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A Turnpike in St. Mary's County

A native St. Mary's Countian, Athanasius Fenwick, penned a letter to the National Intelligencer that never quite made it to publication for reasons unknown. In it, he details a vision for the County where a modernized turnpike would create new economic opportunities for southern Maryland. His suggestion was never taken up, but it certainly brings up questions about what it would have meant for St. Mary's County and the economic development of the County.

Here are the highlights:

  • In 1814, Lt. Col. Athanasius Fenwick suggested straightening the roads in St. Mary's County and moving the mail route from Washington to Norfolk, Virginia through Southern Maryland.

  • Fenwick thought that modernizing the roads would bring more commerce and allow for more "intelligence" or information to be circulated throughout the County.

  • Fenwick thought that the Northern Neck and Southern Maryland residents were resistant to the idea as the culture became more insular and remote from other parts of their respective states. Roads, in his opinion, were not as maintained as they were in other parts of the states, residents were much more territorial about roads by erecting gates, and their use was primarily dedicated to local travel.

  • Fenwick envisioned that the County could become more prosperous if they opened the road from Leonardtown to the head of the St. Mary's River having a boat land in the harbor at Kinsale, Virginia and carrying mail along the necks and peninsulas of Northern Virginia to Norfolk.

  • The proposal was part of a movement in the United States where turnpikes were booming and bringing economic benefits to the towns that serviced them.

A New Mail Route from Washington to Norfolk, VA

Athanasius Fenwick, b. 1780, was born in St. Mary's County and came from a long line of Maryland catholics. He had been educated in Europe and returned to Maryland where his slaves operated the plantation, Cherryfields, in Drayden, MD. He studied law under John Thompson Mason, who became Attorney General for Maryland in 1806. Fenwick was also a member of the St. Mary's County agricultural board and published articles in the American Farmer. He later served in the House of Delegates and died in 1824 before serving in Maryland's Senate where he was elected.

1814 Map Depicting Road from Port Tobacco to St. Mary's County

Fenwick's role in agriculture, trade, and navigation helped to inform his views on the roads in Southern Maryland and how they could modernized to bring commerce and prosperity to the region. By 1814, a stage road from Washington, DC to Port Tobacco through Chaptico and Leonardtown and further toward Point Lookout provided the only means of communication by mail. The only post offices operating in the early 19th century included: Chaptico, Leonardtown, Charlotte Hall, Great Mills, Ridge, St. Inigoes and Clements (Head of St. Clement's Bay). This route represents what is known today as Route 234 and Route 5.

The road from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA spanned about 238 miles through Williamsburg and about 259 miles through Petersburg, VA. Fenwick thought that taking the existing roads from Washington, D.C. to Leonardtown (through Port Tobacco) and then to the head of the St. Mary's River (present-day Great Mills, MD) would decrease the travel distance and time. He had proposed that the pilot boats on the Potomac river, which were swift and ocean-ready, would be able to carry mail across from St. Mary's County to Kinsale, VA and then down the Northern Neck to Norfolk, VA.

1792 Depiction of Maryland Pilot Boats

The total trip would be 192 miles with the current roads. Fenwick, however, thought that by straightening the roads in St. Mary's and in the Northern Neck of Virginia, the total trip would be reduced to 160 miles and would save between 80-100 miles on the trip to Norfolk. Adopting the new route might have reduced an otherwise 4-day trip to about 2.5 days. So what interested Fenwick in proposing such a road?

A New Turnpike in Southern Maryland

Fenwick perhaps thought that by straightening the roads in southern Maryland, the region would have the "best paved turnpike in the United States." His ambition may have been part of a larger context where turnpikes and toll roads had sprouted all across the United States. It was during this time that most "investors" to these roads tended to not be outside speculators, but locals positioned to enjoy the indirect benefits of the turnpikes. Most investment activity came from farmers and artisans as opposed to merchants and urban professionals. Fenwick certainly fit the bill in terms of potential investors and his plantation, Cherryfields, would have been close enough to the proposed road to enjoy the fruits of its commerce. He acknowledged that repositioning the roads would change the fortunes of the County.

At the time of Fenwick's writing, the turnpike movement was booming, especially in Maryland. From 1792-1845, more than 42% of Maryland's turnpikes were built between 1811-1820. Most of those roads had been commissioned in western Maryland and outside Baltimore. It might have been likely that Fenwick saw how roads were bringing economic progress to the northern reaches of Maryland and thought that he might be able to make the region serve as a linchpin between the agrarian South and the industrial North.

By the early 1800s, some Americans feared that turnpikes would become monopolies that would charge travelers exorbitant tolls or abuse eminent domain privileges. Others simply did not want to pay for travel that would have otherwise been free. It is not clear what resistance there may have been among southern Marylanders, but Fenwick proffered that the culture in the region--which had largely been very remote and insular--and the nature of travel--that had largely been local--accumulated into resistance.

Fenwick also writes about the political and logistical difficulties with a new proposed road, saying that,

"[t]he public roads are not straight, but bend to the caprice, obstanancy or convenience of private individuals, who have turned or altered them to suit their enclosures, and set gates upon them in as great number and where each individual pleases, so that travelers actually lose more time and have more trouble in opening gates of all sorts. . . "

It is not quite clear what objections or reservations citizens in the region may have had to the building of a turnpike, but what is clear is that the idea of economic development is a much older concept than many Countians may think of today.

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