Traveling on Ohio’s early roads proved difficult


It wasn’t that long ago that it was impossible to cross Ohio at a speed of 65 to 70 mph.

In the years leading up to the completion of the interstate highway system in the mid to late 20th century, most traffic moved considerably more slowly.

It hadn’t always been that way.

Ed Lentz

In the early days of the state’s history, most roads were little more than openings of dirt into the wilderness, following ancient animal herd trails and Native American trails. The growth of traffic and commerce in the new state led to a call for better roads. The best roads in the early 1800s included “corduroy roads” in which entire trees were cut, split, and laid side by side to traverse muddy or swampy spots.

City dwellers have become even more creative.

The Nicholson “wood block system” was used in downtown Columbus and involved paving High Street with brick-like wood blocks laid side by side on a bed of gravel. With a little wind, rain and bad weather, the wooden blocks split, warped and broke. It was not a pretty sight.

The thrifty Germans south of Columbus were wiser and made their streets and sidewalks of brick. This system has proven to be more sustainable and has been adopted throughout the city. Other cities in the Midwest have also developed brick streets. The brick streets remain a must-see today in the German village. But bricks tend to be tough on automotive springs and shocks and are a challenge when driving after a snow or ice storm. And they are expensive. Over time, many brick and cobblestone streets have been replaced with much cheaper macadamized asphalt.

But it took a long time.

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Until the early 1900s, many roads across Ohio were still muddy on rainy days, dusty on dry days, and virtually impassable on really rough days.

There were exceptions. The most remarkable was the national road. Begun in 1811, the great road was wide and durable with a massive layer of gravel on a prepared bed and stone bridges crossed numerous streams and rivers. The National Highway reached Columbus in 1831 and helped open the then small capital to new markets in new locations.

Canals and railroads also opened up Columbus and Ohio to the outside world. But the real change in the roads of Ohio came with the advent of the bicycle, then the automobile. Automobiles had been around since the late 1800s. But they tended to be expensive, unpredictable, and toys for the wealthy or the truly devoted. Some of the early cars ran on gasoline. One of the first notable cars – the Stanley Steamer – literally ran on steam.

But the man who changed the car and arguably the world was Henry Ford. With the advent of the Ford Model T – “in any color you want as long as it’s black” – Ford has produced a cheap automobile. Charles Kettering of Dayton was instrumental in his invention of autonomous and reliable headlights. Soon many women, as well as men, were driving – and demanding better roads.

In short, they got them. From the early 1900s and through much of the following decades of prosperity, depression, and war, Ohio used federal, state, and local money to build a paved road network across the state.

In the years after WWII, a road trip was a kind of adventure that was usually an adventure. For one thing, it was considerably slower than the trip is today. National and state roads were well paved and generally well maintained. But they were and still are two-lane roads. Getting behind a truck or slowpoke could lengthen a trip considerably.

And the cars of that time were not air conditioned. Driving in the summer, even with all the windows down, can be a stifling experience and invariably an invitation to smelly motion sickness and a stop somewhere along the way.

If lucky, a nearby state roadside park would provide a table, a well with a hand pump, and sometimes an outhouse. These parks at one time could be found in many places across the state. Today there are only a few left – usually with only the grass and the table. State rest areas along major highways and commercial sites at interchanges have taken their place.

For all of this, traveling on Ohio’s back roads was generally interesting. Traveling at an average speed of 35 mph meant it took twice as long to go anywhere as it does today. But it also meant that one would see a bit more of the countryside and small towns that had not yet been bypassed by new four-lane highways.

It’s an Ohio that’s always there for the traveler who wants to take the time to watch.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for This week’s community news and The Columbus Dispatch.

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