N.J. highways as history and archeology

Thursday, 27 October 2011 11:05
route6102611_optBY ERIC MODEL

We recently finished an interesting book about our interstate highway system. "Big Roads by Earl Swift" (Houghton Mifflin; 2011) tells the story about those who created the efficient while simultaneously maligned network superhighways.

Nearly 47,000 miles long, the interstate highway system is considered the greatest public works project in history. According to Swift, it incorporated some three hundred million cubic yards of concrete, enough to fill sixty-four Louisiana Superdomes to their roofs.

It also transformed America.

As he sets out to tell this tale, Swift relays his own experience as he set out across the country by car. Along the way he frequently came to find three parallel networks of roads reflecting various periods in American road building and travel: The old original Lincoln Highway, America’s first highway dating back to; its successor U.S. 30 and then finally Interstate 80, four sleek lanes of concrete, “its speeding semitrailers unfettered by cross traffic or slowpoke tractors, by blind driveways or train tracks”.

About these parallel routes, Swift writes, “On the old Lincoln, we’d tooled along. On U.S. 30 we toured. On I-80, folks were hauling ass”.

Such highway archeology can be found here in New Jersey as well.

For example, there are not many left now, but once in a while you can still find an old state road bridge that tells the story of New Jersey’s earliest state highways.

Most have been replaced. But the few that still exist provide some insight to how it was when the car started to take hold in these parts – now some 90 plus years ago.

It was in 1916 that the initial system of state highways was legislated, and by 1917 the state began to take over roads from the counties. By 1922, the routes were marked. U.S. Route numbers were added to some of the main routes in 1927.

An initial renumbering was attempted in 1926, but according to available histories on the subject, it did not work out well.

Every state highway, even those forming parts of U.S. Routes, was assigned a number at that time. Some short routes were assigned prefixes of S; for instance, Route S26 was a spur of Route 26 south of New Brunswick (One prefixed and suffixed route – Route S4A - was also defined as a second spur of Route 4).

As the system grew, some numbers beyond 50 were used, but most new routes received prefixed or suffixed labels.

In addition to eliminating many “N/S” roads (i.e. Route N-4), many roads were designated with new numbers at that time. They generally followed a general geographical pattern from north to south - 1-12 in northern New Jersey, 21-28 roughly radiating from Newark, 29-37 from Trenton, 38-47 from Camden, and 48-50 in southern New Jersey.

In 1953, a second renumbering was implemented. This was not a complete renumbering; instead, the only renumbered routes were those that violated a few guidelines (primarily long stretches of concurrent, especially with U.S. Routes; duplication of numbers with U.S. routes; suffixed routes; and number changes across state borders). route65102611_opt

Some routes were shortened to remove concurrencies, while others, like a Route 25, completely disappeared. Numbers from 53 to 93 were assigned to renumbered routes, while shorter ones received numbers from 152 to 165.

In addition, the two planned toll roads — the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike were then going to be known only by those names – and not their earlier numerical designations (4 Parkway and 100 respectively).

The majority of new numbers assigned since the 1953 renumbering have been from 166 to 185, with some short routes instead receiving numbers based on their parents (An old section of U.S. Route 9 became Route 109).

A little confusion was caused by the assignment of Interstate Highway numbers in the late 1950s (Route 495). In the 1990s, many bannered U.S. Routes were as state routes.

A look at three prominent roads gives one an idea about this evolution into what we now take for granted.

For example, what is now U.S. 46 was originally designated as three separate state routes. Pre-1927 Route 5 was created in 1916 to follow the road from Delaware to Denville, pre-1927 Route 12 in 1917 to follow the route between Hackettstown and Paterson, andpre-1927 Route 10 in 1917 to run between Paterson and Edgewater.

In 1927, Route 6 was legislated to run from Delaware east to the George Washington Bridge, replacing portions of Routes 5 and 12 and paralleling the former Route 10, which itself became Route 5 and Route 10N, the latter being shortly removed from the state highway system.

In 1936, U.S. 46 was designated to run from U.S. 611 in Portland, Pennsylvania east to the George Washington Bridge. The route replaced Pennsylvania Route 987 to the Delaware Bridge over the Delaware, and from there followed Route 6 across New Jersey. In 1953, the Route 6 designation was removed from US 46 in New Jersey, and later that year, the route was realigned to end at U.S. 611 in Columbia, New Jersey, replacing a part of Route 94. U.S. 611 had been brought into New Jersey by two new bridges over the Delaware River, following a freeway between them that became a part of I-80. By 1969, U.S. 611 was aligned back into Pennsylvania, and U.S. 46’s western terminus remained as an interchange with I-80 and Route 94.

Similarly, Route 4 has a story that would surprise and confuse even the most Jersey-savvy. The route was originally legislated in 1927 to run from Cape May to the George Washington Bridge. This route replaced pre-1927 Route 14 between Cape May and Seaville, what was planned as pre-1927 Route 19 between Seaville and Abescon, pre-1927 Route 4 between Absecon and Lakewood and South Amboy and Rahway, and a spur of pre-1927 Route 7 between Lakewood and Freehold, with the rest of the route to be built on a new alignment.

The present-day routing of U.S. Route 9 between Cape May and South Amboy and Route 35 between South Amboy and Rahway bore the Route 4 designation prior to 1953, when the route was defined onto its current alignment. Several spurs of Route 4 existed before 1953 and the Garden State Parkway was originally planned as a bypass of Route 4 that was to be designated Route 4 Parkway.

Today's stretch of the route (Fort Lee to Paterson) was completed by 1934, not long after the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931. It was planned to be upgraded to a full freeway, but plans never materialized. Despite this, the route has seen improvements, such as to the interchanges with Route 17 in 1999 and with Route 208 in 2002.

And then there is Route 17. Prior to 1927, the route was designated as Route 17N, which was to run from Newark to the New York state line just north of Mahwah. This route had followed various local streets, including Paramus Road and the Franklin Turnpike north of Hackensack. In 1927, Route 17N became Route 2, which was designated along the portion of Route 17N between Route 7 in North Arlington to the New York border near Suffern, New York. This route was moved to a multilane divided highway alignment north of Rutherford by 1937. Route 2 became Route 17 in 1942 to match the designation of New York State Route 17 for defense purposes during World War II. The entire Route 17 corridor was once planned to be a freeway until the 1960s and later plans to extend the route south of Route 3 to Interstate 280 in 1972 and to the New Jersey Turnpike in 1987. Both failed.

When I last looked a few years ago, there was still an occasional bridge to be found on Route 17 with the prior Route 2, 1927 designation. The same is true for some structures on Route 46 which once had the State Highway 6 designation. It’s been a while. I wonder if they still endure – especially as many bridges have been rebuilt in recent years.

To most, such matters mean nothing. They simply want to get where they have to be as fast as possible. But to some, those old bridges and their inscriptions are part of an interesting story to be told.

Source acknowledgment: Historical background courtesy of Wikipedia.

We also recommend "The Big Roads, The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path, overlooked and forgotten" on Sirius XM-Radio and at journeysinto.com.


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