THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Riding through time along a great highway

A stretch of Boston Post Road in Spencer, near Worcester. A stretch of Boston Post Road in Spencer, near Worcester. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2010

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At the point at Boston’s Eliot Square where Roxbury Street splits off from Centre Street stands a large granite slab known as “The Parting Stone.’’

When placed there in 1744, it directed travelers left toward Dedham, then on to Providence, or right toward Cambridge and Watertown, then on to Springfield — with both roads ultimately leading to New York.

It remains today as a weathered marker for the two branches of the old Boston Post Road. And the road itself, writes Eric Jaffe in “The King’s Best Highway,’’ was not just “the primary thoroughfare between settlements,’’ but over time “a conduit of cultural progress.’’

First would come a settlement’s meetinghouse, he notes, “then a tavern, then a marketplace’’ and withal, “a sense of permanency, safety, and hope.’’

Jaffe’s paean to this roadway, which began as a series of Indian paths and over time became a pair of US highways, offers not just a history of an important Northeastern thoroughfare but represents a kind of lens through which the reader can follow the development of America over four centuries.

In the early years, it was a “post road’’ in the direct sense of a postal route. Mathias Nicolls, the country’s first regular mail carrier, left New York for Boston, via Hartford, in January 1673, with the round trip taking about a month.

“News,’’ remarks Jaffe, “gravitated’’ naturally to the post offices usually housed in a tavern along the route and by the early 1700s, “colonial postmasters considered it their right . . . to publish a newspaper.’’ By 1759, Jaffe reports, there were 10 newspapers along the route.

Then, sharing the road with the mails were the wagons of industry and commerce — hats from Stonington, “enough nails to supply the country’’ from Providence — and from Springfield down to New Haven, it was “a corridor of weaponry.’’

The original Massachusetts Turnpike was born in 1796 from the dissatisfaction of early stagecoach operators with the original route as it became rocky through Palmer and Warren. Today’s Massachusetts Turnpike runs near the old route only at Wilbraham.

And when the railroads came, they followed the original roadway, with Boston being “the first train hub in the world’’ with three rail lines spoking out in 1835. And when the automobile replaced the train, a 1914 guide enthusiastically declared that with a thousand motor cars “[dashing] under its quiet elms,’’ the old road’s “great days have returned.’’

One of the great highway-mass transit battles occurred along the old route in the 1970s when then-Governor Frank Sargent scuttled the proposed Southwest Expressway in favor of the T’s Orange Line.

Today’s quest to trace precisely the earlier paths, to grapple with the essence and importance of the road, Jaffe remarks, is made more difficult by the fact that the Boston Post Road was never exclusively about geography, that it was “never a name at all, so much as a description’’ of its purpose.

Here and there a touch of the old name surfaces, often in unlikely places like Boston Road in the Bronx (there’s a Bronx Road in West Roxbury), but mainly it does business as US Route 1 or as US Route 20.

Jaffe has a tendency to the unfortunate metaphor — “seafaring interests . . . ran aground’’ and “foreign trade landed with a crash upon the shores of Boston,’’ both referring to the impact of the War of 1812.

But that can be forgiven for his sure touch for the broad sweep of his story, as well as his sharp eye for the bits of historical trivia — nine taverns in Waltham in 1814, an average of seven gas stations per mile along the 46 miles between Port Chester, N.Y., and New Haven in 1933, while the bituminous macadam which paved over the early roads was the invention of one John Loudon McAdam, a Loyalist who fled New York for Scotland in 1783.

Michael Kenney, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at mkenney777@gmail.com.

If You Go

THE KING’S BEST HIGHWAY:

The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America

By Eric Jaffe

Scribner, 326 pp., illustrated, $27.50