Historians - Do Roads Ever Change?

I’ve been reading about the history of the little town outside Atlanta where I live. It was laid out in the early 1820s, and in looking at old maps, I realized that buildings and parks have changed, but the roads haven’t. They’ve been renamed, extended, and linked up with other roads, of course; but the heart of the town’s street plan is the same, more or less, as it was in 1823.

For that matter, Atlanta has some streets that almost predate human settlement; Peachtree Street is a game trail that became a Creek trade route, a country road, and ultimately a major road. (I’ve heard buffalo described as “the original road engineers”) Britain still has roads that were laid out by the Romans, and the Celts before them.

So how persistent are roads? How often, or ever, do they change course? Is it safe to say, as it seems to me, that streets are among the most persistent features of a settlement? Or is that only true of settlements that are still occupied?

In New York they deleted 13th Ave to make room for the Titanic.

Lot of good it did.

New technology can move roads. Dynamite, for example, made it possible to drive roads through mountains that older roads had to go around. Steel made it possible to build bridges and once the bridge existed, roads would be built to each end (places where you’d cross a river by bridge use different terrain than places where you’d cross a river by boat so the traffic patterns change). When you’re looking for a site to build an airport, you look for open land out in the country. And once you’ve built the airport, you need roads to handle all the new traffic. Factories used to be powered by water so they were clustered along rivers. When steam and then electricity became the source of power, factories were built wherever land was cheap and people going to work at these new locations changed traffic patterns.

It depends to a large extent on how well-entrenched property rights are alongside the roads, and how energetic landowners are in defending them - or how forceful wouldbe road-builders are in trying to overturn them.

When they were rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren came up with a master plan to create broad avenues and something much closer to a grid-plan of streets. But the people who owned the plots where properties had burnt down wanted to rebuild where they had been - and they controlled the City Corporation and, through having the ear of the King and Parliament, the money.

After WW2, there were all sorts of master plans for rebuilding/tidying up London, with a view to improving traffic flows, as well as building better housing and so on. Lots of details in smaller areas got built, but not the big new urban roads. Three times in my lifetime, road planners in the various authorities came back with much the same sort of plan (for an inner ring of roads to motorway standard), and every time local voter revolts saw them off.

Plus, there’s the nostalgia/familiarity argument - it was important to the Poles, even under a totalitarian Communist government, to rebuild at least the historic centre of Warsaw as it always had been, even if that reflected the social and economic realities of backward and bourgeois times.

Napoleon III had exactly this done to Paris by Haussmann circa 1850-70, which is why we now have a bunch of* grands boulevards* cutting through the maze of twisty little streets that typically makes up most old European cities.
It was hugely unpopular at the time and cost a fortune. I guess authoritarian military dictators are good for *some *stuff :).

After settlements were established, in the early dates, enterprising citizens built a toll road from a Hudson River port (it was a port then, not now)My fat her still called this road the Turnpike, from the pole that was across the road until you paid… The investors never got their money back. This road received a hard surface in the 20s or 30s, with little effort to smooth bumps or straighten curves. Around WWII another road was improved, much more level, straight, and wide, paralleling the turnpike, a few miles away. This has also been improved leaving some sections abandoned. In colonial times the King’s Highway paralleled the Hudson. Rt. 9W was built as a modern 2 and 3 lane road. In the 50s the Interstate (Thruway) was built, 4lane divided highway. On 19th century maps the roads connecting a hamlet on the turnpike with the King’s Highway were a hodgepodge of lanes. They were replaced by a somewhat better, direct road. seemed that in KS if a road needed upgrading they just built a new one parallel a few yards away.

Roads are sometimes abandoned and lost. Parts of some Roman-era roads in the UK have been rediscovered in modern times by archaeologists.

Yay for me, I spelled “archaeologists” correctly first try.

Department of Transportation employee, here.
It happens. Often.

Near my workplace, a major restructuring of a road happened, when a stream was re-diverted underground.

Similarly, a gravel road has been blocked off at one end, & is slowly reverting to open field.

And a section of road, near the airport, left over from World War Two, is slowly being covered in grass. The main route has shift 35 yards over.

Road flex, morph, change, as needs change.

Yes, there are roads that get abandoned and other roads that get slightly shifted, straightened out, intersections changed and things like that. I would say that in larger cities roads wouldn’t change much since there are already buildings and such in the way.

I took an old atlas of Frederick county Maryland, scanned it and then overlaid it over a modern map. I then retraced the roads to see how much they’ve changed. Here’s a Google Earth folder that has a file for the roads if you’re interested in seeing what roads might have changed in the past 150 years. It’s rather interesting to see how some old roads followed the property lines, you can see some past roads that follow current tree lines.

I’ve been on some of the old roads that are no longer maintained, sometimes one can walk down them, other times one wouldn’t even know there was anything there.

Actually, for a more modern road, the main road I live on was moved about 100 feet to make it wider, there’s now an old 100 yard section that’s been blocked off and now people walk along it. This would have been in the past 15 years or so.

Roads change often, the section of road I live on was not here 120 years ago but the road itself goes back to at least 1750. They straightened the road sometime in the auto age. There are many old roads in this area that have been straightened out. We’ve got an old 2 lane country road a few towns over where the road was complete abandoned for about a 1 mile stretch and replaced by a 4 lane road instead that is as much as 600’ away.

When they put highways through populated areas, many older roads get split in half and end up as 2 dead ends. The Garden State Parkway did this often.

There’ve been major changes to Highway 61 in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

The Sydney to Newcastle road was the Great North Walk… There’s still convict made bridges and walls (abutments ,steps, etc) along the way. I don’t think it was open as a public road at the time of motor vehicles that COULD drive it… It was too steep, too rough, too much rock and mud … for early automobiles. It was built for horses… Now only used for walking or bicycles.

Its replacement was the Pacific Highway… Now that road is redundant, as it was one lane each direction, and winds like its a very long Australian python in a small cage. The replacement is a freeway with the funky “Moonee Moonee Bridge”, which is very high above the valley below… (and still has steep road on both sides… ) . The point is that the old road is still left there, they even rebuilt a section that slipped into the creek below it. (At the time of the land slip, a car went into it and drowned the family inside). Well I am not sure why they keep it open, but heaps of people drive it for its scenic and winding nature…through a national park.

It is rather expensive to move roads around.
The road has a number of services under or near the road which then probably has to move… Potable water, sewerage, rain(surface) water drainage, gas , electricity , telephone…

Rerouting long strips of road is usually only done in a CBD redevelop situation.
The old warehouse area… no longer a warehouse area… the authorities acquire the land, and rebuild the roads to suit some new use… eg high rise buildings, shopping centres, that sort of thing…

In the northeast you’ll often find Old Historic Road near Historic Road. The older road was put through the line of least resistance back in the day. Modern techniques made it cheaper to run a straighter or less hilly road. The old road had houses and other buildings on it, so it couldn’t be eliminated. The authorities just changed its named to Old Road when the new road was opened. That’s the major reason roads continue. Interstates did more or less the same thing to smaller regional roads, but they haven’t completely vanished because of the existing use of the road.

Some older roads already were in the best locations. Most cities in the eastern U.S. has roads laid out on old Indian trails. I’d be very surprised if nearly all of them hadn’t been somewhat relocated over the years, though.

For a good example of how progress changes road design, study a map of Chicago, especially outside the downtown area. It was laid out in a grid in the 19th century but today many of the streets are gone or stop and then restart because of changes over the decades.

I’ve encountered several places where a road needed to be widened, but there were buildings too close to the road, so the road got moved.
A few examples of different things for different reasons can be found in a town I know pretty well: Mansfield, Connecticut.

Looking at Mansfield in Google Maps satellite view, if you zoom in a bit, just north of Mansfield Center you’ll see that Route 195 runs roughly North-west, but a road branches off to the right going almost straight north, then makes a nearly 90 degree left turn, crosses 195, then turns north to rejoin 195. The road got moved to make it wider. The first part has lots of old houses very close to the road (and that really hard nearly 90 degree turn), while the second part went around a hill that was more of a hassle for horses than it is for cars.

The road on the right that runs between the “Spring Hill Tract” and “Lion’s Club Memorial Park” has a noticeable line that runs parallel to it slightly to the east. The built a flood control dam in the late 1930s (making Mansfield Hollow Lake), and during periods of heavy rain the lake grows and the old road might wind up under water, so they built a new road a bit uphill.
A more pronounced version of the same thing can be seen on Route 89 just east of there. Where Route 89 just brushed the edge of the lake, it actually crosses over the old Route 89 at the same time. The old road ran from Atwoodville down along the edge of where the lake now is across where the new road is, and ran the west side of a house that is directly across from Southeast Elementary School.

Not nearly as visible from that air, but quite apparent on topographic maps, is the moving of Route 32 (on the west side of town). In the area marked “Willimantic Tract” on the Google map, there is an old road now overgrown with forest about 100 feet west of the new Route 32. This was not a flood control move: they actually moved the road downhill, towards the river. Apparently when they decided to pave Stafford Road, they needed to move it to a wider piece of flat ground. Sometimes the old road remained in use (you can see one just south of there), but in that stretch it was just taken over by the woods.

A bit north from there you’ll find Eagleville, another example of needing to move the road out of the village because the houses are too close to the road to widen it.
And a bit to the east (one town over), you’ll see Route 198. If you zoom in, you’ll see that a lot of the roads that intersect that road actually are on a little loop: the original road was much twistier, and ran through lots of little villages. The new road is wide and straighter (it is a REALLY nice road). As you drive along it is really obvious when you pass one of those roads off at an angle that the road used to go over there.

I meant east. :frowning:

Research into road history is a hugely complex and challenging subject.

We have evidence that Kirkstone Pass has been in use since the late stone age, after all there are knapping quarries all around there - so that’s a route that has not changed much in a fairly long time.

In the UK many of the small country roads were field boundaries and may often have become raised up on winding causeways due to centuries of build up of earth through plough turns.

The result is that we have loads of by-passes with bends cut off or cut out of roads, many used as laybys.

In cities it tends to get more difficult to reroute various roads, there has been a trend prior to the 2007 financial crash to combine a number of these narrow streets and turn them into covered shopping centres - which to me is something of a loss - fortunately all those banks going bust has hugely slowed this down

One thing I just stumbled on that may be of interest is that the National Park Service has a GIS overlay for the National Historic Trails which is pretty interesting: http://imgis.nps.gov/Trails

For some reason I can’t get it to work right now, but the other day I was looking at some sections of the old Oregon Trail relative to modern roads. In some places the Interstate is basically laid on top of the trail, in other places it’s now an infrequently used farm road and in some places it isn’t a road at all anymore (but you can still see the ruts crossing some field.)

What is “CBD”?

Probably “central business district”.

Look up the historic Five Points area in New York City. The intersection of Orange, Cross and Anthony which gave the area its name is now the intersection of Worth and Baxter. Looking at modern day map vs. the mid 19th century, you can relate the two, but the modification of the street layout is fairly extensive. Of course, Five Points was an infamous crime-ridden slum which was eventually razed for the most part.