The Maine Turnpike (that never was)

There’s a lot of news in today’s paper regarding the proposed increase to the tolls of the Maine Turnpike system, and of course, nobody is in favor or raising the rates, except for the Maine Turnpike board. I don’t like the idea myself, but when the alternatives are considered, they really do not look that bad in a retrospective manner. Roadways cost money to maintain, and since the turnpike adds extra value beyond the other roadways of which we could choose to travel to get from Kittery to Augusta and beyond…well, from you can figure it out from there. We can pay the toll and get from the New Hampshire border to our state capitol in a couple of hours on the turnpike, or we can wind our way up US route 1, and head up route 201 from Brunswick or route 27 in Wiscasset. Either choice will add at least two to three hours of scrambling through traffic an what seems like an endless journey of pothole dancing. It is your choice.

Peter Vigue of the Cianbro Corp. wants to build and establish an east-west highway, literally cutting Maine in half with a corridor meant to support Canadian traffic going from New Brunswick to Quebec. It will be a toll road of course, built with private funding to be repaid with the tolls collected from that roadway. Is it a good idea for Maine? I think it is a great idea, and have no problem with the concept. I might have a problem with some of the details of the project, but I haven’t seen any details as yet. So, what is the big thing with these toll roads, and why do they have such an effect on Maine as a state?

The impact of transportation on any localized society or community can make or break that community. The lack of quick and inexpensive transportation can bury a community in the past, relegating it to a slow and painful death as businesses that provide employment leave the area, followed by those people who no longer have employment. In past years, as we look at the history of Maine we can see how the lumber and fishing industries created communities based upon localized need, fed by localized material and available assets. As those assets have declined, those areas lost opportunities to other communities that were situated in such a way that they could take advantage of the aspect of available transportation. Backwoods communities died off and some have even vanished completely as other communities grew.

Turnpikes, or toll roads as some prefer to call them, have been a great boon to those communities that lie along their pathway. Unfortunately, they have also been the death of many communities that do not lie along their pathway. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, entirely dependent upon ones point of view of the past, as well as the future. There have actually been many toll roads or turnpikes in Maine’s history, most of them having been fairly short-lived, and none permanent entities. The Maine Turnpike has been the only exception to that statement, of course. Perhaps it is time to take a different view of our highway system here in Maine.

However, to get to the point of this posts title, the Maine Turnpike Authority we know of today is not the first cadre of highwaymen authorized by judicial means in the state. Way back before we were known as the state of Maine, our trustees by way of the Massachusetts legislature of the time granted an incorporation known as the Maine Turnpike Association. Its purpose was to build and maintain a roadway, paid for by tolls of course, that would stretch from the New Hampshire border in Kittery, thence to Portland and then on to Augusta, in as straight a line as possible. The act was approved in January of 1803, and in spite of much chest thumping and bragging by the proprietors of the corporation, the little bird never left the nest and not one shovel of earth was turned over to build the turnpike.

In spite of the lack of completion of the project, the concept of a roadway to what would become our state capitol still managed to pervade the thoughts of planners along the seacoast communities. If you pay close attention to roadmaps that have been compiled over the years, you can see that what now is known as US route 1 travels over a fairly straight route until it reaches the mid-coast area and veers away from our capitol to follow the coastline to Calais. That same route is very nearly the route suggested way back in 1802.

According the legislative record of this act forming the corporation, the following lays out what the turnpike is supposed to look like:

…shall be a Corporation by the name and [and] style of The Maine Turnpike Association, with all the powers and privileges usually given and belonging to similar Corporations, for the purpose of laying out, making & keeping in repair a turnpike road from the line of the State of New Hampshire to Portland, and from thence to Augusta Bridge, upon as straight a line as circumstances will admit; and erecting and keeping in repair such Bridge or Bridges as may be necessary on said route, which turnpike road shall not be less than four rods wide, and the part to be travelled on not less than twenty four feet in width, in any part thereof; and when said Road or any ten miles thereof shall be sufficiently made…then the said Turnpike Corporation shall be authorized to erect Turnpike gates turnpike Gate or Gates on the said Road, at such place or places as the said Committee, of the said Court of Sessions, and the said Corporation shall judge necessary and convenient, for collecting the Toll, Provided that no turnpike Gate be erected on, or any Toll demanded on any part of the present travelled Roads; the said Gates to be not less than ten miles distant from each other…

And of course, tolls were allowed to be collected and the rates approved by the legislature were:

…shall be entitled to receive of each traveler or passenger at each of the said Gates, the following rates of Toll, For each Coach, Phaeton, Chariot or other four wheel carriage, drawn by two Horses twenty five cents; and if drawn by more than two horses, an additional sum of four cents for each Horse; for every Cart or Wagon drawn by two Horses or oxen ten cents, and if drawn by more than two horses or oxen, an additional sum of three cents for each Horse or Ox, for every curricle fifteen cents; for every chaise, chair or other carriage drawn by one horse twelve cents; for every man and horse six cents; for every Sled or Sleigh drawn by two oxen or horses nine cents, and if drawn by more than two oxen or horses, an additional sum of two cents for each ox or horse; for every sled or sleigh drawn by one horse eight cents; for all horses, mules, oxen, or neat cattle, led or driven, besides those in teams or carriages one cent each; for all sheep or swine at the rate of six cents, for one dozen…

That is a fair amount of difference from today’s rates, but in reality the rates proposed was essentially equivalent to today’s rates when you calculate the differences in the cost of living and the real value of the economy. Fees may have been pennies compared to today’s dollars, but you have to remember that if you earned a dollar a week in those days, you were getting paid a pretty good wage.

There were other regulations and rules presented in the act, and it was approved on March 3 of 1803. Needless to say, this Maine Turnpike Association never got it together. But there were many turnpikes that were built, and I’ll get into them in other posts. The concept of paying tolls for a highway has become an unwanted requirement in exchange for the convenience they provide, but what we forget is the impact that these roadways have had upon our history.

Categories: history, Maine, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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