A Look Back

The Origins of Hempstead Turnpike

Posted

The main route through our hamlet, Hempstead Turnpike, alternatively known as Hempstead-Bethpage Turnpike and Fulton Street, is today part of State Route 24. But, as its name suggests, it started out as an actual turnpike.

In 19th century America, roads were generally inadequate for long-distance travel. Early in the century, the National Road was built as a taxpayer-funded experiment, but canals and railroads were king when it came to 1800s infrastructure. The main roads constructed at that time were private turnpikes — toll roads — built and maintained by private corporations. Hempstead Turnpike was an early example and came about through New York State's passage of the Turnpike Acts of 1807. In 1812, the route was incorporated by Samuel Carman, Joseph Pettit, Abraham Bell, and Laurence Seaman. A cursory look at any map from the 19th century shows these prominent families and their properties all over the East Meadow area. The route itself followed old Native American trails, as did so many other routes in the New York region. The best-known example is probably Manhattan's Wickquasgeck Trail, or much of today's Broadway. The Hempstead Turnpike Company, as established in March 1812, was authorized to "run and operate a turnpike road from the Village of Jamaica to the Village of Hempstead in perpetuity." The collection of public town roads that made up the turnpike at its inception were turned over the company for improvement, widening, and maintenance.

In 1852, the stockholders of Hempstead Turnpike Company sold the road to the Hempstead and Jamaica Plank Road Company. Improvements to the turnpike would come through the laying of wooden planks over the dirt, as supported by New York State's Plank Road Act of 1847. Though rudimentary by today's standards, this "innovation" was popular before the Civil War and greatly improved transportation along the turnpike. The New York Legislature passed a law in April 1859 that authorized the Company to collect higher fees as soon as planking was completed along the route. The law stated that "for each mile traveled by wagons, or otherwise, drawn by one horse, mule or ox, the sum of one and one quarter cent per mile, and for each additional horse, mule or ox, the sum of one and one-quarter cent per mile." It was common for turnpikes to collect tolls on animals and not people, as many people used the roads to drive their livestock. On turnpikes upstate, tolls were collected based on the number of chickens, sheep, or other animals one had with him! The toll booth in East Meadow was run by the Carman family and was located on the north side of Hempstead Turnpike, just west of Carman Avenue.

In March 1882, the charter of the Hempstead and Jamaica Plank Road Company expired and the original Hempstead Turnpike corporation met to try to reorganize. A lengthy court case ensued over the ownership of the turnpike; by 1891 the road seems to have been public once again. It was then further modernized through "macadamizing," which is the laying of crushed stone as pavement. By the time the U.S. Highway System was established in the 1920s, public roads were the norm. New York State incorporated the route into its new State Highway system soon thereafter.

© Scott Eckers

Dr. Scott Eckers is the author of East Meadow in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. He is Vice President of the East Meadow Board of Education as well as Social Studies Chair for the East Williston School District. Scott is also an entertainer and recording artist.