by D. Scott Molloy

The early turnpikes from Indian trails to tollgates.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, February 1994. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

A road in South Kingstown.

Most public bus routes that crisscross Rhode Island today overlay track beds that once supported electric trolleys and horse cars. Before the railways, the rickety omnibus and its rough and tumble predecessor, the stagecoach, plied these same highways on primitive turnpikes. Post roads, maintained by the state, guided the country's early postal delivery system. The transportation lineage spirals even further back in time to isolated white settlers venturing into Rhode Island hinterlands over frontier bridle paths. But the transportation matrix does not stop here either. Before the arrival of white European settlers, Native Americans had developed a system of paths through the forests of the Narragansett Bay region.

The primitive pathways

A Pequot trail snaked out of the South Main Street area of Providence to outlying districts as far away as the neighboring colonies of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Roger Williams, Rhode Island's founder, was so impressed by the engineering of the Narragansetts in South County that he described their seventeenth-century transportation web as being "as hard and firm as any roads in England." To a degree these primitive pathways, some six to ten feet wide, parallel the modern interstate highway systems of Routes 95 and 195 that connect Rhode Island to the rest of the world today. Some of the intrastate routes, with only minor variations, can trace a pedigree from these silent Indian trails to the congested routes of lumbering Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses four centuries later.

During the first two hundred years of Rhode Island's development, many of its citizens looked to the sea as a way to travel and make a living. Canoes, sloops, ships, and other wooden vessels slipped out from a hundred points along the indented coast of the "Ocean State," carrying travelers and goods to places far and near.

Fresh water and waterfalls

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the state began an economic transformation that no longer required a maritime compass. Colonial entrepreneurs slowly abandoned chancy international sea trade. The manufacturing experiments of Samuel Slater and Moses Brown created an opening for the English Industrial Revolution in America. The success of Slater's Mill in Pawtucket created a modest industrial hub in the Blackstone Valley. Many investors now turned the navigator's eyepiece, not seaward, but inland along the many streams that flowed into the Narragansett Basin. Fresh water and waterfalls, not salt water and sea winds, would churn Rhode Island's next economic gale.

As early as the seventeenth century a string of ferries provided direct crossings over salt-water barriers. As technology developed and the wealth of the colony increased, bridges slowly replaced the shorter ferry routes. The new industrial workshops, however, required a land-based system of transportation to service the factories that dotted the inland waterways. A web of turnpikes and roads threaded their way across the state's industrial valleys connecting mills to markets and supplies. For isolated village factories, a turnpike to the port of Providence was a lifeline. The growth of mills actually increased traffic on Narragansett Bay. Turnpike corporations, often subscribed to by local cotton merchants, petitioned for state charters to build private toll roads.

Visionary Zachariah Allen

Turnpikes began in Rhode Island in the 1790s and initially pushed toward border markets in Massachusetts and Connecticut. After the turn of the nineteenth century, over a dozen such roads connected Providence with its hinterlands, especially in the northern and western parts of the state where many of the textile mills were located. Zachariah Allen, the visionary textile manufacturer, built his mills in North Providence and Smithfield close to existing turnpikes. Samuel Slater invested $40,000 in turnpike stock partially to enhance his own textile interests.

Turnpike owners imposed various fees for the passage of animals, vehicles or freight. The Providence and Boston Turnpike, chartered in 1800, was the busiest in the state. A horseman paid six cents; a wagon was charged twelve cents; and a single pig cost a penny with a one-third discount for a herd of ten or more. Local residents influenced passage of state legislation to exempt them from paying a fee when traveling to religious services, a mill, or a town meeting.

End of a golden age

The golden age of the turnpike in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, spanned the decade before and after the War of 1812. The state or local towns eventually took over most roads, especially during the generation between 1853 and 1873. In 1864 the Rhode Island General Assembly authorized turnpike and toll bridge corporations to sell their property to the government. The nine remaining franchises soon passed out of the realm of private enterprise.

One corporation that dragged on for almost a century was the Glocester-West Glocester turnpike. At its decrepit demise in 1888, it was allegedly the last remaining road with tollgates in the nation. [Toll roads came back into fashion in the late 1940s; most of the nation's present turnpikes were built in the 1950s and '60s —Ed.] Stockholders were glad to get what they could for the profitless roads especially, after the introduction of the railroad. Historian George Rogers Taylor, in his influential work, The Transportation Revolution, maintained that the toll roads were mostly obsolete before trains made an appearance. The Providence-Pawtucket route was a profitable exception, serving as a link between the two cities and as a gateway to Boston. Taken over by the state in 1833, the road brought in over $4,000 a year. It became a "free" way in 1869.

D. Scott Molloy is a professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. A former bus driver for RIPTA, he is the author of Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line, and an Images of America book entitled All Aboard: The History of Mass Transportation in Rhode Island. As a member of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee he educates the public about the role of Irish immigrants in Rhode Island labor history. 10,000 pieces from his extensive collection of labor movement memorabilia are preserved in the Smithsonian.

More Mass Transit in Rhode Island...

Part 2: The stagecoach era; symbol of rapid transportation in 1815
Part 3: The omnibus, a crucial urban link
Part 4: Rhode Island's first horsecar, Providence to Pawtucket
Part 5: Horsecar workers
Part 6: Horsecar drivers and customers
Part 7: The first Rhode Island trolleys: Woonsocket and Newport
Part 8: New England's only cable car, the Providence Cable Tramway: the struggle on 'Quality Hill'
Part 9: The Providence Cable Tramway becomes a reality
Part 10: The first trolley in Providence, 1892

This article last edited August 7, 2015

© 1999–2021 (with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted).