Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Roads scholarship

Is it just me, or are people actually beginning to pay more attention to the histories of roads?  Road history is something I'm exploring in my own (fairly slow-moving) research at the moment, relating to Massachusetts' Route 2, the road I spend a good deal of my time on.  But a couple of interesting pieces of work also came to my attention this summer, focusing on both the distant and recent past of one of the east coast's most-traveled corridors.

I've been reading (also slowly) Eric Jaffe's new book The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America (Scribner, 2010), which follows the first organized postal route in colonial America (Ben Franklin, anyone?).  The book isn't terribly weighty, but it does give a sense of some of the political, military, and other factors that went into creating the road, which has now morphed into coastal Route 1 and inland Route 91 in central New England.

There's a bit more critical depth  in parts of National Public Radio's series about everyone's least favorite road, I 95.  I'm looking forward to going through the segments in detail one of these fine days, although some things about the mix are a little jarring--for example, the juxtaposition of a segment on the hardships of migrant workers traveling up and down the coast with one called "Eat Your Way Down I-95." I guess that's how it is with highways, though--love 'em, hate 'em, can't hardly avoid 'em.



Darrel W. Cole said...

I love this post and the topic. As a transportation PR pro, I am still fascinated how roads have incredible histories, stories. From how to evolved from their original path to major interstates. A treasure of information is within the state or agency DOT themselves as it's almost a sure bet that most of the roads they will have either expanded or built new on had archeology work done on them. For instance when I was in Delaware DOT as the PR chief we looked back at the history and arch record of I-95 through Delaware, and sure enough it's a rich history. We were doing an event to celebrate a new lane on that highway. We found in the arch records information about the first known non-native explorer to traverse the route, a diary, and more. We also found a video from the 50s of someone driving the corridor before it was done, when it was a dirt road.
Anyway, loved your post here and best on this topic.


Thanks for this feedback, Darrel. Yes, there's a huge amount of unmined material in state and other archives about road histories. I'm hoping to combine that with a more ethnographic study of Route 2, which is tricky to do - how do you study people when they're in their cars? But in particular, I'm interested in what people actually do know about the histories of the roads they drive, and how that intersects with larger stories of change and decision-making. People do often have first-hand knowledge of physical changes to the road ("I remember when they were making this into a four-lane section") but little sense of where that fits in bigger patterns of political and economic change.