The key to Rome's success as a conquering empire, it has been said, lay not only in its armies, but in the Roman roads that carried those armies -- in all sorts of weather -- to continual conquest.
Some of those roads survive today.
The same -- perhaps thankfully -- cannot be said of the earliest roads in central Ohio.
Those roads, when they existed at all, were little more than dirt paths through the forest, used first by animal herds, then by the people who followed them. An early account described frontier travel in more detail:
"The original explorers either took their course by the compass, followed the principal rivers and their tributaries, or traveled in the paths beaten by the deer, the bison and the Indian. When the avant-couriers of the pioneer host varied from these paths, they marked their routes by the barking or girdling of trees. No routes for wheeled travel having been opened, most of the merchandise for the early settlements was transported on the backs of horses, oxen and mules.
"The packsaddle of yore was the express car of the backwoods, carrying passengers, freight and mails. Packhorses were often driven in lines of ten or twelve. Each horse was tied to the tail of the one going before, so that one driver could manage a whole line. The pack or burden of a single animal was about two hundred pounds weight."
With the growth of villages and towns in the years of early settlement following the opening of the Northwest Territory, paths began to become actual byways as roads were surveyed, first from frontier Franklinton and then from Columbus to Lancaster, Newark, Springfield and Worthington, among other places.
"But necessarily," as an early history explains, "most of the wilderness roads continued to be for many years ... after they first opened, of a most rudimentary character. For neighborhood convenience, forest paths and private lanes were made to suffice. During the early infancy of the Columbus borough its wheels and pedestrians took their way by the shortest routes and most solid ground they could find among the stumps and brushheaps."
To many Ohioans, the key to prosperity was better transportation. Western politicians, such as Henry Clay, touted an "American system" of roads, canals and river improvements to link the Midwest to the East and South. Financed by public and private funds at the national and state levels, some of these projects, such as the National Road and Ohio's canal system, were completed.
But most were not, and residents, frustrated by the lack of good roads, determined that if government would not pay for a road, the road would have to pay for itself. Privately financed roads that charged a toll for travel had been around for thousand of years. The nominal name for most of these roads was "turnpike," because in early days, a pike or staff blocked the road at a tollgate. When the toll was paid, the pike was turned aside.
In the 1820s and 1830s, Ohio became infatuated with turnpikes. Many were proposed; some of them were built. The completed roads included the Lancaster, Carroll, Pickerington and National Road Turnpike; the Columbus and Worthington Plank Road; the Cleveland and Portsmouth Turnpike; the Columbus and Harrisburg Turnpike; and Columbus turnpikes to Johnstown, Sunbury, Granville, Cottage Mills and Blendon Township.
Probably the best-known turnpike of this era was the Columbus and Sandusky Turnpike. Begun in 1826, the turnpike used public and private money in its construction with toll gates every few miles. Proposed to be an all-weather road, the turnpike was in reality a wide path of packed dirt.
It was not an easy road to use and soon became intensely disliked. When the Ohio General Assembly revoked the charter for the road in 1843, some residents took great pleasure in tearing down the only tollgate left in Franklin County.
Even with all of the new construction, the condition of roads was deplorable.
In 1839, S. P. McElvain left Delaware for a Whig Party rally in Columbus, hoping to reach the capital city the following day:
"The vehicle was drawn by four horses, but dragged slowly and heavily most of the way, nearly hub deep in the mire. It reached Worthington at four o'clock pm and did not arrive in Columbus until one o'clock the following morning. Rain fell throughout the day of the convention, and High Street ... was ankle deep in mud."
Things did not improve much with time. On March 2, 1863, a local paper noted that "the country roads in the vicinity of Columbus are in a terrible condition and have been so for some time back."
It is not hard to see why the canals, rivers and railroads were so popular. On any of them, one could move without mud.
Answers for these problems eventually arrived. Using crushed gravel, macadamization had formed stable roadbeds since the 1820s. Over most of the first half of the 1900s, most of the dirt and gravel roads of any importance would become paved roads.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.