New England Trails:
Trail History


Pre-Twentieth Century Pathways of Transportation

Deer and The First Trails
The whitetail deer, along with other wildlife, were the first trail makers of New England. When the glaciers receded and the greenery appeared, deer came to New England from the south. They spent most of their time grazing in the valleys near the rivers and streams. New England became the home range for thousands of deer (WBE, Vol.V, 1975, p. 74b).
The deer created trails to travel from favored watering holes to fertile grazing grounds. The deer would travel single file through the woodlands, usually moving in a north-south direction following the natural terrain. Some paths lead across the mountain ranges of New England. Where the terrain was steep and difficult to maneuver, the deer naturally picked the easiest path. Hundreds and thousands of deer used these paths, eventually creating well-worn trails. Soon, Native Americans followed the deer into New England.

Native American Indians of New England
Native American Indians followed the deer into New England because venison was one of their primary food sources. They also needed deer hides for clothing and other necessary supplies. With the abundant supply of deer, New England's Indian population grew to be nearly 100,000 by the sixteenth century (Calloway, 1997, p.2).
Many Indian tribes lived and traded in New England. The Norwottucks, Nipmucks, and Pocumtucks lived in southern New England. Along the northeast coast the Pennacooks, Pigwackets and Kennebecs resided. The Penobscotts, Cowassucks and Sokokis were located in the northern portion of New England. The Mahicans and Mohawks were located in the western portion of New England. Trails were created between tribal communities, prime hunting areas and water sources. Although the majority of New England mountain ranges and rivers run north to south, this did not stop the creation of all east-west trails. The Indians of New England established an extensive network of trails that provided the first European settlers access to western portions of New England.

The Europeans Arrive in New England

Captain John Smith, an English explorer, discovered the northern most portions of the United States in 1614. He named this area New England and it was eventually divided into six states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Six years after Captain Smith's first visit, settlers began to claim New England as home (WBE, Vol. XIV, 1975, p. 172). Although this was an exciting time for the adventurous puritans, it was also a time of grave danger. Puritan settlers, armed with guns, fought the Native Indians for land. The puritans also brought diseases that poisoned and killed thousands of Indians.
The First Europeans battled with the Native Indians for land near the water sources and soon began an inland migration. The New England area was so volatile during this time that few roads were built. The majority of settlers huddled together in stockade villages in fear of the natives. In the eighteenth century, New England's European population exploded forcing expansion into the wilderness. Although roads were built to accommodate the expansion, there was still a need to get supplies to the frontier faster. Canals seemed to be a perfect solution to fill this need.

Canals in New England
The New England topography was challenging. There were few inland routes and the majority of them were difficult to travel. Trade problems arose when ships from Europe carrying supplies could not get their cargo inland. As a result canals were built in the early nineteenth century.
The first canal was built parallel to the Connecticut River in 1793. The canal extended from Northampton, Massachusetts south to the New Haven seaport in Connecticut. The ease in which goods could be transported via canal ignited a building surge. This was the beginning of a new era. During the next thirty years, New England would see four more canals built. The Middlesex-Union Canal, completed in 1808, linked Boston, Massachusetts, to the Merrimack River (WBE, Vol. III, 1975, p.132). The Farmington Canal, completed in 1822 circa, connected the Long Island Sound to Hartford, Connecticut. The Blackstone Valley Canal, completed in 1815 circa, linked Worcester, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island. The Cumberland & Oxford Canal completed 1820 circa, linked Sebago Lake to Portland. With these four operating canals, New England's interior became accessible and provided a rich opportunity for trade.

However, canals had several drawbacks. Times of drought could diminish water levels to a point were transportation was impossible. Water in the canals would freeze in winter stopping operation for months. Accessibility to inland areas was limited to where existing waterways were already located. New England's topography barred access to the west via canal because the Appalachian Mountain range was too high (Vance, 1995, p. 14). At this time, the invention of steam-powered locomotives was perfected. With this new form of transportation, canals were no longer necessary. During the 1850's circa, the canals were abandoned as the railroads commandeered the landscape.


Railroads in New England
New Englanders' enthusiasm for railroads spread like wildfire after witnessing the power of the steam locomotive. In 1835, New England completed three primary railroads: the Boston & Lowell (25 miles long), the Boston & Worcester (40 miles long), and the Boston & Providence (43 miles long). These rail lines were the first common carriers built to transport both freight and passengers. During the 1840's charters were issued instructing all railroad companies to provide service to every town (Karr, 1996, pp.33-34). New England created a unique railroad system that became the first of its kind in the world.
With the success of the first few railroads, a second generation of railroads developed in the 1850s-1860s. As depicted below, this success had an invigorating impact on communities, as railroad stations became centers of bustling activity. In 1850, Congress offered the first federal land grants for the development of railroads in the United States (WBE, Vol. XVI, 1975, p.114). With this new legislation, abundant opportunities existed for all. Within a few years, fourteen different railroad companies came into existence competing for the same transportation corridors.

Competition was intense between the railroad companies. Often, one company would lay tracks parallel to another company's railroad tracks. This fierce competition created an excess of railroad beds in New England (Karr, 1996, p.34). In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was created to monitor railroad competition (Vance, 1995, p.112). As a result of the mapping of railroad corridors, the landscape became flooded with tracks.