From Cowpaths to Highways – A Two Hundred & Fifty Year Journey

Part Two of the Historical Society of Easton’s Series on Transportation in Easton. Our Easton in the Service Series will resume in July.

Prior to the Town of Fairfield’s purchase of approximately 52,000 acres of land from Native Americans during the 1660’s, the land that now comprises Easton was unsettled. The early colonial families from Britain were mostly a sociable lot, mainly divided only by their particular brand of Christianity. They weren’t inclined to head off into Connecticut’s hinterlands in search of better farmlands than could be had closer to the coast where there were established churches and merchants to trade amongst. It was the division of the newly acquired long lots that began the interior expansion of Fairfield, and much of that expansion was slow to materialize. What is now the Town of Easton consisted of fifty of the original long lots that were awarded to the land holding families of Fairfield based upon the size of their taxable estates in 1681. While all the lots were similar in depth (about ten full miles), the width was determined by the relative wealth of the original grantees. Nathan Gold was awarded the widest parcel at 879 feet, while orphaned sisters Phoebe and Deborah Barlow received the narrowest strip of land at only 31 feet. Access to these lots would be by a series of upright highways that were bounded by the Stratford Town Line on the east and the Mile Common on the west. A total of five upright (north-south) highways in what would become today’s Easton were surveyed in 1714 and the rights-of-way mapped out for their eventual construction. The Stratford Town Line Highway (today’s North & South Park Avenues) had a 99-foot right-of-way, followed by Jackson’s Highway (Sport Hill Road) at 74-feet, Morehouse Highway at 83-feet, Wilson Highway with only a 51-foot right-of-way and Burr Highway with 99-feet. Morehouse, Wilson, and Burr were never fully constructed, nor ever regularly maintained along their entire length, and some of the rights-of-way in the original grants were either abandoned or exchanged for alternate ones during the 19th century.

Sport Hill Road heading north by Union Cemetery c.1930

While the town granted the rights-of-way for these highways, it didn’t provide much in the way of funds for their construction. The surveyors were tasked with gathering enough men – generally the property owners who would benefit from those roads – to cut the pathways that would provide access to the land. Initial roads were not roads at all, the land was simply cleared of enough trees to allow livestock and ox drawn carts access to the interior. These “cowpaths” were often strewn with stumps and large rocks, making travel slow and tedious whenever carts or wagons were involved. Maintenance was non-existent at first, and bridges were slow in coming; usually built at the expense of those who benefited most from their construction. Luckily, the upright highways had very few river crossings that required actual bridging to be passable for most of the year. The earliest bridges weren’t much more than felled tree trunks bound together to span the waterways, often only used when the rivers were running high and too deep to safely ford with an ox drawn cart. They were prone to wash away during spring floods and rapid ice melts and were replaced much more often than their European counterparts.

Settlement of the North Fairfield Parrish (Easton) was rather slow in coming. East-west travel was mostly non-existent during the first quarter of the 18th century. There were a few cowpaths and old Native American trails, but nothing in the way of actual roads. In 1724, the first three of what would become the five cross highways in Easton were surveyed and laid out. The first cross highway ran along what would now be Congress Street and Jefferson. The second cross highway ran west from the Stratford line across Flat Rock Road, Beers Road and North Street. The third was essentially made up of Adams Road, Center Road and Westport Road.

Ten years later, the fourth and fifth cross highways were surveyed. Number-four closely followed today’s Church Road, then north on Sport Hill Road to Silver Hill Road. From there it ran west where in connected to Black Rock Turnpike and then south until it then turned west again over Freeborn Hill. The fifth cross highway ran west across Rock House Road and then connected to Den Road where it continued to Valley Forge in Weston. The latter two cross highways appear to more closely follow trails that were already established when they were surveyed.

North Fairfield long lots and highways with dates on a map overlay done by Stuart Reeve for the 2009 Historical and Archeological Assessment of Easton

By the mid-1700’s, the population had grown large enough to require at least a minimum amount of road maintenance. Road surveyors were again tasked with recruiting – willing or not – local men to repair the roads. Failure to appear for roadwork resulted in a trip before the local justice of the peace. While most of the recalcitrants were given a stiff warning in lieu of a fine, they were also then required to report for road duty. This occurred during two time periods each season: late April through early June and mid-September through mid-October.

By the early 1800’s, the area boasted some of the worst roads in Connecticut. Easton was then part of Weston and in 1801, the town passed a tax of one cent on every dollar of assessed property to be specifically used to repair the town’s roads.

It wasn’t enough.

In December of 1802, the levy was raised to three cents per dollar. The tax could be paid in either currency or labor. The spring labor rate was set at sixty-seven cents per day for a man and his tools. If he chose, in addition to his labor, to supply “a yoke of oxen, cart and chains, or a plow, he would be paid one dollar and thirty-four cents.” Those rates dropped to fifty cents per day for labor and tools, or one dollar for the man and his oxen during the fall season. Timbers needed for bridges were directed to be purchased by the surveyors and they then were reimbursed by the town.

Morehouse Highway looking south from Center Road c.1907

During the first half of the 19th century, several private corporations were established and granted charters for the establishment of privately held turnpikes supported by tolls. A definite financial relief for the town, but not particularly popular with the general populace. Several of these turnpikes operated in Easton during that time span. Sport Hill Road, Valley Road, parts of Black Rock Turnpike, Westport Road, and the main road (current State Route 59) to Monroe were all supported by tolls. One by one, these companies began to falter and the roads were then taken over by either the state or the town during the middle to late 1800’s.

Road improvements remained a problem for the town. In 1890, the town began macadamizing sections of Black the Rock Turnpike. During its 1895 session, the Connecticut Legislature passed an act to provide improvements of the public roads. In 1896 the State of Connecticut first provided the funds for macadamizing Sport Hill Road. Macadam is a surface of single-sized crushed stone layered in shallow rows and then thoroughly compacted to produce a uniform hard surface. A binding layer of stone dust is then applied and rolled so that the stones remain bound together to survive rain and snow.

State maintained roads were the first to see pavement in Easton. Such as it was anyway. Early hard surfaced roads in town were covered with a mixture of oily tar and sand. If you are old enough to remember this miserable process, enough said. If you’re not, suffice it to say that it was an environmental nightmare with oil and tar running off into every stream and swamp near the roadways that were covered in this fashion.

This map, while drawn by the Connecticut Highway Department at a much earlier date, shows the type of road surfaces of Easton’s roads in 1940.

While the map above was obviously drawn prior to the building of the town’s three reservoirs, the state route numbers are from 1940. The purpose of showing it here is to show the type of road surfaces that existed just prior to WWII. This map was created by the Connecticut Highway Department and used by the enumerators of the 1940 United States Census. The roads with the solid double lines were graded by the town, while the roads with the cross-hatches were both graveled and graded. The solid thicker white lines indicate roads with a “higher type of surface” according to the legend on the map. As one can see, Easton only had a handful of roads in 1940 with a paved surface.

Snow removal was mostly done on state highways with state owned equipment. The first motorized trucks with plows would have appeared in the mid-1920’s. They couldn’t move huge amounts of snow and the roads sometimes took several days before they were clear enough for opposing lanes of vehicular traffic to safely navigate their way through town. Imagine being the poor man in charge of steering the plow on the setup shown below!!!

1926 International Harvester truck with snowplow. One man steered the truck while a second man standing on the right-hand running board steered the plow. While this setup looks like it was designed by couple of guys after a consuming a few beers, it was actually commercially made and sold. Pity the poor soul on the running board.

State aid helped the town with bridge building and road improvements throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the1940 fiscal year alone, the state appropriated $10,000 in aid to maintain and improve town owned roads. That year the entire highway account was given a $24,500 budget, so the state was contributing a full 40% in addition to the roads where they covered 100% of the cost of construction and maintenance (today’s Black Rock Turnpike, Center Road, Westport Road, Sport Hill Road and the section of Route 59 between Union Cemetery and Monroe that was completed in the late 1920’s).

Easton’s roads had no formal names prior to 1933 when the Easton Grange launched a state-wide program dubbed, “Get Connecticut out of the Mud.” Part of the reasoning for formally naming the roads was to aid the volunteer firemen in finding the location of burning buildings. Just image living in a town with twenty families with the surname Sherwood and receiving a frantic call where the only information relayed by the caller to the dispatcher was that the “Sherwood house is on fire!” The process took more than a year to complete, but in the end the Easton Volunteer Fire Department had a large map in the firehouse that showed over 100 streets and lanes by name.

It wasn’t until after WWII that Easton established a full-time highway department, complete with enough equipment and manpower to maintain the town’s constantly growing number of roads. And it was well into the 1950’s when the last of the dirt roads that the town maintained were finally paved. What we take for granted today was over 250 years in the making.

c.1920 Silverhill looking east. The Bellamy Partridge House is at the left

Information for this article was obtained from various Easton Town Reports; the 2009 Historical and Archeological Assessment of Easton written by Stuart Reeve, Kathleen von Jena and David Silverglade; the Read Family Papers assembled by Stuart Reeve in 2000; and various records of town meetings from the Towns of Fairfield and Weston between 1681 and 1850.

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