Whether you ride the rails or roadways, your daily commute is not new. Generations in Connecticut before you also struggled to get to work. As early as 1699 roads had been laid out on routes still used today. But where today those roads are lined with trees, by the mid-1700s most of southern Fairfield County had been cleared of all trees to allow for farming.
In the 1770s the maintenance of Country Road (now known as Old Kings Highway) was the responsibility of the locals. By law, every able-bodied man and beast could be enlisted for two days each year to keep the roads in good shape. But traffic then consisted mostly of farm carts, horses and pedestrians.
At the end of the 18th Century it was clear that we needed more roads, and the state authorized more than a hundred privately funded toll roads to be built. The deal was that, after building the road and charging tolls, once investors had recouped their costs plus 12% annual interest, the roads were to revert to state control. Of the 121 toll-road franchises authorized by the legislature, not one met that goal!
One of the first such roads was the original Connecticut Turnpike, now Route 1, the Boston Post Road. Another was the Norwalk-to-Danbury pike, now Route 7.
Four toll gates were erected: Greenwich, Stamford, the Saugatuck River Bridge, and Fairfield. No tolls were collected for those going to church, to militia muster or for farmers going to the mills. Everyone else paid 15 cents at each toll barrier.
The locals quickly found roads to bypass the tolls, which were nicknamed “shun-pikes.” The last tolls were collected in 1854, shortly after the New York and New Haven Railroad started service. An 1850 timetable showed three trains a day from Darien to New York City, each averaging two hours and 10 minutes. Today Metro-North makes the run in just under an hour. The one-way fare was 70 cents ($20.50 adjusted for inflation) versus today’s $14.50 at rush hour.
In the 1890s the one-track railroad was replaced with four tracks, above grade and eliminating street crossings.
In the 1890s the trolleys arrived. The Stamford Street Railroad ran up the Post Road, connecting in downtown Darien with the Norwalk Tramway (rattling along Railroad Avenue, now known as Tokeneke Road); the latter also offered open-air excursion cars to the Roton Point amusement park in the summer.
Riders could catch a trolley every 40 minutes for a nickel a ride. There were so many trolley lines in the state that it was said you could go all the way from New York to Boston, connecting from line to line, for just five cents a ride.The trolleys were replaced by buses in 1933.
Fast forward to the present, when we are again debating tolls on our roads, possible trolley service in Stamford. Have things really changed that much over 200 years?
Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.