SHIRE TOWNS AND COUNTY GOVERNMENT:
The history of US-5 is not just inextricably tied to the Valley's early settlements but to their eventual political and commercial importance as well. The factors that played a role in the differential development of the Valley’s towns must be examined. See MAP 8
The English colonists did not just transplant social and religious traditions to New England; they also brought their English legal traditions. One aspect of this legal tradition was the English system of county government.
In 1662, the Massachusetts General Court, responding to a petition of the Valley's settlers, created Hampshire County. At the time of its creation Hampshire County encompassed all of the Valley's towns. Though its original boundaries are imprecise, the new county encompassed all the land in western Massachusetts from Palmer west.
What is interesting about this development was that just six years after Northampton was established, it was given equal status with Springfield as a "Shire Town"; what we would call the County Seat. This was done on an alternating basis with Springfield. Eventually Northampton, because of its central location in the County, was designated the permanent County Seat of old Hampshire County.
But, as settlements arose in the west, the distance and the terrain proved a hardship to any of these settlers having business with the county government. Settlers in the western part of the state petitioned the General Court and Berkshire County was officially created in 1698.
The rise of Greenfield's prominence over the older Deerfield settlement rests in the opening of the South Hadley canal in 1795. This canal bypassed the unnavigable rapids in the Holyoke area and opened the upper Valley to unimpeded navigation. The result was that Greenfield grew as a commercial center. See MAP 9
It was clear by the early 1800s that the distance to the County Seat was also proving to be a hardship for residents both to the north and south of Northampton as it had for settlers in the west. Residents in the northern region petitioned the General Court for the creation of Franklin County in 1811. A year later, to the south, Hampden County was created with Springfield as its seat.
The creation of these three County Seats in the Valley had a profound effect on the towns themselves and much of the road system that had developed was in response to their growing political and commercial importance. Also, as the regional government for all the towns in western Massachusetts, the Counties had the responsibility for the regional planning and construction of a system of roads, especially between towns. This was a responsibility the state would begin to assume in the 1890s. See MAP 12
In the 1830s the state ordered that all towns conduct comprehensive land surveys. Maps made at this time show that with very few exceptions, US-5's original route ran along roads that already existed over 150 years ago. Some of these exceptions are today's bypass of Old Deerfield Center and a section of Riverdale Road in West Springfield between today's MacDonalds and the Showcase Cinemas. Another exception is at the Oxbow.
In 1840 unusually high floodwaters broke through the Oxbow's narrowing neck, creating a temporary island and shortening the River's course by several miles. Within a year the northern opening to the newly created Oxbow Lake was sealed, creating a landbridge to the new island. But, land travel was still forced to use the old county road that followed its colonial counterpart and skirted the western bank of the Oxbow.
When, a few years later, the Connecticut River Valley Railroad built a connection between Holyoke and Northampton, an elevated causeway was constructed across the Oxbow and its lowlands. Records are unclear, but a road along these tracks soon followed. This road shortened the distance between Holyoke and Northampton by 2 miles, an impressive achievement in the days when all transportation relied on horses. But this section of road remained problematic for another 60 years. Aside from the muddy conditions, the route was prone to seasonal flooding.
"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
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