares of stock were offered for sale at $300 each and they were so heavily oversubscribed in an almost riotous contest that 2276 shares spoken for were placed in a wheel and reduced to 1000 by lot. The legislature authorized the incorporation in April, 1792, with the right to erect gates every seven miles, levy tolls, fix the width of wheels and the number of horses to a wagon, and take over property by eminent domain. In July the subscribers met to organize and to elect officers and a board of twelve managers. They named [wealthy trader] William Bingham as president and manager of the company.

Share of the "Company of the Lancaster and Turnpike Road," issued 16 March 1795

"Bingham had been pushing the turnpike in the state Assembly. 'American roads were notoriously bad,' and the old dirt road be­tween Philadelphia and Lancaster -- was one of the worst. Coaches and wagons were overturned, their riders hurt or killed, their horses ruined by the strain. Most serious of all, the farm produce of the Susquehanna Valley was being shipped by water to Baltimore at the expense of Philadelphia.

"Bingham devoted a great deal of his time over the next three years to the Lancaster Pike. On August 10, 1792, he set out for a tour of the entire road, having that same day returned 'from a view of the projected route of the Canal.' He first ordered a more detailed sur­vey than the one already prepared. He divided the road into five sections, placing a superintendent with extensive powers in charge of each, with orders to use local materials wherever possible but to buy materials, provisions for the laborers and feed for the horses and oxen as cheaply as was consistent with good quality. He relied very heavily on the method that Robert Morris had turned to in supplying the armies in the Revolution: letting contracts to responsible persons capable of carrying them out. He recruited laborers from New Eng­land. Near the end of 1792 he reported for his board to the state legislature, through Governor Mifflin:

The track of the road has been staked. The materials will now be collected. Measures have been taken to insure the requisite number of laborers and every exertion will be made to complete with economy and dispatch the important work.

"Construction began, as planned, in the spring of 1793. The roadbed was of impacted crushed stone, after the manner developed by the Scotsman John Macadam.

"The road, though not completed, was opened for use in 1794. A stagecoach carrying ten passengers and luggage was now able to leave Philadelphia at five o'clock in the evening and reach Lancaster at five the following morning. Within a short time there were sixty-one inns and taverns along the road, bearing such names as Red Lion, Rising Sun, Cross Keys, and White Horse. (The charges were twenty-­five cents per person for lodging, twenty-five cents for each meal, and fifty cents for each horse.) Francis Bailey, an eminent English scien­tist, traveling on the way to Cincinnati in 1796, called the road 'a masterpiece of its kind' and Pennsylvania a 'public-spirited state' for building it. Bingham's friend Jacob Hiltzheimer, who had helped push the turnpike bill through the Assembly, on his first trip to Lancaster frequently descended from his carriage to inspect the road. He was happy to record in his diary that it was in generally good condition and always measured exactly twenty-one feet in width."



Robert C. Alberts


The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 1969 by Robert C. Alberts


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