Monday, February 21, 2011

The Nine Foot Road

In reading about local history one of the confusing things you come across is the name of streets and roads. Over time they change, and if you are not aware of what the same road was called in 2008, or 1950, or 1875 it can greatly add to your confusion and mislead you. Now we tend to think of roads as always being there and we may have an ideal that at one time they were just dirt but in American history roads and road systems are relatively new. With the wide spread use of the automobile/truck, roads in America developed between 1915 to 1930. There was another burst of road building in the 1950’s with the interstate highways but the main road building was in the early 1900’s.

The basic road width of that time was the nine-foot road. Thru out the United States there are roads still named the Nine-Foot Road and this tends to show the age in which they were originally built. In Delaware there are roads still named the Nine-Foot Road at Shaft Ox corners, Greenwood and somewhere around Newark. Altho we tend to be more familiar with the Nine-Foot road that runs between Shaft Ox Corner and Dagsboro, locally the Whitesville road was, until recently, called the Nine-Foot Road.

Like most of America, Delaware in the early 1900’s, recognized the need for roads, and road systems. Prior to this to travel a long distance by road you went to the next town and found the road leading to the next town after that, repeating this until you reached your destination. There were no road maps as we know them today. It also recognized that with the spread of the motor truck, locations that were not on a rail line could now have an important economy benefit to the state.

Between 1915 to 1925, Delaware built farm to market roads thru out the state. Not only did Delaware see the need for stronger roads due to the motor truck they realized that on a paved road a farmer could haul a load of five to six thousand pounds with a pair of mules as opposed to a two thousand pound load on a dirt road. An improved road also increased the value of the farms on the road, thusly increasing property taxes. Altho referred to as nine-foot roads they were for the most part a road with two nine foot wide lanes. One lane was paved and the other lane was dirt. The dirt lane was intended for use in dry weather. Some times we will see the old concrete section of a nine foot road off on the side of a “New” road after the “New” Road had been straighten or it’s course changed.

In 1957 a group of local residents went to the Delaware Highway Commission to complain about the Nine-Foot Road from Bacon to Gumboro. They wanted it widen and both lanes paved. It had, for the most, part, survived the last thirty years in it’s original one lane paved and one lane dirt condition.

As America started to build road systems the nine-foot road was the basic building block. When the Dixie Highway was built in 1918 it was a nine-foot brick paved road going from Chicago to Miami. Likewise for the Lincoln Highway which was the first highway to cross America. Today it seems strange but at the time most of the larger highways were paved with brick, although I can think of none in our area.

So how did the nine-foot width come about? It is a question I have found no clear cut answer to. From logic I would have to say the nine-foot width developed the same way railroad gauges developed. It was a common measurement for transportation roads. The Romans in their laws of the Twelve Tables specify that a road shall be 2.45 m (8 ft) wide where straight and 4.90 m (16 ft) where curved. In England, Henry the first decreed road wide enough for two carts or six armed knights side by side (two lane road). In a 1555 act cartways (single lane road) were required to be 8 foot wide. In America in the early 1800’s the National Road was constructed from Maryland to Illinois. It was eight foot wide. I can only guess that like food serving in America as time progressed road widths were supersized and became nine-foot in width instead of eight-foot. So that said please do not ask me about Sixty-Foot Road in Wicomico county.

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