1940's era postcard view of US-5 in Holyoke running along the Connecticut River. View is looking north towards Mt. Holyoke Range.



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There were several perennial problems during these early days of highway age. The first concerned construction methods. The second, which is related to the first, was that of maintenance... which was still a science in its infancy. Those topics will be discussed shortly. The other problems involved planning. Not only was there an explosive growth of traffic, but the nature of traffic traveling on the state roads was also changing. These questions all impacted the MHC's ability to plan for the future. Since all these problems were interrelated, the MHC conducted its first ever, extensive, statewide, traffic survey in 1909.

Since 1906 the MHC had become increasingly aware that automobiles were beginning to outnumber horse-drawn wagons. By 1909 the MHC began to express concern over the damage the new heavy trucks were causing to road foundations constructed for lighter traffic. One implication of these trends was even if the preferred road paving method, water-bound macadam, or even the newer bituminous macadam, could hold up to heavy motorized traffic, it did little good if the road's foundations were sagging beneath the weight. The crumbling of the road's surface could not be far behind.

Thus, the MHC realized progress had to be made in several areas. First, more research on road construction methods was needed. Second, just what types of traffic were traveling on the state's highways had to be determined. Third, the MHC needed to know just how much traffic there was and which highways were the most heavily used. This would help the MHC in determining which highways were in fact becoming the major "trunk routes". Answering these questions would help the MHC in overall planning, prioritizing future work, and stretching the taxpayer's dollars.

It is curious that during the 1909 survey, the north/south Agawam route was studied but not the Longmeadow route. By 1912, however, the MHC did finally note that of the two routes coming into the Valley from Connecticut, the Longmeadow route was more heavily traveled than the one though Agawam. In 1913 the MHC described the traffic in Longmeadow as "extremely heavy". From this observation it may be safe to infer that generally, traffic in Connecticut may also have been heavier on the east side of the river than the west. If so, this would be a key factor in any future decision on which of the two roads would be designated by both states as an eventual interstate highway route.

Because so much of Longmeadow's traffic consisted of heavy trucks the MHC and the town began to experiment with alternative pavements such as concrete. Work on improving the Longmeadow section was finally finished in late 1913. This section of roadway was 30 feet wide.

As for Bernardston... in 1915 the town petitioned the MHC to improve the road north to Vermont. This plan was approved and ultimately provided another link in the future US-5.


Today we may not think much of paving materials. The use of bituminous concrete is nearly universal. For the record, bituminous concrete, also called blacktop or "bit conc" for short, is a mixture of a refined asphalt binder with rock. Today the use of crushed traprock is most widely used but towns once had to use any source of rock available. This could have been larger pebbles from gravel pits or crushed rocks from streambeds. Some towns had their own portable rock crushers that could be set up near the construction project. Some towns, such as Northampton, even had their own rock quarries. Other towns purchased crushed traprock from quarries at the Notch on the Holyoke Range or in Westfield.

To understand the appeal of bituminous macadam or today's "bit conc" it may be helpful to review a 1895 MHC quote, "The art of road building is mainly in constructing a wearing surface which shall be able at all times to bear up to the load that may be hauled over it." The MHC went on, that rain falling on a road surface itself does no harm. But, if it penetrates the road's surface it will weaken the foundation.

In 1900 MHC defined the three essential properties paving materials required. Basically, they were hardness, toughness, and cementing or binding power.

“Hardness” was defined as the resistance a road material offers to the loss of its particles by friction. Thus, concrete would be much harder than macadam.

“Toughness” was defined as the power to resist impact without fracturing. Again, concrete would be tougher than macadam but, there were other considerations. For other classes of road materials, toughness was defined as the limits the material could resist deformation or its ability to rebound. The later was related to the material's elasticity. Asphalt compounds excelled at elastic rebound while concrete resisted deformation.

“Binding” was defined as the ability to hold coarser rock or gravel fragments together. In 1900 the MHC was still mostly referring to the binding ability of rock dust and clay used in water-bound macadam pavement to hold together. Some asphalt products were being introduced which could renew and protect the surface of macadam roads but they were not yet in widespread use. Another use for these spray-on products was to keep the down the ever present dust. Another important property was the resistance the binder could offer against the weather and traffic. By 1906 it was clear that water-bound macadam roads might be able to shed water, but were not able to stand up to the wear and tear of motorized traffic. In 1908 the MHC gave its first analysis of tar products used as binders. They stated that it was too soon to see if such roads would hold up to frost.

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"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
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