My Old Kentucky Road

by Whitney Hale

The United States is home to the largest highway system in the world, but most Americans consider the road as a means to a destination. People often pay little attention until construction detours, accumulating snow, signs touting an outlet mall, traffic or flashing blue lights force them to slow down and take a look.

Roads, however, are products of the places they wind through and have rich histories that modern drivers often ignore. Travelers have not always been able to take them for granted, however, particularly in the mountainous regions of Appalachia in the days before cars.

For generations, the steep hills and dense forests of the Cumberland Gap made wagon passage westward nearly impossible. Determination to reach the fertile hills of Kentucky led to the birth of America’s first highway into the trans-Appalachian west: the Maysville Road.

In "Kentucky’s Frontier Highway: Historical Landscapes along the Maysville Road," Provost's Distinguished Service Professor Karl Raitz, of the University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology, and Nancy O’Malley, assistant director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at UK, chart the complex history of the Maysville Road — a route that served as a corridor of local settlement, an engine of economic development, a symbol of national progress, and an essential part of the Underground Railroad.

Raitz and O’Malley explore how American roads link community and capital and argue that roads are the product of personal and collective decisions, evolving construction techniques, political debate, financial innovation, and changing transportation technologies.

Detailed maps, images and photographs capture the road’s transformation from an ancient footpath to a central highway, illustrating how this historic road shaped the wider American landscape.

In 1835, the Maysville Turnpike Company completed work on the 67-mile-long Maysville and Lexington Turnpike, Kentucky’s first modern road. The Maysville Road soon became a major lifeline to the central Bluegrass region.

The book provides a detailed biography of roads across central Kentucky in the form of a travel guide that details geography and history, beginning with the early paths used by prehistoric hunters and gatherers.

These paths transformed from ancient passages to buffalo traces, from pioneer roads to a turnpike, eventually becoming a state and federal highway. Raitz and O’Malley also examine the evolution of transportation technology — for instance, how the wagon was replaced by the engine-powered, rubber-tired truck in the 1920s.

"Kentucky’s Frontier Highway" explores more than the physical transformation of the Maysville Road; it looks at the cultural processes that shaped the route, taking special interest in the lives and experiences of people who lived along it. For example, in Lexington roads served as racial and economic barriers. African Americans lived in neighborhood clusters on the city’s north side, bordered by North Limestone and Broadway. Other roads, like Bryan Station Road and Paris Pike, lead into the Bluegrass horse country and some of the region’s wealthiest counties.

In addition to being a racial barrier, the Maysville Road corridor was also an active route of the Underground Railroad because many abolitionists lived across the Ohio River in southern Ohio.

Roads are too often regarded as utilitarian, and driving on them is so common that people tend to take them for granted until they are in need of repair or choked with traffic. "Kentucky’s Frontier Highway" asserts that dynamic relationships exist between travelers and roads, as well as between the roadside and communities nearby.

Raitz and O’Malley reveal that the story of the Maysville Road is much more than a regional epic; it is the story of how Americans embraced mobility as a national value and how roads chronicle social processes and cultural change.

The University Press of Kentucky is the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, representing a consortium that now includes all of the state universities, five private colleges, and two historical societies. Led by Director Stephen Wrinn, its editorial program focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. Offices for the administrative, editorial, production and marketing departments of the press are found at UK, which provides financial support toward the operating expenses of the publishing operation

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