I like old roads of all descriptions, but have an especial fondness for numbered routes. New England was among the first places to number roads, and many of them kept their original designations as the newer numbering systems came into play. This display is from 1922. Because later rules dictated that North-South would be odd-numbered and East-West would be even, Route 3 became Route 6 and vice versa. But Newenglanders familiar with numbered roads will recognise that some have not changed. (Those are Burlington and Manchester VT, not NH or MA, on the list.) It includes some pretty obscure routes, such as 26 and 32. I’m not sure why those were important enough to need numbers then, but as the surprising ones are largely in tourist destinations, it may have had something to do with keeping those unfamiliar with the area on track.
I have previously mentioned my interest in where numbered routes used to go. I have looked at NH routes 28 and 101 in detail in the last few years. The old old routes were generally first numbered in the 1920’s. There wasn’t much new construction; the numbered route was generally chosen to follow the best of the roads already in place, with upgrades to follow. The new old routes came in during the 1950’s, as states began to build bypasses around towns and create more direct routes for longer travel. This slightly preceded the Interstate Highway System.
There are clues on the map of where the old route used to go. Any secondary route which runs alongside an interstate or goes back and forth underneath it is an automatic nominee. For the secondary routes which are themselves under suspicion of not being the original trail, map clues are nore subtle, but present. One looks on either side of a town being bypassed for a route which goes off at an acute angle into the town center; often the road runs off at a similar angle on the other side and runs roughly parallel to the numbered route, fairly shouting “Me! Me! I am the road formerly known as Route 11!” Consulting the old USGS maps often confirms this, though switching back and forth online between maps of slightly different scales can be tedious.
Yet it was greater fun to scout out the routes in person and discover other physical clues, including my current favorite: where the telephone poles go. All that strung wire came in during the earlier time, and followed what were then the main roads. When the new routes cut across open territory in the 50’s, the electricty and phone service were already in place. New poles were only needed if new businesses or homes were going in – and these could often be patched in from the old route in the back anyway.
When the road you are driving has no telephone poles, it’s a newer section. If poles suddenly come alongside, they likely ran along the old route, and you are now driving on a section that is the old way upgraded, not an entirely new one. The telephone poles will then likely dive off to the side at an oblique angle, and if you are attentive, you can see where the old road went. Once I learned this, I recognised that I had driven nearby Rte 114 for decades and never noticed that the road to my son’s Montessori kindergarten was the original numbered route. It’s hardly used now. When I have the time, I like to drive them to see the abandoned motels and old farm entrances. Or to simply imagine what it would have been like to drive it in the 30’s.
On my recent Appalachian Trail excursion, I noticed an un-numbered road on the map winding in and out of I-89, at a section where Rte 10 (Central New England Route on the list above) coincides with the interstate. Ah, I thought. I’ll bet that’s the previous track of 10. We’ll have to stop in on the way back and see if we can confirm that by sherlocking around a bit. Check out where the telephone poles go. Estimate how old the houses are. See if there are expired businesses, or old signs giving the mileage to nearby towns.
Or sometimes, someone else has done all the work for you, once you go and see.
That's Whaleback Mountain Ski Area in the background, BTW.