Historians - Do Roads Ever Change?

Some things to note about the stretch of roadway that is kind of along the Oregon Trail in Oregon.

The stretch through the Columbia River Gorge has changed many times. For one thing, the Oregon Trail didn’t pass thru there! A very winding two land road was built thru it in the early 1900s. This was replaced by a regular, river level road (US 30) later on. Parts of the old road remain open as a scenic highway. Interstate 84 (originally 80N) came later. Between the Interstate and the dams, the road got moved higher up.

After The Dalles, the Interstate follows the river quite closely for a long while. Which was also the route of US 30. But … thanks to dam building it’s been rerouted. The last major reroute was for the John Day Dam. They even moved the town of John Day!

But note that the Oregon Trail did not follow the river closely. It was well south of it. The area near the gorge is just too rough for wagon travel. Much easier 10 or more miles in.

Once I-84 leaves the river it cuts fairly straight across the plateau to the base of Cabbage Hill in the Blue Mountains. The Interstate passes near Pendleton, but not through it. Well away from the old highway.

The route up the mountain is quite different from the old highway. The two sides of the freeway are sometimes well separated.

Across the top of the mountains it usually follows or is close to the old highway. But many cuts are different, e.g., near where it comes out of the mountain near La Grande.

From La Grande to Baker to Farewell Bend the Interstate is quite different from the old highway in many places (especially in bypassing towns). But thanks to geography, it has to go thru the same narrow slots in canyons in many places. The widening of some of those canyons took quite a long time making this stretch one of the last ones of the original Interstate plan to be completed.

Note that near Baker, it passes a few miles west of the old Oregon Trail. From Baker south it takes a different route through the mountains for a bit.

Speaking of bypassed towns, north of Farewell Bend, the Interstate swings wide from the old RR center of Huntington. (Not named after the RR Huntington tycoon you are thinking of.) Really killed that town economically.

From Farewell Bend to Ontario things are quite different. The freeway cuts straight cross country over good sized hills. No previous highway or trail went that route. The old highway follows the Snake River. But it has been re-aligned several times. E.g., there’s a “bridge to nowhere” (over the Malheur) near the river. A short section of old pavement leads to one side of it. The rest was washed away. The highway was moved further from the river.

The Oregon Trail originally came into Oregon south of Ontario (and thus I-84 and US 30) and swung well west before heading to Farewell Bend.

If not restricted by passes, narrow cuts, etc., the chances of you being on the actual Oregon Trail while on I-84 in Oregon are quite small.

My job involves digital road maps and navigation systems. Yes, roads change all the time. That’s why we have to update our map data regularly. And boy do we get complaints from our customers when our data isn’t updated fast enough.

A number of years ago I had reason to look at about a hundred years of street maps of a northeast corner of Sacramento. It was absolutely endlessly fascinating to see how streets evolved from minor to major to minor, and consolidated, and were renamed, and re-routed, and so forth. I think you’d see much the same evolution and change in any given square mile of any city in the US.

The short answer is “Yes.” Even in the smallest increments, roads do change.

OTOH, this part of Connecticut seems proud to drive around on colonial goat paths, what with that modern paving and so forth.

One of the changes I’ve heard of back in Colonial times is a private owner would build a road and charge a toll for people to use it. A few years later the state would come along and build a public road. The private road would be abandoned and either go back to wilderness or get developed into another use.

Well, sometimes states build huge, expensive roadways that are considered miracles of the modern age… and then abandon 18 miles of them because the seven tunnels total a couple of miles in length and are just wide enough for 1948 traffic.

See: Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. You can still drive it (in something a bit Jeep-like) and there are bicycle tours through the long, dark, spooky tunnels.

13th!!! Ooh, bad luck.

I’m never going to ride on that ship.

I have lived near several roads that have changed. Two were abandoned, which was confusing to find two separate “Newman Roads” a couple of miles apart, going in different directions, only to discover that originally they were one road with a serious bend and a one-and-a-half mile section was abandoned once cars made the “shortcut” it provided unnecessary. The second was similar although either the northern or southern section was renamed, since the two portions now have different names, although it is still possible to see the cut banks where the abandoned sections existed.

Similar to ftg’s note on I-80, (but the same river),a road that actually changed (rather than just being abandoned), is where I-90 crosses the Columbia River in Washington. From a turnout on the east side of the river, (westbound lanes), one can look off to the north and see the remnants of the old stage road that had to start down the side of the eastern bluff well off to the north to make a gradual descent to the ferry that originally crossed the Columbia at Vantage, WA. Not all of the road can be seen, as the dam-created Lake Wanapum has covered parts of the road where it used to follow the bank of the river before it was flooded. (On the west side of the river is a long arroyo rising up from Vantage that allows travel directly west from the river bank to the high ground.) Between the old stage road and the current freeway, one can see another road following a slightly steeper path from the bluffs. That road was cut into the bluff to take cars to a bridge that replaced the ferry. Finally, I-90, itself, stays high on the eastern bluff, crossing the river on a fairly high bridge.

Of course, the entire Interstate Highway system is a maze of roads that have been replaced. Some of the freeways follow the old roads. Some of them parallel the old roads that might be re-used as business and residential access roads. Some of the old roads are abandoned for several miles, either being turned into hiking/bicycling paths or simply allowed to crumble.

Sometimes roads change course slightly when a bridge is replaced - the old bridge stays in use while the new bridge is built nearby, and then the road is reconstructed to connect to the new one.

Common Bile Duct.

When I lived in Tennessee a decade or two ago, there was a state highway a few miles from my house that was a little bit too twisty and windy to suit some people’s tastes, and it was decided to straighten it out. This involved not only paving some land that had previously been pasture, but also building a bridge and flattening a VERY large hill. There’s a spot where the old road is now buried under 50 feet on dirt and the new road (which has the exact same name) runs at a slightly different angle, a few feet over and 50 feet higher up.

Several times over the years, all over the US, I’ve been driving on a fairly straight road and seen off to the side a slightly smaller, more winding, road which runs for a little while and then dead ends. It’s clear to me that there’s where the old road used to be before they straightened it out and made the new road that I’m now driving on.

Yeah, we have that a lot in my area - including one case where Old Historic Road exists in a half dozen disconnected pieces due to the newer road cutting through it.

The road to a house I own on the lake used to go to a little town called Cecil, WV with a post office, rail station, etc. In the 1930s, the feds decided to build a flood control dam and create Tygart Lake. This flooded the entire town of Cecil, WV and the remnants of it remain at the bottom of the lake.

The road goes past my house and, of course, dead ends at the lake.

Okay. Thanks for all the answers. Looks like the consensus is that roads stay the same only if they’re in continuous use. Which makes sense.

After I posted my OP, it occurred to me that even in the town I live in, there has been one very major change to a historic road; it was bisected in the 70’s and a subway station built, and the square around the courthouse enlarged to include the former right of way. Since this is the heart of downtown, and is pretty much in use all the time - lots of restaurants and public spaces - this was probably a good thing.

Thanks to all for your contributions!

The state of Vermont, for many years, had a policy that a public road, once recognized, could be used as a public right-of-way indefinitely. These “sleeping roads” then caused friction when later landowners discovered that snowmobiles had the right to drive through their front yards because there was a road there 200 years ago. (I’m exaggerating a little, but not much.) In response to this, the state decided that if a road had not been legally registered by July 1 of this year, it would officially be de-recognized; this led to many people exploring the back woods of Vermont in order to figure out exactly what could be claimed as a right-of-way.

Certainly roads change. Any time there’s massive urban renewal they can throw out the roasds that used to be there and start with something fresh. This isn’t always a good thing.

look at Boston. You have the North End, with its narrow, twisty-turny streets that, legend has it were laid out along cow paths (legend is apparently wrong here, I’ve been told). These are the OLD streets, going back to pre-Colonial times.

You’ve got Back Bay, with its nice, wide, regular streets laid out at right angles to each other and evenly spaced (and even named in alphabetical order), which were laid out in the newly-created landfill that previously had actually been the Back Bay. They had a clean slate, there.

But Boston’s West End (where Leonard Nimoy grew up) used to be a warren of narrow streets, a largely Italian and Jewish neighborhood, until they bulldozed the whole thing in a blitz of 1950s urban renewal under the Boston Housing Authority. A lot of people weren’t happy with it, and it gutted the neighborhood, erasing the old street pattern and putting something completely new in its place.


Later on they bulldozed Scollay Square to make way for Government Center and the new Boston City Hall. Again, the old street pattern disappeared under the new plaza and side streets


I think the roads change, at least in terms of their size and relative importance, but I’m not so sure that major ones really ever cease to exist, especially in urban areas.

The reason for this is because in general, they form property boundaries, but aren’t part of the property. So you’ll have a block of property, then 30 feet of city-owned road, then another block, etc… It’s relatively easy to change the ownership and use of the city block, but the city’s calling the shots on the road itself, and that’s usually limited to expanding the road or other improvements. Occasionally roads may get torn up if they traverse a park or some other plot of land where the road is viewed as an eyesore For example, the “Via dei Fori Imperiali” in Rome was built by Mussolini, and is being seriously considered for removal, since it cuts straight through what were the ancient Roman forums.

In more rural areas, the roads are more flexible, in that they may or may not become permanent as the area urbanizes.

Check this site out : http://www.historicaerials.com/

It has a bunch of historical aerial photographs dating back to the 40s and 50s in some areas, with the ability to do that nifty sliding window thing to compare two different sets of photos.

If you look at suburban areas, you can see where the roads do and don’t change.

There’s a page here which is all about re-discovering where the early 20th Century Old Spanish Trail went.
I thought it was fascinating.

Some Old Roads, of course, really endure. Broadway in Manhattan – which cuts across the island’s regular gridwork of streets and avenues – is reputedly an old trail dating back to pre-Colonial times, and was an Indian trail that ran the length of the island.

Interesting Thread Title/Poster combination, by the way.

Funny, I always thought it went from about S. Main to Wayside. (Houston folks may get the joke…)

You can see the maps of the US Geological Survey here: http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/. (Zoom in to the area you want to see, and then click. A list of available historical maps will appear.)

In my area, the maps go back 120 years or so. They overlay with a current map, so you can see how things have changed.