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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In the late 1800s a national "good roads" movement was born. It grew out of many urgent (and many not so urgent) needs and, thus, was ultimately supported by broad segments of the population. One of the strongest arguments made by the "good road" advocates on the national level was that improved roads would reduce the isolation of many rural residents.

It may be difficult for those of us today who live in rural areas to relate to the situation faced by those who lived on rural farms a century ago. Today, with satellite TV, radio, the telephone, newspapers and magazines, and yes... even the Internet, it's rather easy to keep in touch with the world around us. Rural residents also enjoy a high degree of mobility. Not only is car ownership nearly universal, but also there are plenty of good roads for us to drive on. Many rural residents do not even mind a 20-30 mile commute to jobs in the larger population centers.

But, in the late 1800s, despite the fact that the availability of mail, telephone, electric, were taken for granted in cities (which is not to say most could afford the latter two), these services were not available to isolated rural families. If one wanted their mail or a newspaper, they might have to travel miles to the nearest town on roads that were often impassable many months of the year. To help alleviate this problem, the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) system was created.

There were others besides advocates for isolated rural residents involved in the "good roads" movement. Aside from farmers who wanted to bring goods to market, there were drivers of recreational carriages, bicyclists, and eventually motorists, all eager to venture past the city limits into the countryside without breaking an axle in a rut or getting bogged down in mud. Local merchants also demanded better roads in order to attract steady customers from outside of town... maybe even outside the region.

The situation they faced was this: by the late 1800s here in Massachusetts most city streets were already paved with either cobblestone or brick. The condition of roads outside the city cores was another story. Despite the best efforts by the counties, the condition of roads between towns was generally abysmal.

In the pursuit of "good roads" there were some less expensive road improvement alternatives to brick and cobblestone. They included gravel and water-bound macadam, which is not a pavement in the modern sense.

The first step in road construction after layout plans are drawn is dealing with drainage problems. Once solved, the next step was the building of a solid foundation layer, usually made of large rocks. A road's foundation must be solid enough so the road surface above will not sag and crumble. To accomplish this the foundation must first suit the terrain. If the terrain is wet, a foundation may have to be especially thick. A foundation must also be designed to stand up to the heaviest traffic load expected on the highway.

In a water-bound macadam road, crushed, coarse stones were laid upon the foundation, and then covered with finer layers of ground traprock. The top layer was bound with a watery clay binder. During construction all of these layers most likely were compressed with a steamroller. The resulting dense foundation layer was able to withstand the traffic of the day and the surface layer provided a somewhat smooth surface that was able to shed water.


The year 1893 may be pivotal for several reasons. One reason is that Chicopee's Duryea brothersí Springfield-built car first appeared, heralding the dawn of new motor age. The year also marked the beginnings of systematic state and federal government involvement in creating and maintaining roads.


The federal government passed legislation for an experimental program to improve rural mail delivery. This program was called Rural Free Delivery (RFD). Since the Post Office had stipulated that rural mail delivery would only be established along reasonably good roads, there was increased public pressure on local governments to improve their existing road systems. The RFD program grew rapidly in the next ten years. By 1903 there were nearly 8600 mail carriers involved traveling 200,000 miles a day, serving nearly 5 million people.

In 1893 the Congress also passed the Agricultural Appropriations Act. Sections of the Act required the Secretary of Agriculture to "make inquiries in regard to the systems of road management throughout the United States... to make investigations in regard to the best methods of road making... and to assist the agricultural college and experimental stations in disseminating information on the subject..." The new Office of Road Inquiries (ORI) implemented this mandate. The Office was specifically restricted to research and information dissemination. It was forbidden from seeking to influence or control road policy in the states or counties.

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"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
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