Journalist and first-time author Jaffe travels the fabled stretch of road connecting New York and Boston.
The Boston Post Road, writes the author, is best envisioned as “a lasso tossed from Manhattan toward the Bay, its knot landing at New Haven, wrangling southern New England.” With a purpose larger than pinpointing a particular path, he tells a three-pronged tale about transportation, commerce and communication that stretches over four centuries. Jaffe examines the ancient Indian footpaths followed by colonial messengers who wore a trail through the wilderness sufficiently established to support regular mail service by 1673. The muddy, rutted paths had by 1789 become a “loosely pebbled splendor” later trumped by turnpikes and expressways. The “King’s best highway,” once the conduit for quill-penned letters and newspapers that galvanized the American Revolution, by the 1990s featured cell-phone towers above and fiber optic wires beneath. Famous names—Winthrop, Franklin, Adams, Washington, Revere, Lincoln, FDR, P.T. Barnum—figure prominently here, but most interesting are the sketches of lesser-known characters who contributed to the highway’s legend. These include Levi Pease, the stagecoach entrepreneur and “Father of the New England Roads”; Samuel Slater and Francis Lowell, whose carding machines and power looms fueled the Northeastern industrial explosion; Albert Pope, bicycle manufacturer and agitator for better roads and highway reform; Hiram Maxim, who engineered Pope’s bicycles into horseless carriages that briefly turned the area into the world’s automotive center; and Lester Barlow, whose revolutionary idea for expressways transformed the corridor forever. Jaffe provides revealing anecdotes about the postal service’s emergence, the vogue for turnpikes, the region’s short-lived canal fever, the Boston-New York rivalry, the underrated importance of the bicycle craze, the railroad empire’s rise and fall and the political battles pitting people against highways.
An unusual, often delightful piece of cultural history.