Saturday, October 01, 2016

How did George Washington travel?

Washington's carriage

Road travel in the eighteenth century was nasty, brutish and slow.  Those vehicles, most often slow moving stage coaches, that did venture out on the roads were covered with mud or dust from top to wheel, rattled along uncomfortably, sometimes overturned and frequently sank into bogs.  Large rivers were difficult to bridge.  Ferries were used instead.  The ferry was either a barge or a raft and was pulled across by work horses or oxen on shore.  Since they were skittish, horses were prone to cause accidents.  George Washington recounted a typical road mishap, “In attempting to cross the ferry at Colchester with the four horses harnessed to the chariot…one of the leaders got overboard when the boat was in swimming water and fifty yards from the shore….His struggling frightened the (other horses) in such a manner that one after another and in quick succession they all got overboard…and with the utmost difficulty they were saved (and) the carriage escaped being dragged after them.”

Early colonists used a network of paths made long before by Indians and wild animals to shape the earliest pattern of roads. The first turnpike in the country began construction in Virginia in 1785 running from Alexandria into the lower Shenandoah Valley.  This wide, comfortable, toll road only spanned thirty four miles and took twenty six years to complete, being completed in 1811.  It was a marvel to travelers.  In some cases local governments built new roads, but more frequently private corporations were set up for the purpose, and a profit of twenty percent earned from tolls was not uncommon. Notwithstanding these efforts, Virginia’s roads had not improved much by the 1860s.  No less a personage than General Robert E. Lee complained, “It has been raining a great deal . . . making the roads horrid and embarrassing our operations.”  Army wagons simply broke down on the roads because of the mud and rocks.

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