It should come as no shock that we Hidden New Jerseyans spend a lot of time on the road, whether it be for birding or to scout out more obscure history. From time to time, we've highlighted a couple of those roads, like the Pulaski Skyway and the White Horse Pike, and of course, the mighty Turnpike, but we've never talked much about the numbered roads, with the exception of the shortest one.
Between us, Ivan and I are at least reasonably conversant about the highways that criss-cross the state, so when we led a talk at the Sussex County library this past summer, we felt pretty confident in answering an audience member's question about the road system in place during the Cat Swamp hijacking of 1921. But as only lifelong residents can, another audience member clarified, "Route 46 was Route 6 then."
Ah, yes. Forget about traffic: our roads have the power to confuse on a whole different dimension.
A treatise on the history of New Jersey's road system could go on for thousands of words. Suffice to say it's been a continual work in progress since the Lenape discovered that spending the summer down the shore was a pretty great idea. With the arrival of European settlers, some of the natives' paths became carriage and stagecoach routes and eventually some of the roads we know so well today. Others were forged by the newcomers, using the best technologies of the day to surmount environmental challenges that had frustrated earlier efforts. Paterson Plank Road in the Meadowlands, for example, was paved literally with wood planks that prevented horses and carriages from sinking into the murky marsh.
Corporations were initially chartered in the early 18th century to build a series of turnpikes, but over time, investors shifted their money into canals and railroads, leaving many roads underfunded. By the dawn of the 20th century, the state had assumed ownership and maintenance of the derelict pikes. The 1916 Egan Good Roads Bill established funding for 13 numbered state highways, with routes largely linking the state's larger cities. Additional legislation the following year established two more roads and a state highway department; one more road was added in 1921.
At that point, the barn door was open. The increasing number of motorists wanted a decent road to drive on, and the business community was clamoring for well-maintained highways to get raw materials to factories and finished product to market. I don't know if frustration with state bureaucracy had anything to do with it, but local politicians started to take matters into their own hands. By 1930 the miles of paved road in New Jersey had doubled, engendering confusion along the way. In their zeal to get roads into service, local authorities had started numbering them with no regard for how other highways in the state were labeled. As a result, drivers could drive one Route 18 from Camden to Toms River, another 18 between Penns Grove and Atlantic City, or from Hoboken to Alpine. A realignment in 1923 helpfully added "N" or "S" to some road designations, but seriously? This was supposed to make sense?
Yet another law in 1927 sought to regain some order statewide, renumbering roads within a system that added logic to the mix. Routes 1 through 12 were in the northernmost part of the state, 21 through 28 originated in or near Newark, 29 through 37 started in Trenton, 38-47 radiated from Camden, and 48 through 50 were in the southernmost reaches. Still, though, Route 25 eventually spawned a series of roads called S-25, 25-A, 25-AD, 25-B, 25-M and 25-T.
Then there was the confusion between the state highway numbering system and the federal designations. State 29, at one point, shared pavement with U.S. 22 for several miles before the two routes diverged. It wasn't till 1953 that the mess was finally settled with a set of rules that forbade giving a state road the same number as a Federal road, assured that numbers matched when New Jersey roads flowed into New York or Pennsylvania, and declared that roads could not have both a state and Federal number. And clarifying another issue brought up with the new "superhighways," neither the Garden State Parkway nor the New Jersey Turnpike would have route numbers, though they'd earlier been assigned the numbers 400 and 100, respectively. The now-familiar "black square surrounding white circle" state road sign design was also introduced starting in 1954.
We often joke about needing to be 'from here' to know where the roads go, but imagine the confusion launched 60 years ago by all of the changes. Cartographers raced to make the necessary changes to their products, with the State Highway Department spending 250 staff hours updating the official map. Officials had already coordinated with the gasoline companies and motorists' clubs to ensure that their courtesy maps reflected the new reality of New Jersey roads.
The old state highway signs are long retired, but you can still find vestiges of the old numbering system on some of the aging bridges of the earlier highways. Look for the aggregate cement structures along the outer shoulders of the road, and you might see an unfamiliar road designation set, literally, in stone.