Hidden Nearby: The Old Waterbury River Turnpike in Winchester Center

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With the end of the American Revolution, Connecticut needed to reframe its transportation infrastructure from one dependent upon the British fleet to one that utilizes roadways to connect the state to major markets. The challenge faced by the fledgling state was that because it was heavily in debt from the war effort it lacked the funds to build roads, and in the wake of the revolution, it didn’t dare tax its citizens to pay for them. The answer to this transportation and economic dilemma was privately built turnpikes.

Map from Frederic Woods’s The Turnpikes of New England (1919)

The last two decades of the 18th and first decades of the 19th saw dozens of state-chartered but privately built turnpikes criss-cross the state. Turnpike corporations undertook the high costs of building the roads – clearing forests, grading the roads, building bridges if needed – in exchange for the rights to operate two tolls along their route. (Paths around these tolls, known as shunpikes, soon dotted the landscape.) Profits were limited to 12% return on investment; anything more was taken by the state. The most successful of the turnpikes, including the Greenwoods Turnpike between Norfolk and Winsted, reinvested their excess profits in their road, continuously improving conditions.

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The Waterbury River Turnpike Company ran one such road that began at the Massachusetts border, ran through Colebrook and Winchester to Torrington and ultimately Waterbury. (The Waterbury River refers to what we know as the Naugatuck River.) There is, perhaps, no better place to see what these turnpikes looked like than in Winchester Center. Designed in a French style, turnpike engineers looked to minimize curves. They also desired broad roadbeds; the section of the Waterbury River Turnpike pictured above, however, demonstrates that this was not always achieved.

 

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The turnpikes were at the heart of the nation’s market revolution in the early 19th century, providing the means for increasing numbers of Americans to access the goods being produced in a booming economy. ┬áTestimony to this stands in the interpretative marker (seen above) that stands in Winchester Center. The fees charged indicate that these roads were used to transport livestock, goods, and people. By the 1850s, most of these turnpikes had their charters revoked and became property of the state, but their importance in helping to build the nation’s economy cannot be understated.