The History of Boston Roads and Highways, Part 1

One thing I've always been curious about even before I started doing Uber/Lyft has been the history of Boston roads and highways.  Beantown roads date back to the 1600s. Local roads were created to follow cow paths, they say, although this has been debunked as a myth in recent years. The 18th century Kings Highway connecting Charleston, SC to Boston later became the Boston Post Road in our area. Many “turnpikes” and toll roads were created in the 19th century. Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of Central Park in New York City, was responsible for designing many of the parkways around Boston, including the famous Emerald Necklace and the Old Harbor Reservation parkway system connecting Franklin Park to the South Boston parks and shoreline. (And if you’re curious where the word “parkways” comes from, it means a road that connects different parks. Yup.) Then came national roads, “US” numbered single lane “highway” roads, a concept developed in the early 20th century. Then finally the Interstate highways of the mid 20th century.

A discussion of this subject could start by looking at the history of one of the most famous roads in the area, Route 128/I-95.

1937 Road Map Zoom View

1937 Road Map Zoom View

Above is an interesting graphic I found, a road map of Boston from 1937.  I’m not sure of the source but it looks like a general road map you might have found in a gas station back in the day.  Before there were Google Maps or Waze, and before there was the Internet / Web itself, one of the ways you could get maps was to pick up free ones given out by gas stations.  This is how we used to do it back in the day.

What is interesting about this map (which you may not be able to see if you are viewing on a cell phone) is that there was a route 128 even back then.  Route 128 is a way of life in the Boston area, and it used to be called the the 128 Technology Belt.  Part of the Massachusetts Miracle—the founding of the high tech industry that actually took place here first, before it came to Silicon Valley. 128 is the main highway artery around the city, the inner belt of the region. But the map shows 128 not as the highway we know today.  Back then it was a connection of previously unrelated local roads that paralleled the same general path as the 128 of today.  For example, the map shows that Lexington St. in Waltham was part of the unified 128 road. 

There is a well researched book that documents the history of route 128 which I cannot recommend highly enough if you are a road nerd.  David Kruh and Yanni Tsipis prepared one of those sepia toned picture postcard books by the Arcadia Publishing (aka The History Press) that you see in the bookstore and which document different neighborhoods around the area.

"Building 128" (2003, Arcadia Publications) is an excellent pictorial summary and history of the road "we love to hate".  There was an article about this book in the Globe in 2015.  I found a used copy on Ebay and I love it. There is an excellent analysis of what some of the areas around exits on 128 looked like before the highway was built.  In Waltham, where I live, you can see a bunch of farms around the Bear Hill Run Valley, for example, where now the highway has been cut through the entire area.

Tsipis has prepared equally outstanding books, Building the Mass Pike (2002, Arcadia Publishing), and Boston Central Artery (2001, Arcadia Publishing).  Many millennials who use Uber and live downtown are unaware that the Rose Kennedy Greenway used to be where the Boston Central Artery Expressway used to run.  It was a huge and hulking overhead highway that ran north to south through downtown.  As I've told many riders, there was nothing underneath except a dead zone, as I recall.  It was similar to what you see today under the I-93 bridge that goes through Somerville. Nothingness and transportation storage areas. There was no reason for tourists to roam around under the Central Artery Expressway. The fact that there are 1000s of tourists everyday walking around during the summer where this structure used to be located still amazes me. Old timers have told me this is where they used by fireworks, "under the bridge". Others have noted that there used to be a doorway under the bridge that connected Haymarket to Hanover Street on the North End.

As far as the naming and numbering of roads, here is another general history of roads .  There are lots of these histories online and Wikipedia has more links to this subject. There is another very well written history of roads in the United States, aptly named “Big Roads” written by Earl Swift. This is also a classic.

Route 128 is an important road to understand for the Uber / Lyft driver. We drive on it all the time, every day.

Here are some interesting articles about the Central Artery Expressway

  1. The Dramatic Transformation Of Transportation In Boston (WBZ-CBS)

  2. The Elevated Central Artery (Boston Globe)

  3. 10 Years Later Did The Big Dig Deliver? (Boston Globe)

  4. Central Artery (Wikipedia)