Before Google maps: Six hundred miles of highways
July 15, 2014 1:51 PM   Subscribe

The photographs in this set depict roads and highways in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 1892 to 1893. The photos accompany the "Report of the Commission to Improve the Highways of the Commonwealth" published in February of 1893.
Until the early 1890s, roadways in Massachusetts were maintained by local authorities. Poor road conditions were seen as an impediment to commerce. Therefore, in 1892, the legislature established a commission to improve the highways in Massachusetts. As part of their report, the commission photographed roads around the state to illustrate their condition.

Many of these locally maintained roads were old stage routes and were improved to create the basis of the state highway system.
- MA State Library
posted by jessamyn (25 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Not mentioned: Massachusetts' great experiment in maintaining their roads ended in 1894 and hasn't been resumed since.

(I kid, I kid...mostly.)
posted by fremen at 2:07 PM on July 15, 2014 [14 favorites]

Beat me to it, fremen, was trying to think of something suitably snarky for those pothole-ridden roads. Great post, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 2:11 PM on July 15, 2014

Gotta Photoshop that shadow out, guy.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:13 PM on July 15, 2014

This is what I (optimistically) imagine a libertarian private highway system looking like in 2018.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:38 PM on July 15, 2014

I suspect this dapper photographer got around by bicycle. Evidence: 1, 2, 3
posted by Think_Long at 3:02 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

ryanshepard: A somber observer, Tolland, MA

My dad grew up in Tolland, MA and I spent lots of time there as a child with my grandmother. Seeing a car go by the house was a MAJOR EVENT, so I can only imagine that this child's brain is turning inside out because the Google car a man with a functioning camera was in town.
posted by hanoixan at 3:25 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like the little dog in this one. It was clear from reading (some of) this report that the road stuff was SRS BZNS even though the bulk of what was going over them in most rural areas seemed to be horse carts. It was also amusing watching the guy find new ways to express his disappointment with these roads.

- a poor road
- a bad road
- a very bad road
- a very bad road indeed

I grew up one town over from Acton in a house that predated this study by decades and it helps put things in perspective a little. And big props to the MA State Library (not associated, just a fan) for putting this stuff online at Flickr with decent metadata.
posted by jessamyn at 3:26 PM on July 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

There are still a lot of dirt roads in Worcester... it is always fun to make an unfamiliar turn because Waze said so and realize that you are now off-roading.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 4:12 PM on July 15, 2014

Based on the sequence of towns listed in the photographs, I think this road is the ancestor of today's Route 9.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:38 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

As usual, Western Mass gets forgotten. Great resource, though!
posted by languagehat at 5:51 PM on July 15, 2014

The word "station" in the photo metadata is a civil engineering term of art. Basically it means "one unit of roadmaking." So if one sees POB (point of beginning) to STA 1, that's the first segment. STA 2 to STA 3 is the second, and so on. Explained in detail worthy of highway commissioner at that link.

/drew highways, bridges, & sewers in an earlier life
posted by Jesse the K at 6:06 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

It got weirdly creepy after many roads with no people or buildings. Such a relief when a farm or a living creature showed up from time to time.
posted by not that girl at 6:07 PM on July 15, 2014

As usual, Western Mass gets forgotten.

They go south and north in Western MA but they skip the Pioneer Valley area entirely. It's weird to even look at it because the Quabbin is so big on the map but basically didn't exist at the time. I was hoping for a photo from Dana or Enfield.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I grew up not far from Route 9 and the pictures were immediately clear to me, or the sequence of towns was, at least. Thanks for posting this, Jessamyn.
posted by walter lark at 7:10 PM on July 15, 2014

More turn-of-the-century goodness: Perambulation of the boundaries, showing Boston officials checking the boundary markers that delineated the borders with their neighboring communities (including what was then the town of Hyde Park). To this day, state law requires municipal officials to "perambulate the bounds" at least once every five years to ensure nobody's tried to move the markers (in the smaller suburbs, the tradition is that neighboring boards of selectmen go out early on a Saturday morning with a bottle of liquor to help with all that perambulation). Many of the Boston markers are still the same ones shown in the photos, although at least one seems to have shrunk.
posted by adamg at 7:19 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Based on the sequence of towns listed in the photographs, I think this road is the ancestor of today's Route 9.

Partly. When it reaches West Brookfield, the road switches to today's Route 67 to Palmer and follows roughly today's Route 20 to Chester. There it turns north through Middlefield before reaching Pittsfield. Then north to North Adams before turning back east on roughly today's Route 2.

I'd love to drive the exact route the author took in 1893, especially west of Worcester. It looks like many spots are on today's Routes 20, 7, and 2, but I think there'd be a lot of interesting jaunts down tiny winding roads whose names are all Old Next-Town-Over Road, as well as a few spots where the road was bypassed in 1934 and perhaps you can just barely see evidence of the old road through the woods.
posted by otters walk among us at 7:45 PM on July 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't look at a faded photo and not try and bring it back a little bit with Photoshop. I took your "street with dog" photo and ran it through some filters and: voila!
posted by pjern at 9:22 PM on July 15, 2014

Ah, this is not at all what I was hoping it was.

Great photos, though. Very interesting.

I remember once, a long while back, seeing something about photo books for road trips being made in pre-map days, back before road signs and numbering and any formalization at all had taken place to our road system. These books would depict a road trip, how to get from A to B, with written instructions and photos to add clarity.

I know I saw it online, but haven't been able to find it since. It was quite fascinating!
posted by hippybear at 11:32 PM on July 15, 2014

hippybear, did you mean stuff like this? (From your description I thought "Is he searching on the term 'triptik?', having grown up on AAA triptiks.)
posted by benito.strauss at 11:38 PM on July 15, 2014

No, this was contained photographs and written descriptions about how to navigate the route, I don't believe it contained any maps at all. It was like primitive Street View with instructions on how to get from Small Town A to Small Town B along unmarked dirt roads, with photos to illustrate landmarks and clarify points of possible confusion.
posted by hippybear at 11:42 PM on July 15, 2014

I've seen those too, I'm trying to remember where...
posted by jessamyn at 8:26 AM on July 16, 2014

Wow, I'm impressed - 1892-3 and Somerville already has its signature utilities poles and a fire hydrant in these photos.
posted by maryr at 8:40 AM on July 16, 2014

Not mentioned: Massachusetts' great experiment in maintaining their roads ended in 1894 and hasn't been resumed since.

(I kid, I kid...mostly.)

in the massachusetts town where I live, the official registry of town roads is a hand written ledger going back to the 1890s.
posted by at 10:04 AM on July 16, 2014

Our culture today is so car-dominated that I don't think many people realize that bicyclists were pushing for better roads long before cars were common/popular.

From the Wikipedia entry on the League of American Bicyclists:
"The League was a prominent advocacy group for the improvement of roads and highways in the United States[5] long before the advent of the automobile."
posted by sarah_pdx at 8:01 AM on August 4, 2014

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