With the federal government unable to agree on any national unified plan for improving the country’s transportation system, the job rested with private or state sponsored enterprises. Overland routes were the first improvements. By 1800 there were seventy-two profit-seeking, toll-collecting turnpike companies in the Northeast; by 1810 the number had multiplied into the thousands.
In Connecticut alone the General Assembly granted 121 franchises for turnpike improvements between 1795 and 1853.
The necessity and profitability of these roads is shown by the fact that in New England, by 1840, over $6.5 million of private funds had been invested in turnpikes, most of this money coming from small companies with capital of less than $100,000.
These turnpikes would be considered crude by modern standards, but compared to earlier roads they demonstrated many improvements. Most turnpikes were two-way thorough-fares, about twenty-four feet wide and relatively straight. In New England, in order to avoid muddiness and road erosion, drainage was provided by giving the road a convex surface to shed the water. Connecticut companies tended to spend less money for turnpikes than those in states such as Massachusetts, since many turnpike corporations simply improved existing public roads and therefore avoided heavy expenditures for rights of way.
State governments granted charters to private turnpike corporations giving them the right of eminent domain.
(see glossary) This right usually came under the close supervision of a special committee appointed when the charter was granted. In Connecticut these crude regulatory commissions were created as early as 1792, when tolls were established on the Mohegan Turnpike. (See Appendix A for a map of Connecticut Turnpikes). The early turnpike commissions were important to the development and implementation of the public sectors acting as a watch dog of private enterprise in Connecticut.
Travel over turnpikes was time consuming and expensive. Average costs in 1820 were about 15 cents a ton-mile for freight, more than twice as much as water transportation.
In 1822, the Post-Coach Line Dispatch advertised that the line left Hartford at eleven o’clock every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning, making the trip to New Haven in six hours, arriving at five o’clock in time for the steamboat. Financially many were failures because the cost of building these turnpikes exceeded the revenues collected from tolls. By 1825 more than half of the turnpike ventures in the country had been either partially or totally abandoned.
A contributing factor to the failure of these internal overland routes was the emergence of the canal. Canals were to become a part of the already heavy dependence on waterways.