Today, it’s just U.S. Route 6 that brings you down the Mid-Cape, around the traffic circle in Eastham, and then along four lanes – then two with shoulders – to South Wellfleet. Route 6 has such a major impact on life in South Wellfleet– it hums with traffic all summer, sirens wail when accidents occur, and, in the summer, trips and turns require pre-planning. I know someone who will not make left turns in July and August!
My “road research” looked into what was here before automobiles and prior to today’s Route 6. Regarding the earliest routes, most historians acknowledge “Indian trails,” but there is no evidence of precisely where they were. A 1984 report on the history of Massachusetts towns for the Massachusetts Historical Commission suggests that there was a trail along the Atlantic coast, on the top of the dunes, where drift whales may have been readily sighted. There might have been a second trail along the Bay shore, skirting the wetlands, which would have linked settlements and led to shellfishing areas.
Enoch Pratt, in his 1844 history of Eastham and Wellfleet, asserts that by 1650 there was a rough cartway, Nauset to Pamet, going around the head of Blackfish Creek. Of course, getting to the Meeting House was one of the main reasons for establishing roads. In 1719, in response to the citizens of Harwich who needed to get to the meeting house that was closer to them, Eastham designated that a road be built from Harwich to Truro. Historians cite this record as evidence of the building of what became known as “the King’s Highway.” However, it was not a multi-lane highway – it was just a simple cartway.
The deforestation of the Cape is another factor that had significant impact on road development. Some say that deforestation was a fact after just thirty years of settlement, while others put it later, by 1700. As mentioned here later, the sand roads were difficult to traverse. Of course, another option for travel to and around the Cape was to go by boat, using Cape Cod Bay.
In his 1962 report to the National Park Service, William Hershey investigated the Cape’s 17th and 18th Century roads. He comments on the “myth” of the King’s Highway—that there was no effort to build a single highway, but instead the roads were simply a knitting together of old cartways. The 1719-20 Eastham decision to build did produce a forty-foot road, so that South Wellfleet had a road fairly early. Hershey has a note from “Eastham Lands and Ways” records that the road from Eastham to Billingsgate/Wellfleet, was widened to thirty feet as it went around the head of Blackfish Creek. This road, called the “King’s Highway”, had to skirt all the creeks and brooks in South Wellfleet – Indian Brook, Fresh Brook, and Blackfish Creek.
One of the earliest actions of 1763, after Wellfleet became organized as a separate town, was its vote to make a new bridge over Duck Creek to connect the town with the King’s Highway.
Hershey references the 1794 Town Plans, created after the Revolution. After rejecting the King, the main road began to be called the “County Road” or the “Public Road”. In Hershey’s description of the Wellfleet Town Plan, the “County Road” goes around Blackfish Creek to Great Pond, and then to the head of Duck Creek. The road continues north, staying west of Long Pond and Gull Pond, and finally crossing Herring Creek to the Truro line. In yet another document, the Notes of the Wellfleet Town meetings, the main road is called the “County Road” in a 1789 note. Later, in the midst of the 19th Century when a new County Road was built, further to the east and closer to the activity on the Bay side, the old road seemed to revert once again to being called the King’s Highway.
Reverend Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale, took a sabbatical in 1800 to travel through New England, making observations on its development. His work was published posthumously in the 1820s and is one of the standard sources for Cape Cod historians because of the details Dwight observed. He writes of his trip along what must have been the King’s Highway:
Our journey through the forest was disagreeable. The surface was unpleasant, and the trees were destitute of thrift and beauty. The road also became within a few miles (of Eastham) a mere bed of deep sand, through which our horses moved with excessive difficulty. …Our road passed Wellfleet on the right at such a distance that we saw little of this town until our return.
In the early 1800s, Wellfleet surveyed its roads and placed their boundaries on maps. There were eighteen roads in the town at that point.
The Wellfleet Town Records are full of decisions to build and improve the town’s roads. One of the early decisions of the Town was to build a bridge at Blackfish Creek in 1828-29, allocating $30 for the task. In that same year, the Town voted to pay widow Lydia Goodspeed for her land that was taken to build the road to the South Wharf. As mentioned in an earlier piece, the South Wharf was getting organized at that time, and a road to South Wellfleet’s center of fishing would have been essential. I think it’s likely this was the road that is more or less where “Old Wharf Road” is now.
The maps of the time show a second road to the South Wharf, leaving the King’s Highway, perhaps near Fresh Brook Village, and meeting the “Old Wharf Road” we know today. Pieces of this roadway might still be visible in the woods north of the Lt. Island Road – something I need to explore. One of my Barker family connections commented recently that the second road was still being used in the mid-20th Century, his family’s choice for getting to Route 6 when their trip was south to Orleans.
In early 1846 Bethuel Wiley, Elisha Freeman, and George Ward – Selectmen of Wellfleet – posted notices in the newspapers that they were ready to accept proposals to build a bridge and a sluiceway over Fresh Brook, and a causeway over Blackfish Creek, to be completed in the spring of that year. Another notice signed by “Obadiah Doane and 40 others” to the County Commissioners of Barnstable requested a County Road to be laid out through the north part of Eastham and the south part of Wellfleet. The road was to run:
North of Nehemiah Doane’s dwelling house and south of Josiah Lincoln’s woodland …running northwesterly and intersect the public road south of Daniel Atwood’s dwelling house in South Wellfleet … . Said road leads across the Dill bridge, and will shorten the public travel and be a better road that is now traveled.
This was the County Road that eventually became Route 6, while the King’s Highway became the “other road” used less often, and, when the railroad came through in the 1870s, was even less vital. Today the South Wellfleet portion of the King’s Highway is a fire road in the Cape Cod National Seashore. I was surprised recently to see how far east it is, well past the bike trail/former railroad tracks.
Charles Cole’s memories of Wellfleet in the document his family produced, include the County Road development. He remembers the County Road’s building in the 1850s, and the causeway over Blackfish Creek as a part of this road development. He remembers “Before this, the King’s Highway was the main road, and there was just a footbridge over the Creek.”
For the rest of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th, Town Meetings had regular actions taken to “accept” roads, and to oil or harden roads. Sometimes oyster shells were used to harden them. As more visitors began to “motor” to the Cape, travel books began to describe the roads. A 1907 Auto Blue Book described five miles through South Wellfleet to Wellfleet as “macadam” while the road returned to sand over the hills from Wellfleet to Truro. It’s not hard to see why the Town wanted to keep the new motorists happy, providing good roads, so they would visit the Town and help grow the tourist economy.
In 1904/05, if I am reading the Town Meeting notes correctly, the County Road was made a State Road. My brief research on highway development indicates that in the 1920s a national “highway system” was conceived, and the State Highway became Route 6 in 1926. Routes would be designated with one number no matter which state they were in, and signage would become uniform.
With the 1935 construction of the new Cape Cod Canal bridges, connecting to Route 6, traffic could move all the way down the Cape. This development had more of an impact on the Cape’s landscape than anything that had come before. Now vacation cottages became more accessible, along with motor courts, food/clam stands, beaches, and more.
In 1953 Route 6 was designated as “the Grand Army of the Republic Highway”, named for the American Civil War Association.
During the Eisenhower years of nationwide highway development, Route 6 was widened and straightened. In July 1951 the Boston Herald noted that the Wellfleet and Eastham portion was just about completed, with the roadway widened from 20 feet to 36 feet. The article also points proudly to the smoothness of the road, with 2.5 feet of concrete for the roadbed.
South Wellfleet had one house I’ve identified that was moved at that time. And the little “side road” – now called Goss Lane – is still there as a remaining piece of the County Road/old Route 6.
Route 6 has an interesting history, wending its way through the United States from Provincetown to Long Beach, California. Until 1964 it was the longest highway in the U.S.
In that year, it slipped to Number 2 when a portion of it was cut from Long Beach back to Bishop, California. Route 6 never developed the cachet of U.S. Route 66. It was cobbled together as a series of roads making a single east-west route across the country. An historian writing about it commented “Route 6 runs uncertainly from nowhere to nowhere, scarcely to be followed from one end to the other, except by some devoted eccentric.”
Hershey, William D. “Cape Cod 17th and 18th Century Roads with particular attention to the King’s Highway” manuscript prepared for the National Park Service, 1962, on file at the CCNS archive.
“Town Meeting Highlights” list supplied by Dawn Rickman, Wellfleet Town Clerk in 2007
Dwight, Timothy Travels in New-England and New-York, Volume III, available online at www.books.google.com.
Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898. Wellfleet chapter online at www.capecodhistory.net.
Freeman, Frederick. The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of Barnstable County, Boston: George C. Rand and Avery, 1858 (two volumes). Wellfleet chapter on line at www.capecodhistory.net
Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive: http://www.sturgislibrary.org
Newspaper account on line at www.genealogybank.com.
“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library.
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