York Road, Part 2: Traveling High to Avoid the Muck

In my previous post, York Road, Part 2, I spoke on how the driveway I grew up on may or may not have been the Old Old York Road – the road that leads from Philadelphia, PA to Elizabethtown, NJ (across from NYC). The results were inconclusive, but thanks to Rev. Hotchkins M.A., we IMG_1784discovered a few things about the original York Road that were revelations, even for my mother the historian. Hotchkins touched on the history of the word York and how it could be traced all the way back to the start of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries. What I hadn’t mentioned was the word’s etymological origin and meaning.

The English city of York, was originally called “‘Ebrauc, Eburac, or Eborac,’ which in Celtic means ‘a town or fortified place on the banks of a river, or near the confluence of waters.'”(Anthon 1864)  Which is probably why “our” Old York Road was named so, as it was laid out in A. D. 1711 along the Delaware river, north of Philadelphia. But let’s delve deeper.

“The word road is from the Anglo Saxon ‘ridan’ to ride, and came to mean ‘that on which one rides on horseback’. ‘Way’ is from a verb meaning ‘to move’, and so becomes ‘that on which one moves’, which gives greater meaning as to why Christ styled Himself ‘the Way’ and why Shakespeare uses the expression, “To find ‘the way’ to heaven”.” (Hotchkins, p17) As far back as we have history, we have roads and ways.

Penns Treaty 1681The treaty between William Penn, founder of Philadelphia, and the local Native American tribes of Southeastern Pennsylvania had dual significance . “In Penn’s Treaty, [it states]… we now desire there may be an open road between Philadelphia and the towns of the Six Nations which we will, on our parts, clear from every grub, stump and log, that it may be straight, smooth and free for us and you.” (p. 17) Penn’s desire in creating a road was not just commercially minded , but also out of a desire to connect people and cultures. He wanted to make a straight path, but not a literal straight, but a metaphorical one. This is evident in how York Road, and also the current Old York Road, aren’t straight at all. They twist and turn and rattle their way up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The civil engineers* of the time saw that the most effective road would be a dry road, pushing them to divert York Road away from water and through local hills and mountain country as much as possible. Although, like the ancient Romans, their goal in road making was to level the roads and “bring the mountains low”, they also understood and experienced low-level roads washed out by rainstorm and flooding. Their goal was to avoid the muck. So they fashioned them after the English whose “roads ran over hills, avoiding mud and bogs.” (York Rd, p. 17) Ironically, the same name given to the road, signifying a proximity to water, was the same conditions they were attempting to avoid in creating the trail. But that is another story altogether.

As time’s passed, our skills of “bringing the mountains and hills low” to meet our needs have become evermore effective. Our desire for progress and greater efficiency has led to straighter roads. But I wonder whether we lose something in creating such uninteresting, fast-paced, land leveled roads. Hotchkins certainly didn’t mind the winding, arduous journeys, as he wrote:

“A winding road is always beautiful as it gives the mind hope of a new scene at each turn. A wood-road on a summer’s day specially invites the feet of the pedestrian to find new beauties in the grove, and to see more of the handiwork of God in his creation in following its inviting curves, while insect and bird life make the air vocal.” (Hotchkins, p.19)

Hotchkins wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Bill Bryson, in his book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, travels the US in search of a town not yet tainted by the viral restaurant chains and strip malls. Three-quarters of the way through his journey, he begins to worry that a place uncorrupted by wild capitalism no longer exists. It is in that moment he discouragingly states:

“And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorstep or sleepy rural pubs, and the countryside will be mostly shopping centers and theme parks. Forgive me. I don’t mean to get upset. But you are taking my world away from me, piece by little piece” (Bryson, p.232)

His words are spoken out of a longing for things past as his father had just passed away. It is natural to desire a world where our loved ones still exist. I understand his nostalgia. I empathize with him. I too have craved for life free of the sting of lost loved ones. We long for things that will never again be. Deep down we know this. Deep down I know this.

The driveway I grew up on will never again be York Road. And it will also never gain be my driveway. The “new” Old York Road is set in stone and is considerably straighter and less jagged, and this is a good thing. But despite knowing full well the benefits of progress and improvement. I would enjoy the “winding road” with its new hopes at every turn. I would also enjoy seeing the milkman stop by my doorstep every morning. And finally, and most importantly, I would enjoy traveling a bit higher and longer to keep my feet free of the muck. So whether high or winding, wherever that path may be…

Point me in its direction.


*The term “civil engineer” wasn’t coined until the late 18th century.

Rev. Samuel Fitch Hotchkin M.A., The York Road: Old and New, Univ. of California Libraries, 1982

Anthon, F., Ancient and Mediaeval Geography, p. 200. 1864

Bryson, Bill, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, 1989