Historical society celebrates Northern Turnpike’s bicentennial
The Murrysville Historical Preservation Society will host its annual Heritage Festival on Sept. 21, and this year’s festival will mark the 200th anniversary of the Northern Turnpike.
Tribune-Review archives contain quite a lot of information about the roadway’s history, and local historians have published a wealth of material about it.
On March 20, 1787, the Pennsylvania Assembly proposed a road between the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River and the Conemaugh River, crossing into Westmoreland County near Blairsville and continuing through New Alexandria, Salem Crossroads (now Delmont), and Franklin Township (now Murrysville) to Pittsburgh. Monroeville residents will recognize part of its name in Northern Pike, a section of the former road.
This east-west route was originally known as Frankstown Road.
Later, the Harrisburg, Lewistown, Huntingdon and Pittsburgh Turnpike Co. was chartered to build a new highway over this route. The road was called the Northern Turnpike, and somewhat paralleled the earlier Forbes Road. At the same time, another company was formed to build a turnpike over a more southern route through Greensburg; it was known as the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Turnpike, or Pennsylvania Road, approximating the later route of the Lincoln Highway.
There was competition between these companies to obtain the necessary funding, and this rivalry delayed road construction. It wasn’t until 1818 that portions of the Northern Turnpike were opened for travel; it was finally completed in 1819. The town of Murrysville was founded in 1820 by settler Jeremiah Murry, who was also a major stockholder in the company that built the Northern Turnpike, according to local historian Charles Hall’s March 2019 booklet marking the road’s bicentennial anniversary.
The road was, basically, a widened dirt and stone pathway, enabling passengers and goods to be hauled between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Conestoga wagons, stagecoaches, wagons drawn by oxen, men and women on horseback, droves of cattle and sheep passed by or stopped for the night at bustling inns along the turnpike.
“The turnpikes were the major means of transportation from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, which was the jumping-off point to the West,” said society member Carl Patty of Murrysville. “The advantage of the Northern Turnpike was that its grades were not as steep.”
The name “turnpike” originated from the use of a pole or “pike” being placed across the road at a toll house, preventing the traveler from passing until the toll was paid. When the pole was turned, the traveler was permitted to pass through. Tollgates were, generally, placed at 10- to 12-mile intervals on the Northern Turnpike and toll rates depended on the items being shipped.
Salem Crossroads, later known as New Salem, and finally as Delmont, was a stagecoach stop along the Northern Turnpike. A north-south road, originally known as the Greensburg-Kittanning Pike (now Route 66) was built around 1800. The Northern Turnpike was completed through the town in 1818, forming a busy crossroads.
A Salem Crossroads tollgate was once located along what is now West Pittsburgh Street at the intersection with Tollgate Lane.
As recently as the 1950s, one of the old Northern Turnpike milestones could still be seen inside the fence at Export’s Orthodox Church; the stone advised travelers it was 22 miles to Pittsburgh. The church is now a private residence along Kennedy Avenue; the milestone, like the old road, is no longer there.
The classic Conestoga-style wagon was developed in Lancaster County for use on the turnpikes, according to Patty, and it was also used for driving cattle and other farm animals to market.
“My cousin’s grandmother was a little girl when the Northern Turnpike was still in use, and she remembers something I can’t even believe, which is seeing drovers moving giant herds of geese down the turnpike, if you can imagine that,” Patty said.
The Heritage Festival will take place at the Sampson-Clark Toll House, one of the toll houses along the Northern Turnpike. It will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include a pig roast, music by Celtic Ceol, pony rides, sutlers, trader booths and more.
There is no cost to attend. The toll house is near the intersection of Kistler Road and West Pike Street in Murrysville.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .