How the Post Road wrote New England’s history

Since it became America’s first mail route back in 1673, the Boston Post Road has connected Boston to New York City, delivering messages, guiding travelers, and tying the Northeast together. In that time, some legs of the route have shifted, and most of it is now known by other names — Washington Street, Route 20, Main Street, or Mass. Route 9. But if you know how to follow the thread, you can still trace the Post Road beneath our modern streets and highways. A few stretches, as residents of Marlborough and Sudbury know, among others, are still called Boston Post Road. Read more.

In November 1645, John Winthrop Jr., son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, embarked on a grueling, unprecedented 26-day tour of southern New England. In choosing his route, he relied on Indian trails: the so-called Connecticut Path running west from Boston and the Bay Path heading into Springfield. The Colony also grew along these lines: Watertown residents followed the Connecticut Path to establish Sudbury (now Wayland), and Worcester emerged from a request for a town "in the roade way to Springfeild." Three decades after his trip, when Winthrop Jr. was governor of Connecticut, he was asked to chart the Colonial mail route between Boston and Manhattan. He used those Indian paths as his blueprint for what would become the Post Road..

The Boston News-Letter, widely considered America's first regular newspaper, was inaugurated in April 1704 by John Campbell, who was also postmaster of New England. (Boston's original mail room dated back to 1639, when the downtown tavern of Richard Fairbanks, at the foot of the future Post Road, was designated as office for overseas letters.) Riders carried the newspaper along the Post Road with the regular mail, connecting towns big and small in a common conversation — and, by the eve of the Revolution, common cause.

You can still see 19 consecutive Post Road milestones between Warren and Leicester—mostly on state highway 9, with a few on the back roads of 67. They're the legacy of Benjamin Franklin's service as deputy postmaster general, which began in August 1753. Franklin laid the groundwork for the modern post office, hanging rate tables, punishing lazy riders, establishing the dead letter office, and ordering the placement of milestones to help riders calculate postage.

Blacksmith Levi Pease began advertising what became the country's first successful long-distance stagecoach service on Oct. 15, 1783. Pease orchestrated a network of taverns and coach drivers along the northern branch of the Post Road to facilitate the daunting weeklong journey from Boston to New York. His success changed the speed of life in America—even convincing Congress to send the mail by stagecoach instead of lone rider—and he retired in Shrewsbury as "Father of the New England Roads."

This stretch of the Post Road became a commuter line when the Metropolitan Railroad Co. received a charter in May 1853 to run local streetcars from downtown Boston. Each technological advance over the decades knitted city and suburb closer together: The first streetcars were pulled on rails by horses, then electric trolleys emerged, and eventually the rail structure was raised, creating an intrusive elevated railway along Washington Street. It's now gone, succeeded by the MBTA’s Orange Line; the Post Road itself is served by the new buses of the Silver Line.

With the advent of car travel came the need for a numbered national road system. The federal government asked each state to designate its principal routes, and on Aug. 27, 1925, the Massachusetts public works chief picked—you guessed it—the two branches of the Post Road. The original road was labeled US 20 to the west and US 1 to the south, making John Winthrop Jr.'s Indian paths the region's official thoroughfares until the completion of I-90 and I-95 decades later. (Route 1 still tracks the original Post Road, while Route 20 follows it only briefly before veering off in Northborough.)

One of the biggest planning controversies in Boston history ended February 11, 1970, whenGovernor Francis Sargent halted the proposed Southwest Expressway – a massive project that would have plunged an interstate directly through the city’s southern neighborhoods. The highway would have split from a ring road very close to the “parting stone” in Roxbury where the original Post Road’s branches diverged. The cancellation was an influential victory for neighborhood groups against the federal highway establishment, and also represented a new twist for the Post Road. For centuries, the road had helped Boston satisfy its ever-growing appetite for more and faster roads; this time, it became the place where that impulse stopped. Today the original parting stone still stands at Centre and Roxbury streets, pressed against the front of an auto parts shop.

SOURCE: Eric Jaffe "The King's Best Highway"