If you have driven along Route 20 in Weston or Sudbury you may have noticed the name of the road is “Boston Post Road”. Most people probably ignore it as merely a moniker tapped to prevent you from getting lost. Perhaps you, like me, thought there might be more of a story behind it. There is a bigger story and Eric Jaffe tells it in The King’s Best Highway.
Jaffe’s interest started in New York, questioning why there was a road called Boston in the Bronx. I traveled the Charles River in my red kayak; Jaffe drove the Boston Post Road in his red Mini Cooper.
The Post Road started out in colonial times as a rugged trail, barely passable by horse. As the colonies united and the revolutionary fires grew, the link between Boston and New York became even more important. Intrepid riders would ride from tavern to tavern with wax-sealed letters. The trek would take at least a week.
The Boston Post Road was actually two separate routes. There was the inland route that ran west from Boston to Springfield, then south to Hartford and New Haven, before turning to New York City. The coastal route ran southwest from Boston to Providence, then hugged the coast as it met up with the inland route in New Haven.
The linking of cities was initially not about transportation. It was about communication. It was a key route for communication between two important hot spots of the revolution.
The road eventually improved in places and coaches began moving passengers, slowly, between the cities and points in between. Then roads moved back towards disrepair as railroads blossomed. Even today, the Amtrak lines follow the paths of the Old Post Road, with an inland route through Springfield and the coastal route through Providence.
It was bicycles that revived the roads. Recreational riders were looking for the best roads to reach the countryside. The Good Roads movement was supported by the bicycle riders groups and bicycle manufacturers.
Then, the manufacturers tried putting engines onto bicycles and the age of the automobile began and its thirst was roadways was insatiable. By the 1940s the Boston Post Road was an illustration of the inadequacy of road-building. The expressway era was about to begin and emerge as the national system of interstate highways.
The King’s Best Highway is a great tale of transportation in the Boston-New York corridor. Jaffe wanders off the road a bit when he over-emphasizes the importance of the road. I found the segment on President Lincoln’s pre-election travels to be a traffic jam. The books ends with Jaffe’s delightful telling of his own travels on the old road. It was no longer the “narrow slit of poorly groomed earth” from the colonial times. It was mostly a “gluttonous commercial wild.”