Since earliest times, humankind has created paths to get from place to place.
Paths and later roads have long served to increase mobility, commerce and
civilized development. The earliest road, the Persian Royal Road, extended from
the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea over a distance of 1,775 miles and was used
from about 3500 to 300 BC. The Maurya Empire, in the Indus Valley built roads of
brick and created a "ministry of public works" to keep its roadsystem in good
condition. The Romans also recognized the importance of roads in maintaining an
empire; at the empire's peak it had some 53,000 miles of road, extending from
Britain in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. The present 44,000-mile US
Interstate Highway System, represents a national network of multiple-lane
expressways found in all 50 states and connecting 90 percent of all cities of at
least 50,000 population.
The dynamism of the present day US economy and close-knit social system can
to a large degree attributed to this pervasive transportation network. The
Information Superhighway, for moving the rapidly expanding digitized aspects of
life, is expected to contribute todramatic societal change - in the way we work,
live, and play. In light of this extraordinary change, it might be helpful, or
at least interesting, to learn how roads were created and managed in earlier
times in America.
During the period extending from Revolutionary times until after the Civil
War, many towns and villages appointed Path Masters to care for their roads. The
Path Master was responsible for making sure that the community's roads "are
being constructed and ready access afforded to the mills, to the villages and to
the River [Hudson] and the Sound [Long Island]. The old thorofares are being
improved and new lengths of road take the place of impracticable old ones..."
stated the Reverend Wm S. Coffey writing about the period 1783 - 1860 in J.
Thomas Scharf's History of Westchester County (1886).
Frances R. Duncombe, Historical Committee, Katonah Improvement Society,
described the Path Master's role thus, in Katonah, the History of a New York
Village and its People (1961):
Commissioners of roads had charge of new construction and major repairs of
roads and bridges...Current maintenance was carried out without funds under
supervision of pathmasters. There was one appointed to each stretch of road, and
it was his job to get the neighbors living along it to put in so many days of
work a year, which they were assessed in lieu of money.
"Pathmaster" appears to have been an honorary position and the honor was
shifted frequently from one landowner to another, probably with a sigh of relief
each time. The highways were rough dirt roads, mud bogs in spring and deep snow
19th Century Westchester roads are described this way by Jay Harris in God's
Country: A history of Pound Ridge (1971):
[Roads] begin with existing cartways or "the traveled track" and proceed
between various properties with landmarks of stones, specific trees, stumps,
fences or staddles (frameworks for haystacks). Some simply connected neighboring
farms, others connected existing roads.
"Bandwidth" was "four rods wide" which meant that trees and brush were
cleared to that width (about 66 feet of right of way) although the working
surface was only wide enough for two wagons to pass each other.
Today, Westchester PathMaster(TM) continues the traditional role of
pathmaster, laying out the way for the County's non-profit organizations to
access the information superhighway, maintaining the site on a voluntary basis,
and keeping the way free and clear for all who would travel it.
Written by Bill Langham, Westchester Alliance for Telecommunications and Public Access,
who's Internet signature box includes Wendell Berry's phrase, "The path I
follow, I can hardly see."
Special thanks to Elizabeth Fuller at the Westchester Historical Society,
Joan Hawley Bristol, formerly North Salem's Historian, and Alice Osgood, Armonk
Reference Librarian, who went out of her way to track down the Harris book, and
Britannica Online for the earliest road history.