1940's era postcard view of US-5 in Holyoke running along the Connecticut River. View is looking north towards Mt. Holyoke Range.



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Here in the State, the Massachusetts Highway Commission (MHC) was created... the first such state highway agency in the nation. The MHC's mandate was to:

1: Determine the best methods of road building.

2: Determine the best methods of maintaining highways.

3: To identify and locate sources of suitable road materials throughout the state.

4: To promote the development of a system of state highway routes. (These roads would typically be improvements of existing local or county roads that already linked population centers. In order to receive aid, cities, towns, and counties had to petition the MHC and have their plans approved.)

After several years of receiving input from local governments and the public, the MHC 1897 Annual Report produced what may have amounted to their policy statement. In these early days of highway planning the main emphasis of the Commissioners was to be on local concerns. A summary of their policy goals were:

1: To connect major centers of business.

2: To connect smaller towns to nearby larger cities.

3: To provide roads for remote towns not on rail lines or a navigable watercourse.

4: To provide roads to the state line if the nearest large town was in an adjacent state.

5: To eventually group these improved roads together to provide some continuous highway routes through the state.

6: The 1895 MHC report adds its intent "...to secure the greatest possible length of good roads at the least possible expense." By this the MHC meant the width of the final road was to be in proportion to the actual needs of the existing traffic. At this point in time road widths were rarely over 18 feet. More typically, they were 12 or 15 feet. The MHC also considered 9 foot wide, "single track" roads for areas like Cape Cod where the population density was low.

In 1895 the MHC also refused to set any standards for road grades. Grade is the drop in elevation over a 100-foot section of highway. Thus, if a road's slope drops 8 feet over a 100-foot distance it is said to have an 8% grade. The MHC held that a policy to keep roads grades to a more acceptable 5% or less might require such huge expenditures to relocate entire sections of roads that little progress could be made in other areas. It was felt that scare resources were better spent elsewhere and the issue of steep grades could be was put off until the public's other needs were met.

The MHC eventually found another way to make their dollars go further. Even as late as 1912 the MHC might still prefer the use of gravel on some remote sections of highway, such as the new Mohawk Trail, while already beginning to experiment with expensive concrete elsewhere.

The MHC operated under several restrictions that were designed to insure fairness and maximize local control. The federal government later used this approach in dealing with the states.

The first restriction was that the construction of state roads be fairly apportioned among the various counties in the state. There were some exceptions. In 1900 the legislature passed the Small Town Act and a few years later mandated the construction of some special highway routes.

The second restriction was that the MHC could not itself initiate any highway projects. It only had the power to approve or reject petitions submitted by the counties, cities, and towns. Given these restrictions, the MHC soon came to realize that the only way the state highways could ever eventually become knit into a system of continuous routes was by rejecting certain petitions that did not fit their plans. To streamline this process the MHC began to work with the petitioning bodies to advise them on just what roads plans would be approved.

Though there is no explicit mention in any MHC annual report of a major north/south route through the Valley until about 1912, it seems clear from the 1897 policy statement that if the Valley's major commercial centers were to be linked, then soon there would soon have to be a continuous highway linking Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield. When complete, it would make up about 80% of this eventual north/south highway. If one then takes a second MHC goal, that of linking smaller towns to nearby cities, such as Longmeadow to Springfield and Bernardston to Greenfield, nearly 90% of what would eventually become the Massachusetts section of US-5 had been approved for construction. Most of this highway would be built on the network existing county and local roads.

The MHC did not state any preferences for the roads they hoped to connect to eventually become the system of through routes. Yet, it may be possible to second guess their actual intent by reviewing the local petitions the MHC gave priority approval to, approved on a slow track, or rejected altogether. In this light the MHC's plan initially seemed to have been to connect with a route coming up the west side of the Connecticut River from Hartford into Agawam. The highway would follow today's River Road in Agawam, then cross the river at the old South End Bridge into Springfield. From Springfield the highway would cross the river again into West Springfield center, follow the old Riverdale Road into Holyoke. From there it would follow roughly the same course US-5 follows today to the Oxbow. Once there, the traveler was faced with the choice of braving the shortcut to Northampton along the railroad tracks or following the almost permanent detour sign which directed travelers west into Easthampton. There, travelers could either find an improved highway into Northampton or follow the old colonial road across the Manhan Meadows. As for that shortcut road running adjacent to the railroad, the MHC knew that eventually this road running across the Oxbow would have to be improved. But, it would not be an easy task. The road's proximity to river level meant the road would require a solid foundation. Until it was improved, it was prone to annual flooding and washouts, thus, would always be the weak link in what was to be a major highway in the Valley. Another geographic barrier was the Mill River in Northampton. This river did not pose the problems the Oxbow did, but if one is studying the interplay of geography, flood control, and highway planning, one needs to understand this curious chapter. This topic will be addressed later.

From Northampton center the MHC approved the improvement of the main road to Hatfield, which is today's King Street and North Kings Street. However, near the town line the highway continued north to Whately, not east to Hatfield center as the old colonial road had done. The highway also bypassed Whately center on its way to Deerfield... where it connected back up with the old colonial road into South Deerfield Center. From there the road proceeded north through Old Deerfield Center, and crossed the Deerfield River into Greenfield at Cheapside. The route through Greenfield to Bernardston is the same as today. But, in Bernardston center, the MHC route did not proceed north to Vermont, but east towards Northfield. There it was to connect with a New Hampshire highway to Keene. The MHC justified this move because there was still no improved highway in Vermont to link up with.

Anyone familiar with the current route of US-5 can immediately see there are two major deviations in today's route compared to the original MHC highway. These are in Agawam and Bernardston. Why the changes? Why did the MHC ultimately favor the Longmeadow section that was finished 4 years after the Agawam section of highway? Why did US-5 ultimately go north from Bernardston to Brattleboro instead of following the existing route east to Northfield and on to New Hampshire?

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"US-5: A Highway to History" Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
CHRONOS hourglass logo 1993 CHRONOS Historical Services.