The Newburyport Turnpike in Topsfield, early in the 20th Century

Newburyport Turnpike opens, February 11, 1805: “Over every hill and missing every town”

In 1803, a group of Newburyport investors incorporated as the Newburyport Turnpike Corporation in a commercial venture to build a straight toll road from Boston to Newburyport (the highway we call Rt. 1). The intent was to bypass Salem and promote Newburyport as a commercial destination. Proponents claimed it would cut travel time by a third compared to the old Bay Road (Rt. 1A).

Newburyport Turnpike
Newburyport Turnpike in late 1800s, location unknown. Photo from Massachusetts Beautiful by Wallace Nutting, 1923
Old map of the Newburyport Turnpike
Newburyport Turnpike and other 19th Century turnpikes north of Boston

More than 300 laborers with teams of oxen and horses filled swamps and blasted away nine hills. Grand hotels were built in Lynnfield and Topsfield. The Newburyport Turnpike opened on February 11, 1805, but was widely ballyhooed for “going over every hill and missing every town.”

Judge Daniel Appleton White wrote to his wife in February of 1811 about his journey from Newburyport to Boston on the Turnpike during a snowstorm:

“I reached Topsfield very well, and in good season on Sunday evening, and had a good night’s sleep. There I found a man with a sleigh, bound to Boston. On Monday morning, the inn-keeper, with four or five stout men and horses, turned out to help us on our way, but, after proceeding about two miles, they gave it up as impractical, and we returned to the hotel and dined, – when two other men with sleighs arrived, bound to Boston, so after dinner, we all set out again, with shovels as well as horses and men, and made out to proceed about seven miles, when we were compelled to take shelter for the night in a not very comfortable habitation. This morning we set out again, and succeeded in reaching Boston this afternoon. “

The Turnpike Corporation failed to be profitable and the road was turned over to Essex County in the 1850s, some of it remaining little used for decades.

A Concord Coach on display at the Abbot Museum
A Concord Coach on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont displays the name, “Ipswich.”

The road was designed for stagecoaches, and specifically, the Concord Coach manufactured by The Abbot-Downing Company which began in 1816 when Lewis Downing founded a “waggon” factory in Concord New Hampshire. In 1828 he teamed up with twenty-two year old J. Stephens Abbot of Salem, Massachusetts, who assisted in the manufacture of the “Concord Stage Coach.” By 1873 the “Abbot-Downing Company” had a payroll of over three hundred men and a manufacturing plant in Concord that covered six acres. The invention of the locomotive and the quick spread of railroads doomed the stagecoach.

Cyrus Mason Tracy gave a scathing review of the Newburyport Turnpike in his Standard History of Essex County, published in 1878, abbreviated below:

“The Newburyport Turnpike was remarkable for its daring projection, its persevering execution and almost total want of usefulness afterward. Great expectations had been raised to induce subscribers, but after the road had been finished all faith in it seemed to expire. It is said that the section nearest Newburyport indeed did pay tolerable earnings but the rest, neglected and disused now, looks a modern ruin for miles and miles, suggesting some greatness, but so vaguely that one can hardly guess what the greatness may have ever been.

Topsfield toll house for the Newburyport Turnpike. In the distance the road rises over one of several hills.
Topsfield toll house for the Newburyport Turnpike. In the distance the road rises over one of several hills. Postcard marked November, 1913, photographer unknown.

This road some thirty miles in length was truly made as straight as practicable. Though they found even grades in Saugus and Lynnfield, they forced their way over the steep hills of Topsfield resolutely surmounting grades that were really frightful. Four great ridges were there passed over in close succession besides many others of less note, in utter forgetfulness that the distance over a hemisphere is equal to going around one side of its base and many times harder for any species of travel.

A single winter’s experience was enough to warn any driver to beware of the dangers of those enormous grades, and even in the best days of summer a stumbling horse or a broken axle while descending one of those declines was not to be thought of without a shudder. Several accidents did happen and at length it proved impossible to engage drivers who would attempt to go over the whole route. Now the stranger passes along its track for miles wondering why so good a road was ever made where there were not more people, teaching all to beware of ill-considered enterprises.”

The Newburyport Turnpike finally achieved recognition when an auto route from Bangor to Miami known as the Atlantic Highway was established in 1911. The road was widened and paved in 1922 with grass strips separating the lanes of traffic. It was renamed Rt. 1 in 1925.

The Newburyport Turnpike in Saugus
Automobiles on the Newburyport Turnpike, early 20th Century
Small motels sprung up along Rt. 1
Drive-in theater in Saugus on the Newburyport Turnpike, 1939, photo by Arthur Griffin, provided by Digital Commonwealth.

Sources, and further reading:

5 thoughts on “Newburyport Turnpike opens, February 11, 1805: “Over every hill and missing every town””

  1. and in the 1930s and 40s there were mirrors of some kind over the tops of the hill, so you could see traffic coming up the other side

  2. The Concord “Ipswich” coach at the Shelburne Museum was given to the museum by Joan Appleton, of Appleton Farms, Ipswich. The family monogram – an “A” in a circle – is painted on the door. I have some old photos of Appleton family members on this coach.

  3. I believe the his were much steeper and yes a model T had a rear gastank behind the seats and was gravity feed to the engine at the front; too steep a grade, and the car stalled out. I also remember that at one time the roadway was poured concrete slabs (WPA Project?) and even after they paved over it, you still heard thump-thump, thump-thump driving over them.

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