Henry J. Lane
Attorney, Lane & Hamer LLC
Recent news reports concerning the bankruptcy of Direct Air and the cancellation of service from the Worcester Airport is a current reminder of the difficulties facing transportation companies. Although airlines, including Direct Air and American Airlines as well as a number of other so-called legacy carriers, have recently gone through bankruptcy or other restructuring proceedings, they are only the latest in a long history of transportation company failures.
Starting after World War II and continuing into the 1950's and 1960's, it was the railroads that failed, including the Boston and Maine Railroad, the New York-New Haven and Hartford Railroad, the New York Central and other northeastern New England railroads, several of which served the Webster and Dudley area.
Prior to the railroads, it was the street railway companies, many of which failed in the 1920's and 1930's with the advent of the automobile; and, before the street railway companies were the canal companies, which lasted for a very short time before being upstaged by the railroads. But the first of the major transportation company failures were the turnpike road corporations.
Prior to the American Revolution, the local economy consisted almost entirely of rural agriculture centered around small villages with very little commerce occurring between villages or regions. Since rural communities were largely self-sufficient, there was very little need for transportation between villages and towns and the roads and paths linking towns were very rudimentary. Beginning with the advent of industrialization in the very late 18th and early 19th century, the ability to transport raw materials and finished goods became much more important. However, small rural communities and existing governmental structures were not prepared to meet the need for regional transportation systems, so the New England states adopted a model borrowed from England and created public service companies to construct roads linking communities and regions. The model was essentially the first iteration of what has developed into the modern corporation with private shareholders raising capital from private investors to build toll roads throughout the region.
The corporations were typically individually chartered by the state legislature and authorized to construct a toll road from a specified city or town to another city or town. The turnpike corporations were also given the power of eminent domain, which allowed them to take private property for the purpose of building their roads. The delegation of powers of eminent domain became common in later years to facilitate the construction of railroads, reservoirs, pipe lines, and public utilities, although it has become very controversial in more recent years when it has been used to take private property to facilitate urban renewal and commercial development.
Toll gates on early toll roads were similar to a turnstile with pointed ends on the rotating bars which became known as turnpikes. The resulting road was originally known as a turnpike road, which name was shortened to "'turnpike "in common usage. Dozens of turnpikes were built in the early years of the 19th century including the Central Turnpike which linked Webster and Dudley to Boston on the east and Hartford on the west. The Central Turnpike Corporation was chartered by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1824, and the Central Turnpike was constructed in subsequent years beginning service in about 1830.
Like most of the turnpikes constructed in that era, the Central Turnpike may have been an important transportation resource to the budding industrial enterprises in Webster and Dudley, but it was an economic failure. By 1836, the Central Turnpike Corporation had abandoned its eastern end, but continued to collect tolls in Webster until 1839. After the Corporation disbanded, the road was made available to the local municipalities that wished to maintain the portion of the road within their limits.
The Central Turnpike was largely accepted by the municipalities through which it passed. The route of the turnpike is still largely intact and is still called Central Turnpike in the Town of Sutton. In the westerly part of Sutton the route turns southwesterly and travels along what is now known as Joe Jenny Road in Oxford, passing through a small corner of Douglas and into the Town of Webster where it is currently known as Sutton Avenue. From Sutton Avenue it continued past the Cranston Print Works along East Main Street through the Village of Webster, crossed the French River and into Dudley along West Main Street and eventually to the state line. A Connecticut charter authorized the construction of a toll road from the state line to Tolland, where it connected to an existing route to Hartford .
In the 180 years that have passed since the Central Turnpike was laid out and constructed, its function as the major regional transportation link has been largely superseded. Railroads initially provided more efficient transportation and by the mid-20th century significant state and interstate highway systems had been constructed to provide even more efficient surface transportation to the Webster/Dudley area. But the historic route laid out by a private corporation, using the power of eminent domain, continues to be the central east/west arterial roadway for the community.