The Turnpike Era

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
March 9, 2021

The Turnpike Era dawned in the US in the early years of the 19th century. At the time, the average speed for stage coaches north of the Potomac River was a measly 4 mph. Constructing well-maintained turnpikes offered the potential benefit of lowering the cost of goods, easing their transportation, and increasing access to schools and churches for the general population. Of paramount importance locally, however, was the capacity to transport the products of Northern New Jersey and Pennsylvania farms and mines to major markets, namely New York City.

1832 way bill for a stage coach from Morristown to New York. Stage coach companies, a major source of income for turnpike company’s, had what was essentially an early form of EZ Pass. They signed annual contracts with turnpike companies and made quarterly or semi-annual payments based on the number of trips and type of vehicles so as not to have to stop at every toll.

The Morris Turnpike, chartered in 1801, was the first in the state. It was built in three sections: the first ran from Elizabeth-Town to Morristown, the second from Succasunna to Stanhope, and the third on to Newton. Additional turnpikes such as The Union Turnpike from Morristown to Sparta via Dover (1804), the Washington Turnpike from Morristown to the Delaware River via Mendham and Schooley’s Mountain (1806), the Newark Pompton Turnpike (1806), and the Parsippany & Rockaway Turnpike soon followed. They were not necessarily paved (many weren’t), but were often more direct than the meandering public roads then in existence. They got their names from the “pikes” or bars suspended across the road that would be “turned” upon payment of tolls. Set up at regular intervals, travelers sometimes dodged these tollgates by taking byways known as “shun pikes”. The penalty for being caught doing this, however, was three times the cost of the toll.

A section of the Morris Turnpike still exists in Randolph. Photo courtesy of Robert Weissman.

The craze for building toll roads in New Jersey was prodigious. Between 1801 and 1829, 51 turnpike companies were incorporated, of which 30 built roads, covering over 550 miles (almost exclusively in Northern NJ). However, new fads loomed on the horizon. Canals, later usurped by railroads, had far greater capacity to move goods and people, and their construction caused more and more turnpike companies to fail. With the opening of the Morris Canal in 1831 the sun set on NJ’s brief, but bright Turnpike Era.

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