Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kentucky's Frontier Highway

While reading Kentucky's Frontier HIghway: Historical Landscapes Along the Maysville Road by geographer, Karl Raitz and anthropologist, Nancy O' Malley, I was confronted by the nemesis of every avid reader, an unknown word skulking in the shadows of my consciousness.  You know what kind of word I'm talking about.  I passed it by many times before without looking it up because the context in which I first encountered the word "palimpsest" allowed me to continue reading without losing any comprehension. Thus, I never really learned its meaning.

But not this time.  When  Raitz and O'Malley introduce the stretch of road examined in this November, 2012 publication from University Press of Kentucky, they characterize the road that stretches between Maysville and Lexington as both "a palimpsest and a puzzle."  After reading Part I--which explores modes of traveling the Maysville Road from pioneer times to the present and Part II--which delineates the evolution of the road from a trace to a modern highway-- I still hadn't figured out the meaning of "palimpsest" from context clues. For those of you who know the definition of this word, I apologize for my stubbornness. For when I finally looked up the definition of "palimpsest"-- after meeting it twice in the narrative--I had to agree from the accounts presented, that the Maysville Road--known in various time periods as Smith's Waggon Road, the Limestone Trace, The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike, and U.S. Highways 68, 62, and 27--is indeed a palimpsest, both literally and figuratively.

Part I of this book explains how modes of travel affected the road's physical aspects over time.  So literally, the road becomes an archeological site with many layers to be examined, one meaning of a palimpsest. Some 12,000 years ago, mega fauna shuffled wide paths from salt lick to salt lick, carving out the traces that pioneers would later follow after stepping off their flatboats from the Ohio River. Once they landed at Limestone(now called Maysville) and made the one-day journey up the steep incline to Old Washington, pioneer travelers would spend the night at an inn while their horses rested.  Then, early travelers often spent another eight days traveling the 64 miles to Lexington along treacherous terrain which required them to ford rivers. Once wagons and stagecoaches took to the roads, there was demand for better surfacing  while bridges and accommodations sprung up along the way.  Lexington and Washington became early population centers because the Limestone Trace was the major route to the rich bluegrass region for those seeking land, or those moving goods into these new population centers in the early 1800s.  Once steamboat travel became prevalent in the 1820s and 30s, river cities like Louisville and Cincinnati also gained economic prominence and increased population.  

Part II of this book examines the evolution of the road from trace to pioneer road to turnpike to parkway and finally to state and federal highway.  With each iteration, the road reveals another meaning of palimpsest, that of a parchment scraped away of its older writings to make way for new.  Part II discusses the social and economic complexities of rebuilding a road that will withstand the demands of each century.  Responsibility for building and maintaining roads in Kentucky lagged far behind engineering advances in Europe largely because of a shortsighted tendency to see roads as a local convenience and not as a state or national conduit for a growing economy.  There are interesting stories about Andrew Jackson's refusal to aid state governments in building roads and vignettes about how roads were engineered from broken stone, or macadam, named for the Scottish engineer, John McAdam. Plus, there are many first-hand accounts of travelers who used the road during each stage of its evolution.

For me, the most interesting part of Kentucky's Frontier Highway is Part III, which is a mile by mile cataloguing of the Maysville Road from Lexington to Maysville.  The cataloguing includes historic locations, photos of present day sites, neighborhood diagrams, and maps.  If someone wanted to take a Sunday driving tour of the Maysville Road, Raitz and O'Malley have provided an information-packed tour guide of this palimpsest.  You can get a sense of the road's history  by locating surviving landmarks along the mile markers and read about what was "written" on older layers of this metaphorical parchment.  There is even a chapter on the importance of the Maysville Road to the Underground Railroad.

Raitz and O'Malley close their discussion of the Maysville Road with a short section, Part IV, which takes a look at the relationship between roads and American culture in general.  This passage sums up why the study of old roads proves fascinating to the authors:

"…roads are windows into past aspirations, technologies, politics and economies. Transportation, in turn is the linchpin of America's economy and social life--freedom and ubiquity of movement lie at the very core of America's national culture."

Before this summer is over, I plan to take a ride down the Maysville road guided by my copy of Kentucky's Frontier Highway.  Don't worry. I'll plan this ride with a responsible Sunday driver, so I can ride shotgun and read about  the mile-by-mile points of interest.

***This review aired originally on WVXU's Around Cincinnati.  Listen to it here.

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