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Sixth Massachusetts Turnpike

Before the close of the 18th century, the legislature incorporated a turnpike corporation, this time the Sixth Massachusetts, on June 22, 1799. It was proposed by this company to build a road from the east line of Amherst, on the country road, near William Breton’s house, through said towns: Pelham, Greenwich, Hardwick, New-Braintree, Oakham, Rutland, Holden, and Worcester, to the great road in Shrewsbury aforesaid, the great road in Shrewsbury being the road from Boston to New York. 

It is learned that the road was 43 miles and 112 rods in length; that it was built in one summer, which the records show was that of 1800; and that the cost was about $33,000, or at the rate of about $760 a mile.

How the Work was Done

In these days of labor-saving machinery and devices for performing enormous amounts of work, it is difficult to imagine the difficulties under which the turnpike constructors labored.

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1801 Stock Certificate

There were no factories in which the ordinary tools of daily life were manufactured in quantities, and they were not to be found in larger amounts than probably half a dozen in the stores. If a man wanted a shovel, a pick, rake, or hoe, he might find one in a store, but more likely he would have to wait the convenience of the local blacksmith, who would hammer them out one at a time on his order.


Carts and wagons were no more easily obtained, each one being custom-made by a local smith, who probably made no more than three or four in a prosperous year. Had it not been possible to hire as laborers the farmers along the route, with their horses, carts, and tools, it is doubtful if the work could’ve been accomplished at all.

The grading of the roadbed was accomplished, as it would be today, by shoveling the earth into carts and hauling it to its destination and shaping it to finished form by rakes or hoes.


Ledgers were drilled by hand with locally made drills. The time fuse was unknown then, and the old method of laying a train of powder was used to explode the blasting charges of powder. The hole having been drilled and loaded, a long hollow quill was inserted in the powder with its upper end above the surface of the rock.  The tamping was then placed around the quill, which filled with powder and connected with the train, carried the fire to the charge.

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Circumferentor, early1800s

The line was staked out by means of a surveyor’s compass, like those in use today, or with a circumferentor, an instrument composed  of a brass circular box, about five or six inches in diameter, within which is a brass ring, divided on the top into 360°, and numbered 10, 20, 30, etc. to 360: in the center of the box is fixed a steel pin, finely pointed, called a center pin, on which is placed a needle touched by a loadstone, which always retains the same situation; that is, it always points to the North and South points of the horizon nearly, when the instrument is horizontal and the needle at rest.

Frederic J. Wood, THE TURNPIKES OF NEW ENGLAND (Marshall Jones Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1919)

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