What I’m Reading: The King’s Best Highway

The King’s Best Highway is a history of what was once called the Boston Post Road–the road from New York to Boston that developed in colonial times from a series of Indian trails, became the most important and trafficked road in America in the 19th century, and still exists in piecemeal form, largely as the modern Route 1.

Lots of interesting stuff in here. I thought the two best chapters were the early one on how the road’s early improvements were largely driven by Benjamin Franklin in the 1760s, when he headed the colonial postal service (hence, the name of the road at the time), and a later one on how after a period of decline when the railroads outcompeted them, the old highway system returned to prominence in the 1890s during the national craze for the bicycle.

In fact, it was these improvements to the road system driven by bicycle enthusiasts that literally paved the way for the automobile to flourish ten to twenty years later. Not to mention that much of the early automobile industry was located along the Boston Post Road, in the factories and workshops that made bicycle components in Connecticut and Massachusetts. If not for Henry Ford’s production innovations in Detroit, the US auto industry may very well have ended up in New England.

So this book is more than just a history of a highway, it’s also a history of America from a certain perspective. All sorts of historical figures march, ride, or drive their way through this book, often in roles we don’t normally associate with them–P.T. Barnum as a state congressman in Connecticut fighting for road improvements so more people can travel and visit his Manhattan museum, for instance. We also see George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Moses, J.P. Morgan, and plenty of other lesser-known but still important figures.

Yet somehow I don’t feel like this rises to the level of one of my “Shortcuts to Smartness” books. While the topic is right up my alley (“A book about a highway! Cool!” I said upon first seeing this), it’s probably too narrow a topic for the general reader. For those interested in the histories of cities, infrastructure, or transport, it’s appeal will be evident. For others, this is probably one you could skip.

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