Jonathan Yardley

Eric Jaffe's "The King's Best Highway" reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE KING'S BEST HIGHWAY

The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America

By Eric Jaffe

Scribner. 322 pp. $27.50

What eventually became known as the Post Road from Boston to New York -- or, if you lived at the New York end of it, as the Boston Post Road -- began in the early 17th century as a primitive trail that enabled Bostonians to trade with Indians and to expand the growing city's limits to the west and southwest. It began as an "ordinary way" but soon enough was transformed into what Eric Jaffe calls "the cohesive 'King's best highway,' " a road "that, a century later, steered post riders and stagecoaches; a road that, two centuries later, guided the railroad tracks that carried the Industrial Revolution; a road that, three centuries later, inspired the need for, and the location of, interstate expressways."

That it was an important thoroughfare is a given; that it was "the route that made America," as Jaffe's subtitle insists, is a preposterous claim. This hyperbole may not be Jaffe's fault but that of someone in his publisher's offices who aimed to sell a few more copies through the process of inflation. Not so long ago book publishers liked to insist that new releases were "in the tradition of" whatever bestseller or prize-winner to which they could be compared. Now they have taken to slapping ever more prolix subtitles on their books, often claiming that the subject of the book "changed the world" or, in this case, that the Post Road "made America." No intelligent reader (and fortunately The Washington Post has many such) needs to be told that no single person or thing "made" the country in the sense that Henry Ford made the Model T.

Leaving aside such silliness, "The King's Best Highway" is an earnest if only intermittently engaging account of the Post Road's history. Jaffe, who has worked at Smithsonian magazine and elsewhere, writes competent if occasionally stilted prose ("So he used his travel time, did Lincoln, to tailor certain points for his upcoming audience"). But he has been unable to meet the challenge posed by his subject: how to fashion narrative tension out of a story that really isn't a story at all but a compendium. Especially in what is offered as a work of popular history for a general readership, a writer needs to find a way to keep the reader's attention, and this Jaffe simply hasn't done.

My regret that this is not a more successful book is colored by personal history. The early years of my boyhood were spent not far outside New York City, and my father -- who had a deep knowledge of and love for American history -- seized every opportunity to drive the Boston Post Road and often took his small family on auto trips into Westchester County and Connecticut, trips that were mixtures of sightseeing and history lessons. By the early 1940s, the road was a congested mess, but to him it still evoked the colonists laboring to create a nation out of unspoiled wilderness, with the result that for me the phrase "Boston Post Road" has always had a quality that can only be called magical.

Whatever the shortcomings of his narrative, Jaffe has done a workmanlike job of assembling the story's pieces and putting them in order. The Post Road can be seen as a rough American equivalent of the Great Wall of China, i.e., not a carefully planned and constructed creation but one put together higgledy-piggledy, with pieces here and there that sometimes connected and sometimes did not. "The old highway has endured so many transmutations over the years," Jaffe writes, "that it becomes nearly impossible to give it a single meaningful name." It was, in fact, two loosely assembled roads: "A northern, or inland branch, led west from Boston to Springfield, then down along the Connecticut River through Hartford to New Haven. A southern, or coastal branch, led south from Boston to Providence, then along the shore of Long Island Sound, also to New Haven. From there both branches unified en route to New York."

The road(s) gained a name and a larger purpose in 1673, when "America's first regular mail carrier began his journey up the Highway from the southern tip of Manhattan toward Boston, under explicit instructions to stop first at the Hartford home of John Winthrop Jr.," where, according to the Postmaster's Oath of Fidelity, he was to "receive the best Direction how to forme the best Post-Road." The mail was the glue that held together the small cities and tiny settlements of Colonial America, and over the century that followed the Post Road's inaugural run, its importance grew ever greater, as more efficient systems of delivery were established and as carriers began to deliver newspapers that carried news of discontent, and then revolution, and then of a new nation. In picturing this system at work, though, disabuse yourself of any notion that the Post Road resembled roads as we know them now:

"Methods of road maintenance -- or, as one contemporary called it, 'road destroying' -- had advanced little since colonial times. Some stretches of road were nicely covered in gravel, but dirt highways remained the norm. Oxen dragged plows over the path. Large stones were plucked out by hand. The rest of the loose soil was piled into the center with the idea that travelers, over time, would tamp down the mounds into even strips of earth. No great tool yet existed for uprooting tree stumps. More likely those called out to work on the roads used the stumps as natural seats for taking frequent breaks, for drinking rum, or as the starting line for the spontaneous foot races that characterized a hefty chunk of a good Road day's work."

Improvements in the road's surface began in the 1780s thanks to Levi Pease, dubbed by one newspaper as "Father of the New England Roads," who began stagecoach service along the route. This led to innumerable improvements, resulting in "a faster, safer and more efficient" system. Better roads encouraged the development of industry, since they made it easier to transport raw materials and finished goods, but by the 1830s they had serious competition from railroads, which grew along the Post Road route at an astonishing rate and quickly became the dominant means of transportation. They remained that until the early 20th century, when the rise of the automobile changed everything.

The way had been paved (literally) for the automobile by the "good roads" movement led by Albert Pope, a bicycle manufacturer who lobbied for road improvements and was remarkably successful in securing them. By the 1890s a consensus had begun to emerge that the federal government must have a role in highway planning and construction, so when the car came along, the means to meet its voracious demands were in place. From the 1920s until the '50s the Post Road grew ever more outmoded even as it grew ever more congested. Indeed, "between the World Wars no highway in America carried more traffic than the Boston Post Road," so when World War II ended, improving it became an urgent priority.

Now, of course, much of the Post Road is U.S. Route 1, nudging stop-and-go traffic through southern Connecticut at an exhilarating 20 mph on a good day, far worse on a bad one. The delivery truck in the lane next to you is as likely to be from UPS or FedEx as from the Postal Service, but the old route still carries the mail, which these days is far more likely to be junk than incendiary newspapers. Onward and upward we go.


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