330 Years of Unknown History: The Oldest Road in America Finally Surfaces
Often, there are hidden truths and old tales that get lost with each generation. As such, there is an untold story about the United States that begins in the 1600s.
Prior to English entrepreneur and Pennsylvania founder William Penn’s arrival to the New World, this continent was inhabited by various Indigenous Indian tribes. Once the Swedes and the Dutch began settling in the area they bartered for land (and fought over it). After William Penn’s arrival the land was sectioned out to various hamlets. The Indigenous tribes started to die off because of fighting or disease and most of them left the river areas. Mills started to appear in the late 1600s and early 1700s which created a boom in food production. This led to more people settling in the Tri-State area. Then in the 1800s, the result was that Philadelphia had the world’s largest and most diverse growth spurt of industrial sectors which of course played a huge role in the Revolutionary War.
Painting of William Penn. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The King’s Highway Bridge
In the 1600s, the King's Highway was built to go from Boston, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. This highway is now the oldest road in continuous use in the nation. In Philadelphia, William Penn had the King’s Highway Bridge built by residents via royal edict. This bridge, built in 1697 is the oldest roadway bridge in continuous use in the nation. When it comes to Philadelphia however, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are still the popular tourist attractions.
“People only know about the history of Center City, Philadelphia.” said Fred Moore of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network. “Northeast Philadelphia has been all but forgotten.”
Map of the King’s Highway courtesy the author.
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Dangerous Deeds and Historical Events
What people are shocked to find out is that delegates of the Continental Congress often met to discuss their independence from Britain in taverns in Frankford, (now a neighborhood of Philadelphia before the consolidation of 1854). George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other important people would often travel to, work in, and sleep in parts of Northeast Philadelphia. Fast forward to the Civil War when there was a population growth of African Americans and you will find that residents of Northeast Philadelphia played a big part in the abolishment of slavery and the Underground Railroad.
The US Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves to escape to free states and Canada. Painting by Eastman Johnson, 1862. ( Public Domain )
When Thomas Holme created the first map of Philadelphia in 1687, the grid system that is in use throughout America first made an appearance. This was an efficient way of sectioning off the city as well as making it easily accessible. Then the Indian trails started to become major roads, and they had to be widened for horse and carriage travel, and the area started to become more industrialized. From those times came so many unheard stories that revealed a unique perspective on the lives of our forefathers and those who brought our nation independence.
There is a great story about Lydia Darragh, a woman who warned American troops of a British invasion during the Revolution. She crossed British lines and found out about the ambush, then left, stating she needed to get more flour from the mill to make bread for them. She did get more flour, but also stopped at an American encampment in Northeast Philadelphia to warn Washington’s troops. If that hadn’t happened, there was a chance we wouldn’t be a free country today. It is stories like these that need to be told.
“I’m baffled as to how this story has never been told before.” said Director Jason Sherman of The King’s Highway documentary. “People need to know what happened along the King’s Highway. Hopefully this documentary sheds some light on the importance of this area and how it played a significant role in the birth of our nation. Let’s save our buildings and the history that stays with them.”
Milestone along the King’s Highway, the oldest road in continuous use in the nation. ( Public Domain )