Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

The Road West

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

One thing the Europeans brought to Pennsylvania was roads. Without horses, Native Americans had no use for roads paths sufficed but these trails drew the white men’s maps, for they followed these trails and eventually turned them into roads.

But Lancaster Pike and well as Conshohocken, Conestoga, Swedesford and Whitford Roads all owe their pathways, twisting as they may be, to the trails Lenape used for centuries. They tended to follow ridgelines, and by the late 1600s these trails had at least become bridal paths, if not roads capable of handling an ox cart.

In the 1700’s the road conditions were poor as travel grew heavier; about 30 miles per day was the limit a traveler could go. In 1741 King’s Road, between Philadelphia and Lancaster, was completed. The road has been called the Provincial Road, the Philadelphia Road and Old Lancaster Road. Part of it is presently Swedesford Road.

Following the creation of the United States, the lands to the west were thinly populated. The state adopted generous land policies, distributed free “Donation Lands” to Revolutionary veterans and offered other lands at reasonable prices to actual settlers. People seeking land were moving west, finding fertile lands and creating the need for better transportation to the coast, or civilization.

The idea of a turnpike from Lancaster to Philadelphia was visualized as a road of crushed stone construction and 21 feet wide. This was a technological leap a sophisticated road that could be used even in severe weather and was easier to maintain. It also let vehicles move more quickly, making the economic impact even greater.

Tollgates would be used to collect revenue, making it possible to seek investors who could profit from their investment. Road construction was completed in 1794 and the cost was figured at $464,142.31 for 70 miles of highway. That works out to $6629 a mile and this road popularized the term “turnpike,” which is what we still go through when we travel on the Pennsylvania “Turnpike.”

Tolls were collected at each of nine toll bars, with four in the first 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, where most of the people lived, and travel would be thicker. The tolls ranged up to 50 cents for larger vehicles, and the teamsters grumbled about the high cost of using the road. But in spite of the tollgates, the cost of moving goods decreased and the movement of goods exploded.

Julius F Schse in his book Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Turnpike quotes a traveler in 1795 who made the journey between Lancaster and Philadelphia in two days He attests to the popularity and congestion on the roads, “It is scarcely possible to go one mile on the road without meeting numbers of wagons passing or re-passing,” he says. “The wagons are commonly drawn by four or five horses, four of which are yoked in pairs. The wagons are heavy, the horses small and the drivers unmerciful. Most people travel on horseback with pistols or swords and a large blanket which they use for sleeping in,” this traveler says.

These wagons were mostly Conestoga wagons, which the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers had developed some years before the Revolutionary war. These were the famous wagons built in the Conestoga valley of Lancaster county. It was a unique vehicle that was ideally suited to travel on the unimproved trails of the area and capable of carrying large amounts of cargo.

The wagon, fully loaded could weigh as much as 1.5 to 1.75 tons and were pulled by a team of six horses. They were designed to keep its load from shifting as it traveled up and down the hills of the crude roads of the colonies and territories.

The bed was bowed, so that the load sloped towards the center, as did each side to a lesser extent. This was to keep the load from falling off or shifting. It was easy to avoid shifting and rattling on level surfaces, but once these wagons started through the Allegheny Mountains, there was precious little flat terrain.

The wagons were built of white oak for strength, wood that was aged for three to four years, depending on its purpose. They took four men two or three months to build, and cost $250. They were considered to be a superior design and finely finished. They weren’t really an invention, as other vehicles used similar designs, but the became a symbol for the way west.

According to local historian Bennett Hill, the name Conestoga is pretty popular. “The name Conestoga has been applied to an early Indian group, to a valley, a river to a trail and to a manor and to a breed of horses, not extinct,” he said, referencing the Pennsylvania Historical Society . All of these are identified with Lancaster County and it was the connection between there and Philadelphia that brought the wagons their fame.

Also, a lot of legends sprung up about them. “This was caused the lazy board because the teamsters didn’t ride on the wagon, but walked beside it or, if necessary stood or sat on what came to be called the lazy board which protruded from the left side of the wagon. This is why we drive on the left in America instead of on the right like in Britain,” he says.

Of course to travel between those two spots required traveling through what’s now the Main Line. Since it took a wagon five days an average of 12 miles a day the need for overnight accommodations led to the development of frequent taverns or inns (and towns) along major highways which then became social centers for the exchange of news and other information.

This had two impacts. First, it increased and broadened the population of the Welsh Tract, as new businesses opened to support the travelers. This included stables, inns, blacksmiths and everything necessary to support the people employed by them. Secondly, it created a large number of old inns to turn into many of the Main Line’s finest restaurants and taverns.

Teamsters stayed in specific taverns, and weren’t welcome in those facilities for stage travelers, and drovers those who drove herds to market were further down the line in their own, rather mean, accommodations.

These legends also included some misconceptions. “These were freight wagons, not used at all for passengers,” he says. “The wagon trains of the west look like and were often called Conestoga wagons, but the probably weren’t built in Conestoga so they weren’t authentic. Hill is president of the Radnor Historical Society who own an authentic Conestoga.

But the impact of the travel was tremendous, according to Schse. During the latter part of the first quarter of the century there was on the entire length of the turnpike an almost unbroken procession of the ponderous Conestoga wagons. “Each was drawn by five or six strong horses, which transported all the merchandise destined for the interior, and the extensive travel thus created and concentrated upon the once splendid highway stands without parallel in the history of transportation in the country previous to the introduction of steam power,” he says.

“The extensive travel thus created and concentrated upon this splendid highway stands without parallel in the history of transportation in the country,” Schse concludes.

There was also commercial passenger service between the two “cities.” This was by “stage” coach which was little more than a wagon with three or four wooden benches. Eighteenth Century stages were crude designs. Frederick Marryat in A Diary in America, with Remarks on its Institutions wrote in 1840:

“The American stagecoaches are such as experience has found out to be most suitable to the American roads, and you have not ridden them five miles before you long for the delightful springing of four horses upon the level roads of England. They offer no protection against the rain or snow, both of which find their way in to you. The coach has three seats, to receive nine passengers. But the most disagreeable feeling arises from the body of the coach not being upon springs.

But the newest thing in American transportation technology was the canal. New York’s Erie Canal proved that they could become an economic dream and In the 1790s, Pennsylvania made extensive studies for improving the navigation of all major streams, and canals began to supplement natural waterways. Canals extending the use of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers were chartered before 1815, and the Lehigh Canal was completed in 1838.

The vast system named the State Works of Pennsylvania soon overshadowed privately constructed canals. A route was authorized in 1826 for the eastern portion of an east-west transportation system to compete with the Erie Canal. The Pennsylvania Canal began with a horse-drawn railroad along the “Main Line” from Philadelphia to Columbia on the Susquehanna River.

This route would accommodate larger canal boats hauled in sections from central Philadelphia to the Schuylkill, and then up the Belmont plane inclined railroad on the west side of the Schuylkill, and finally a trip on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to Columbia where another inclined railroad would lower the boats into the Susquehanna River.

The system linked the east and the west by 1834, but the expense nearly made the state financially insolvent. Pennsylvania had reached its maximum of 954 canal miles by 1840, total railroad trackage grew by 1860 to 2,598 miles. In miles of rail and in total capital invested in railroads, Pennsylvania led all other states on the eve of the Civil War. But just as the canal system was implemented, like other technologies, it was outshone by the biggest development of all.


The Conestoga Wagon trip took between four to six weeks to travel between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, depending on conditions. In 1828, canal commissioners were directed to locate and put under contract a railroad through Chester County via Lancaster to Columbia to connect with the Pennsylvania Canal at the expense of the State, and to be styled the “Pennsylvania Railroad”.

John Stevens (John ap Stephen), of Welsh extraction, was the father of the railroad system of the State. In 7 April, 1826 the state incorporated the “Columbia, Lancaster and Philadelphia Rail Road Co.” (which came to be known simply as “the Columbia Railway”). In 1828, the shares in this Company having been sold, the legislature passed an act providing for the constructing of the road. It was opened for traffic in Sep. 1832, but only from Broad and Callowhill Streets, in the Northern Liberties, to Paoli.

The list of advertised stopping points in 1850, by the “Central Pennsylvania,” its successor, also give an idea of the direction of the earlier “Columbia Railway” beyond the river. These were Merion, or Merionville, Libertyville, Athensville, Haverford, Whitehall, West Haverford, Villa Nova, Morgan’s Corner, Eagle, Reesville and Paoli .

Eventually the Columbia railroad, along with other smaller railroads were gathered into what would become the most important railroad in the state, and among the most powerful in the nation — Pennsylvania Railroad. It was chartered April 13, 1846, and completed to Pittsburgh by 1852. By 1860 it had nearly a monopoly on rail traffic from Chicago through Pennsylvania.

But 30 years earlier than that the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad, which was finished in 1834 as part of the State Works, was the first ever built by a government. The road initially used true “horsepower” until the advent of the steam locomotive created as much of a revolution in American as the Internet has done in ours.

Traveling the Way West
A poster advertisement of the “Through Line from Philadelphia to St. Louis,” the “Pioneer Fast Line,” dated Philadelphia, April, 1837, advertised, with pictures of an engine and one passenger car, and a canal boat, drawn by three horses: By Rail Road and Canal Pack through in 31/2 days, and by Steam Boats, carrying the United States Mail, from Pittsburgh to Louisville, starts every morning, from the corner of Board & Race St. In large and splendid eight wheel cars, via Lancaster and Harrisburg Rail Roads, arriving at the latter place, at 4 o’clock, in the afternoon, where passengers will take the Packets, which have all been fitted up in a very superior manner, having been built expressly for the accommodation of Passengers, after the most approved models of Boats used on the Erie Canal, and are not surpassed by the Boats used upon any other Line.

For speed and comfort, this Line is not excelled by any other in the United States. Passengers for Cincinnati, Louisville, Natchez, Nashville, St. Louis, &c. Will always be certain of being taken on without delay, as this Line connects with the Boats at Pittsburgh, carrying the Mail.

Office, N. E. corner of Fourth and Chestnut St. For Seats apply as above, and at No. 200 Market Street; at the White Swan Hotel Race Street; at the N. E. Corner of Third and Willow Street; No. 31 South Third Street, and at the West Chester House, Broad Street.
A. B. Cummings, Agent.

Common Sayings and Terminology Associated With The Conestoga Wagon

1.“Come home with your bells on” – Teamsters would surrender some brass bells in exchange for assistance rendered away from home.

2.“Mind your P’s and Q’s” – Innkeepers kept a record of alcoholic beverages consumed by wagoners on a slate behind the bar in columns marked P for pints and Q for quarts.

3. Driving on the right side of the road with the driver being on the left – American style versus European system.

4. Turnpike – Turning the pike at a toll booth.

5. Stogies – From boots worn by the teamsters; also short for Conestoga – a long thin cigar smoked by the teamsters.

6. Brake shoe – From an old shoe sole nailed to the braking mechanism in front of the rear wheels.

7. Hub caps – Metal covers to prevent mud and dirt from getting into the ale.

8. Buckskins – Common teamster attire gotten from deer.

9. Lazy board – Board that is pulled out from under wagon bed. A driver using it is considered lazy.

10. Jockey stick – Wooden rod extending from breast chain of leader to bit of off-side horse which saves a man or jockey from having to give direction to the home.

11. Jerk Line – A long leather strap called aline, by which the teamster is using short jerks directed his lead horses of animals to the right. A long steady pull on the line indicated they were to turn left. The term reigns was not used with Conestoga teamsters.

12. Stock Exchange – Selling stocks at public auction for building Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike 1792.

13. Piker – probably from “shun-piker” originally meaning a person who used farm roads or other back roads to avoid paying toll.

14. Passing on the left – Conestoga teamsters used work horses with the leader on the left. They passed other vehicles going in the same direction on the left. Henry Ford moved steering wheel to left side about 1909.

15. Sharpshooter – Usually farmers who put their teams on the roads when rates were high or during slack seasons. Sharpshooters on the National Road would try to cover distances of twenty miles a day. The “regulars” traveled from 12 to 15 miles a day.