Waiting out multiple traffic light cycles in an endless queue at Eliot Street in Newton, or weaving through the mad traffic along the once heralded “Miracle Mile” of Natick and Framingham, you might find it ridiculous to imagine that the Worcester Turnpike (Route 9) was once hailed at the Finest Motor Road in the World — or even more incredibly, America’s first “Super Highway.” And yet, at the time of its construction and for several years afterward, it was the most sophisticated and technically advanced roadway of the day. It introduced many of the characteristics of the expressway that we take for granted, and it wouldn’t be equaled for nearly a decade. It initiated a new era of highway development that changed everything — construction techniques, policy, the road bureaucracy, and means of funding. Moreover, it inspired a wholesale rearrangement of the landscape of the state and its communities to create a new style of living — the expansive suburbanism of today. The comprehensive bureaucracy to plan, build, and oversee a statewide network of advanced highways would emerge with construction of the Worcester Turnpike.
But first let’s answer the question of what to call it. Is it the Worcester Turnpike or Route 9? In this piece we are talking about the Turnpike and not the cross-state Route 9 which it also generated. In the simplest terms, roads have names and routes have numbers. But more specifically, routes are itineraries that direct drivers — often over numerous roads. In the early years of motoring, recreational enthusiasts and automobile clubs began identifying and marking routes as wayfinding tools for intrepid new drivers, routes sometimes identified by names, symbols, colors or numbers. Before then, few people had reason to explore the roads beyond their own neighborhoods, relying instead on railroads and streetcar lines for travel of any distance. With the adoption of cars guidebooks proliferated, filled with routes and lists of critical facilities like garages and hotels and inns.
Road construction and maintenance was scattershot but generally the responsibility of local communities, with counties often providing regional connections. Roads were usually better in cities and more established towns, but there was often no coordination beyond municipal boundaries. In 1922, the New England states adopted a cooperative system of route marking which is still largely in use today. This was complemented in 1927 by the “voluntary” network of so-called interstate routes identified by the U.S. shield. Under this new program, the principal east-west route across Massachusetts was designated U.S. 20. Still today it runs from Kenmore Square in Boston across the nation to Newport, Oregon. In Massachusetts, it passes through Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, and from Boston to Worcester, it largely follows the historic Boston Post Road, an artifact of the 18th century, running through intervening town centers. It was perhaps a charming and practical drive in the early auto days but less efficient for distance travel with each passing year.
Cars made a huge contribution to the fabled roar of the 1920s. The number of vehicle registrations tripled over the decade, and with this explosion in autos and driving came new developments, in roadway engineering, regulation and as well as driver education. Accompanying these new developments were , along with increased expectations and the inevitable impatience for speed. Virtually everything we understand about driving now had to be developed in this brief time. 1920 arrived with no official highway network, standard signage, traffic lanes, or signals. Even the most basic traffic regulations were lacking, and chaos ruled the rudimentary roads. Yet by the end of the decade, most of these necessities were in place as the automobile assumed a central role in modern life.
By the ‘20s, bustling Worcester was the brash and wealthy “second city” of Massachusetts, and city leaders were demanding a more direct and express route to Boston to bypass the intermediate town centers clogged with local auto traffic and trolleys, trucks, and pedestrians. The need was clear: the Boston Post Road carried the highest traffic of any state highway. What Worcester Mayor O’Hara, neighboring towns, and the influential Bancroft Auto Club wanted was unprecedented: “a super type of roadway with two traffic lanes elevated at the intersecting streets.” It was a dream of a road type that did not yet exist, the “super highway.” What’s more, the resources, financial and legal, necessary to build it didn’t exist either, at least not yet.
Massachusetts was an early leader in traffic engineering theory if not always practice, aided by resources like the Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic at Harvard University. The state established a state highway commission in 1893, the second in the nation, following New Jersey’s lead. But progress in road improvement was hampered by the Commonwealth’s notorious parochialism and local resistance to state leadership. There was also a lack of significant financial resources dedicated to roads, and a conservative mentality among the state’s engineers that favored piecemeal development connecting existing centers over large schemes. Henry Ford’s privately funded $200,000 bypass skirting the historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury was one of the few new ideas outside of Metropolitan Boston. A so-called “Good Government” reorganization of the state created a Public Works Division in 1920, and in 1925 the legislature created a “highway fund” drawn from fines, fees, and local maintenance assessments. Still, the Republican-dominated state government was averse to debt and refused to issue bonds for roadway construction, insisting instead on a “pay-as-you-go” policy. Funds were so limited that new construction was constrained to no more than ten miles per county per year. As one Worcester booster wryly noted, at that rate it would take ten years to finance their grand scheme of a new road.
But from calamity comes opportunity. Worcester’s scheme got a providential boost with the petition by the Boston, Worcester Street Railway Company on January 28, 1927 to drop service to Boston. The streetcars largely followed the old Worcester Turnpike, a nearly forgotten relic of the turnpike enthusiasm of the first decade of the 19th century. The Turnpike had been chartered and laid out in 1807 as a private toll road, and like other turnpikes of the era, it followed the straightest, most direct route and deliberately avoided town centers. It was dissolved in 1841 in the face of insurmountable competition from the faster railroad, foreshadowing the streetcar’s future demise in the face of automobiles. The very next day, Franklin T. Miller, the receiver of the streetcar company, petitioned the legislature for a resolve to study a new state highway on the Turnpike route. The proposal of course would also include “compensation” to the company. (The compensation issue would inevitably spark contentious partisan politics.) It would take another two years, replacement of a reluctant Highway Commissioner, and the eventual establishment of a gasoline tax (a measure in which Massachusetts lagged 44 other states) before the Worcester super highway dream would come to life. But the ultimate factor in favor of the road was an even greater calamity, the great stock market crash of October 29, 1929 and subsequent Great Depression, and the desperate need to create “material relief to the unemployment situation.”
1930 was an election year, and the Democrat Joseph B. Ely successfully challenged the Republican incumbent’s poor record of highway construction. Ely’s inaugural address signaled a momentous departure from “pay-as-you-go” and called for a $20,000,000 bond issue for public works, including finishing the Turnpike. Adding to the urgency was $80,000,000 nationwide in Federal aid to be spent by September; Massachusetts was determined to get its share. Ely eventually won nearly $13,000,000 in short-term notes and an increase in the gas tax from the Republican legislature. With these state funds and Federal aid, he pursued an ambitious “super-highway” program across the state. Grander in scope than the Worcester road, the program also included a new turnpike to Providence, the Southern Circumferential Highway to the south of Boston, and a new bypass around Worcester, the Southwest Cut-Off – a portion of the multi-state trunk road between New York City and Boston. But first, and unsurpassed in scale, engineering sophistication, and controversy, would be the Worcester Turnpike.
.Everything about the Turnpike was exceptional, especially its cost: a staggering $200,000 a mile, or $3,000,000 for the first seventeen-mile leg between Worcester and Southborough, “the most expensive piece of highway building the state has ever undertaken.” The cost was just one of its wonders. The new super highway, straight-arrow and almost without curves, would cut perhaps five miles off the trip between the cities and save twenty or even thirty minutes. Plus it would be the safest road imaginable. With three ten-foot-wide travel lanes, a ten-foot landscaped median to prevent head-on collisions, no grade crossings, and cloverleafs or innovative rotaries to eliminate left hand turns, it was expected to be serenely safe. Remarkably, there was no set speed limit. As one report put it, “Go as fast as you like…within reason” because “As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to see how, with normal conditions, good judgement and fair luck, any bad accident could happen on the Worcester Turnpike.” Reality, as always, differed from theory, and when an early segment was unofficially opened to traffic, it had to be closed again immediately because of excessive driving speeds. When the road was officially opened, neophyte drivers were intoxicated by its novelty, and speeds as high as 85 miles per hour were recorded. Drivers added to the recklessness by wandering wildly across the roadway, contemptuous or uncomprehending of the concept of fixed travel lanes.
“…every known trick of building safety in the roads – and still the motorists mowed down 28 persons last week on the new Worcester Turnpike within the limit of Wellesley alone,” noted one reporter in 1933. This was only mild hyperbole — 28 were indeed injured, but only one death recorded. Driving was inherently dangerous and still a kind of extreme sport, with Sundays seeing the heaviest traffic. By the end of November 1933, there had been 731 fatalities in Massachusetts, and 1934 would bring 953 road deaths, with the total number of vehicles in the state hovering just below 800,000. (By comparison, the number of highway deaths in Massachusetts 80 years later in 2013 was 351, for around 2.4 million vehicles.)
In the face of this rolling disaster, in the early 1934 Registrar of Motor Vehicles Morgan T. Ryan announced a crackdown, “a campaign” which would “severely” penalize “flagrant offenders.” Dorchester-born Ryan was an ambitious young attorney and close associate of Governor Ely when he was appointed Registrar. He introduced several safety measures, including regular auto inspections and mandatory insurance, and he was not slow to suspend the driving licenses of offenders. Among his less successful initiatives was his naive New Year’s resolution for drivers – not effective then and likely not now either:
I resolve that during 1935, I will drive sensibly and courteously with due regard for the rights and safety of others, both motorists and pedestrians.
After one accident, he required President Roosevelt’s son to pass a Massachusetts driving exam, and at different times he suspended the licenses of James Michael Curley’s sons Leo and Paul. Those last actions, along with political rivalries within the Democratic Party, drove the newly elected and vengeful Governor Curley to demand that “Big Bill” Callahan, new Commissioner of Public Works, later known as the “Maharajah of Macadam,” fire Ryan. Curley replaced Ryan with Frank Goodwin as a reward to an erstwhile Republican and ally, himself a former Registrar and, as Sinclair Weeks pegged him, a “stooge” opponent to Curley in the Governor’s race.
If the Turnpike failed to insure safer driving, it did pioneer a number of roadbuilding innovations, some successful and others not so, including portable concrete mixers and a curious system of paving over burlap to theoretically ease future resurfacing. This “burlap road” would be used by the Republican Lieutenant Governor Youngman, possibly at Curley’s behest, to discredit Governor Ely. And as the construction moved eastward towards Boston, the unanimity of Worcester County waned, pockets of opposition arose, and unavoidable compromises followed. The City of Marlborough, afraid of being bypassed by the new road to the south, fought the project. To appease the city, the U.S. Route Number 20 would remain on the Post Road and not be moved to the new superhighway as might logically be expected. The village of Oak Hill in Southborough protested and blocked an underpass, concerned that it would ruin the character of the community. Many other dreaded grade crossings would remain only to be closed up in future safety campaigns. The “super” qualities of the roadway were also compromised as it passed through Framingham Center, where trolley tracks persisted, albeit in a center reservation. While an extensive underpass s pared Wellesley Hills from Turnpike traffic, the stubborn Lally sisters, in one of the more humorous highway-building episodes, fought the state over the value of their house. The state announced it would take the necessary half by eminent domain and the resolute sisters insisted they would remain in the surviving half. More densely settled Brookline rejected the state’s plan of underpasses and overpasses and choose instead a narrower roadway with a novel system of synchronized stop lights—traffic signals were still rare, particularly outside the city center.
Brookline’s opposition was pecuniary rather than aesthetic, since the town was to be responsible for a large portion of the cost of the road, which Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Charles F. Rowley fumed was “…an example of extravagant public expenditure.” “One would assume that every vehicle travelling upon the road was tearing madly between Boston and Worcester …The great majority of the vehicles … are pleasure vehicles… which will in no way be financially affected [by] arriving three or four minutes later at their destination.” Brookline’s plan saved two-thirds of the cost of the state’s proposal. It also didn’t hurt that it would spare the Longwood Cricket Club and the now-defunct Chestnut Hill Golf Club.
More controversy would follow construction, when the roadway between Framingham and Brookline started deteriorating almost immediately. It was suggested that the resulting cratering was caused by calcium chloride de-icing. A $20,000 study by Charles Breed of MIT was commissioned and its results then suppressed for eight years. When the study was finally made public, it revealed that the real problem was construction deficiencies cause by poor oversight and missing and poor quality concrete. The collapse of one approach to the new Huntington Avenue overpass in Boston a week before it was scheduled to open to traffic was also met with great cynicism. There was also criticism that the road was overbuilt, too large for the traffic it carried although it was never characterized as a ‘White Elephant” like the Sumner Tunnel that was bleeding tens of thousands of dollars monthly in deficit.
“You know every time a new highway is built, you see hot-dog stands, gasoline filling stations, and dine-and-dance spots popping up overnight,” commented DPW Commissioner in 1938, while speaking on plans for a new super highway between Boston and Lowell, doubtless alluding to the experience of the Worcester Turnpike. Contemporary accounts describe the “decentralization” – which we would recognize as “suburbanization – that immediately followed the opening of the Turnpike. “A modern cry of freedom from cramped house lots and city traffic congestion…” as new subdivisions followed the roadway to Brookline, Newton, Wellesley and beyond. It was a model that would be replicated many times over. The department store Jordan Marsh joined with local builders in producing model homes to demonstrate the advantages of this convenient new dispersed and leafy style of living. Even if unaware of the full implications, the pioneering influence of the Worcester road was immediately apparent to contemporary observers:
“What the Worcester Turnpike has done to boom building from Brookline Village to Framingham in only seven years, the Concord Turnpike is expected to do shortly for the territory that lies between Lexington, Arlington, and Concord.”
In 1948, Jordan Marsh itself would follow the new homeowners along the Turnpike to Framingham and into the first regional shopping center. A year later, competitor Filene’s would build its largest store outside of Boston along the Turnpike in Chestnut Hill. Ironically, the development drawn magnetically to the Turnpike would ultimately destroy its “super” luster, abetted by a flaw in its original conception. The Turnpike was built on an existing right-of-way, so abutting property owners could not be denied reasonable access to the public road. Thus the “express” road eventually turned into a congested boulevard just like the ones left behind in the crowded city. Massachusetts passed a “freeway” bill in 1944 to permit total control of access, facilitating the construction of a new state-wide turnpike in 1954. The free-wheeling Federal highway spending of the following decade would create the network of highways that make the Worcester Turnpike seem almost quaint today. But for better or worse, modern highway system of the 21st Century found its inspiration in “The Finest Motor Road in the World.”