Watch Now

FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Paul Sargent led Maine’s early road-building efforts

An interstate in Maine. (Photo: Portland Press-Herald)

Autos brought changes that not all embraced

In the early years of the 20th century, automobiles were dethroning the horse and buggy as the primary method of personal transportation in the United States. Across the nation, some worried that the changes brought by the auto would be for the worse. 

Among them were journalists warning of a growing “auto terror.” In Maine, some towns – like Bar Harbor – attempted to ban cars altogether. A 1905 article in the Ellsworth American warned that motorists were “taking away the liberties of the people and should be looked upon the same way as any other class of robbers and murderers.” That was strong language, indeed!

In the first decade of the 20th century, Maine’s residents were able to travel from Portland to Caribou – over 300 miles, and across the state from each other – and all points in-between by  rail. “For everything else they had horses, stagecoaches, and their own two feet.” At that time, 86% of Maine’s roads were dirt, and there was little reason to challenge the railroads, which for decades had carried the state’s residents and their goods (as well as wealthy vacationers) from the state’s rural areas to its cities and towns.

An 1893 Duryea motor carriage. (Photo:
An 1893 Duryea motor carriage. (Photo:


Maps can sometimes play tricks on your eyes and brain. If you look at a map of the United States, Maine is the nation’s most northeasterly state. It appears to be very large on a map. However, with 30,865 square miles, it is the 39th largest of the 50 states. 

By contrast, Washington, Oklahoma, Missouri and North Dakota are all more than twice as big as Maine. Of the 11 states that have fewer square miles than Maine, most are also in the Northeast – Vermont (9,249 square miles – #43); New Hampshire (8,969 square miles – #44); Massachusetts (7,838 square miles – #45); New Jersey (7,419 square miles – #46); Connecticut (4,845 square miles – #48); Delaware (1,955 square miles – #49); and Rhode Island (1,034 square miles – #50).

Map shows federal and state highways in Maine. (Image:
Map shows federal and state highways in Maine. (Image:

As Maine’s infrastructure changed with the spread of automobiles (and then trucks), so did Maine. Cars expanded personal mobility and transformed the economy in the process. “Creating new divides along class lines, the car split access to the state’s verdant parks and landscapes while increasing its dependence on visitors from elsewhere.” Maine had been the summer playground of the Northeast’s wealthy, but growing ownership of cars opened the state to middle-class tourists as well. They needed reliable, well-paved roads to reach the beaches, mountains and woodlands of the beautiful state. 

First chief engineer of the Maine State Highway Commission

Paul D. Sargent was selected as the first chief engineer of the newly formed Maine State Highway Commission (MSHC) when his appointment was officially confirmed by Governor William T. Haines on July 29, 1913 – 109 years ago today. The MSHC was charged with building a system of “connected main highways throughout the state.” 

Paul D. Sargent. (Photo:
Paul D. Sargent. (Photo:

Sargent’s confirmation as chief engineer occurred three days after the three-member MSHC had appointed him to that position. “This selection of Mr. Sargent as Chief Engineer was made only after the most careful deliberation, which had been going on informally for several months,” noted the first annual report of the MSHC. “The commissioners, prior to their formal appointment and qualification, had thoroughly canvassed the field of prospective candidates throughout the United States, and Mr. Sargent was picked from a list of some 25 applicants because of his special fitness for the task.”

Born in the town of Machias in the eastern part of Maine in 1873, Sargent studied civil engineering at the Maine State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (now the University of Maine). After graduating in 1896, Sargent’s engineering career included extensive construction and maintenance of railroads in the state.

However, after working on railroads for about a decade, Sargent’s engineering focus changed in 1905. He was named the state’s first highways commissioner by Maine Governor William T. Cobb. The office of highways commissioner was created by Maine’s state legislature, which authorized establishment of a state highway department. Sargent’s duties were to collect information on the best means of constructing highways and maintaining them and to then send that information to Maine’s towns. However, he had no duties in regard to either designating or building any state roads.

In Sargent’s 1905 report to the governor and legislature he reported there were 25,530 miles of all classes of roads and streets in the state. Of this total mileage there were 2,238 miles of gravel roads, 22 miles of granite block pavement, 65 miles of macadam streets, and the rest were made of “just plain dirt.” In the report Sargent suggested ways to improve the state’s primitive roads. He advocated for cutting bushes that were too close to the roadways, straightening and widening roads, “cutting down hills,” and other methods. He inserted photos in the report of snow rollers, as well as diagrams of rock crushers and road rollers. 

Speaking about the need for regular road maintenance at the Central Maine Fair Association in Waterville in the summer of 1907, Sargent told his audience they would be very disturbed if they “should find that the railroads only repaired their roadbeds when forced to by washout or accident. Let us hope,” he said, “that the day is not to far distant when trained men will have charge of road work and it will be done according to some systematic plan.”

Sweden Street in Caribou, Maine in the early 1900s. (Photo: Public Domain)
Sweden Street in Caribou, Maine in the early 1900s. (Photo: Public Domain)

The 1907 legislature passed a state road aid law that resembles the formula now in use – apportionments are based on the valuation of cities and towns. In 1911, laws were passed requiring auto registrations and driver’s license fees. The revenue from these were used for the improvement of state highways. In 1913 this revenue was pledged to finance the first highway bond issue of $2 million, which had been approved by the state’s voters the year before.

Apparently (but certainly not uniquely), complaining about Maine’s roads is a tradition as old as the state’s roads. In 1909, Sargent commented on the state’s prevailing attitude toward road maintenance, which amounted to “working a section here and a section there when we can find nothing better to do and letting the most of it go uncared for practically all of the time.” 

Therefore, in his pioneering role, Sargent advocated for the “overall improvement of the state’s roads through such means as uniform construction standards and regular maintenance.” Sargent left the position in 1911 when he was chosen to serve as assistant director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads (which was a predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration) in Washington, D.C.

The Maine State Highway Department was replaced by the MSHC in 1913 to further improve the state’s network of roads. After being appointed as Maine’s first chief engineer, Sargent returned to his home state to take on his new responsibilities and continue what he had begun during his six years as commissioner.

A road being built in Acadia National Park during the 1930s. (Photo: National Park Service)
A road being built in Acadia National Park during the 1930s. (Photo: National Park Service)

The history of Maine’s roads

After the American Revolution, stagecoach lines began to make regular trips between Maine communities. Among the first was along the Poet Road between Portland and Portsmouth, a journey of three days in 1787 (a total distance of less than 60 miles).

Regular passenger service from Portland to Boston by stagecoach began in 1818. A stage line running regular trips between Bangor and Portland in 1825 completed the dusty journey in 36 hours. When Portland became a city in 1832 there were 12 stagecoach lines operating in and out of the community. 

However, the roads between Maine’s towns “remained a wandering set of wheel ruts until here and there, in order to cross the worst stretches, companies were formed to build toll roads.”

The period of toll roads – also known as the turnpike era – roughly spanned the years between 1795 and 1850. Maine became a state in 1820; at that time it inherited five operating turnpikes from Massachusetts. They included the First Cumberland Turnpike across the West Scarborough marshes; the Bath Bridge and Turnpike from the Bowdoin Pines east over the New Meadows River to the ferry; the Wiscasset and Augusta; Wiscasset to Day’s Ferry; and the Camden Turnpike, which provided a link between Lincolnville and the harbor at Camden. The five turnpikes eventually were incorporated into what eventually became U.S. Route 1.

The Better Roads Movement began to spread around the United States near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. By that time. Maine’s toll roads had been out of business for decades, local governments were unable to raise the tax revenue needed to build or maintain roads, and federal assistance was not yet available. Long distance travel took place via railroad or steamboat (and industry used railroads and waterways exclusively). Farmers were left with the state’s primitive dirt (or mud) roads, It was very difficult for the state’s farmers to get produce over the nearly impassable roads to rail heads for shipment to cities. 

Bar Harbor, Maine's main street in the early 1900s. (Photo:
Bar Harbor, Maine’s main street in the early 1900s. (Photo:

In good weather railroads were overloaded; in bad weather they ran empty. Because of the impact of poor farm to market roads in the state, railroads began to take a greater interest in road improvement in Maine and other agricultural states. 

In addition, the League of American Wheelmen was founded in 1880 and launched its better roads movement on a national scale. In the League’s 1891 guide to Maine, it noted that roads in the state were “generally not good, the methods of road repair are faulty, and correct road building has never been regarded as a subject worthy of investigation.” 

The guidebook’s description of Maine roads is generally unflattering: “The bicyclist will find Maine roads made of sand, rock and clay (that becomes glue when it rains). While in his journey through the state the wheelman will find a bit of good riding, a smooth surface, an easy grade beneath overhanging trees with perhaps a rushing river to keep him cheerful company. Then he will wonder why it cannot always be thus, and what the reason is for our poor highways.” The guidebook had this to say about the problem of road-building in Maine: “Roads cost money and Maine is not a wealthy state. The practice of allowing citizens to work out their taxes on the roads in their community is the worst system ever devised, because the men have no knowledge of road-building and spend their time in idle chatter. The making of the road happens when other business is slack and is not necessarily the best time of the year to construct a road.”

Other events also were pushing the development of good roads. Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was authorized by an Act of Congress in 1893, which gave the good roads movement a key push, because a prerequisite for RFD service was a gravel or macadam road. (To read a FreightWaves Classics article about RFD’s impact on U.S. roads, follow this link.)

In 1895 there were four autos registered in the entire United States. Five years later, there were 8,000 registered. By 1914 registrations had increased to 200,000 autos.

In 1901, when Maine Governor John F. Hill gave his inaugural address, he called attention to the need of a state highway “system” and state expenditures. This was the first official designation of a “state” road, and a new law stated, “Upon the request of the municipal officers of any town, the county commissioners of the county wherein said town is located, shall designate that highway running through said town which in their judgment is the main thoroughfare, and said highway shall be known as a state road.”

A state appropriation of $15,000 was made for that purpose, and the state granted up to $100 to each town for use on its roads. Towns received the aid in order of their applications (based on no other qualifiers). The towns were to spend $100 on the part of the road within their limits in order to qualify for aid, and the state reimbursed them. County commissioners inspected the work and certified to the Governor whether the money was properly spent. The first year, 12 towns took advantage of this legislative appropriation and built 2.5 miles of road at a cost of $3,025.30!

Two events in 1903 spurred the motor vehicle industry. The first transcontinental auto trip from San Francisco to New York City (about 6,000 miles because of detours) took place over 44 days. The second milestone was the incorporation of Ford Motor Company, which was the beginning of a mass-produced auto industry offering vehicles at an affordable price. 

By 1905, Maine had “22 car dealerships, 77 motorcycles, 715 automobiles and 898 licensed operators.” These totals came from records of the state’s Motor Vehicle Division, which had been created in 1904 by the state legislature.

A decade later, Maine vehicle registrations rose to 23,374 passenger cars and 1,098 trucks. By 1925 the totals had increased to 115,229 cars and 23,794 trucks.

Sargent’s work as state engineer

By 1913 the need for an interconnected network of roads in Maine was obvious. Because road construction prior to 1913 had been the responsibility of the towns and cities – with the emphasis on local roads – the roads served local interests and were not built to connect with those of a neighboring community. In addition, the existing roads were not of similar design or construction.

The SMHC’s second annual report stated, “The Commission has endeavored in the determining of the location of state highways to constantly bear in mind that these routes shall serve the largest number of people possible, and at the same time develop the farming, manufacturing and summer resort resources of the state.” The Commission also noted that there were two “distinct classes of interests to serve.” These were the state’s inhabitants and the interstate travelers. 

“There is a growing sentiment in many sections of the state,” wrote Sargent in 1909, “that the future development of our tourist and summer resort business depends largely upon the development of our system of trunk line highways.”

However, during the 1911 State Senate debate on establishing main trunk line highways, not everyone was as bullish on road building. Senator W.M. Osborn of Pittsfiel said the highway plan was “a rash and uncalled for proposition.” Osborn argued, “Only a small part of the people of Maine ride in automobiles – less than 3% – and only a very small portion of those who do use automobiles will be able to travel very much on the trunk line of highways. The people who work for a daily wage and the farmers of the state will not receive practically any benefits from the road.”

A dirt road and rudimentary bridge over the Middle Branch of the Union River in 1933. (Photo:
A dirt road and rudimentary bridge over the Middle Branch of the Union River in 1933. (Photo:

Nonetheless, between 1914 and 1935, the state of Maine spent $134 million to build nearly 1,430 miles of state highways. U.S. Route 1 was the first “federal” highway in Maine. The route that U.S. Route 1 follows down the Atlantic coast was largely established in the 1920s by E.W. James, chief of design for the federal Bureau of Public Roads. He laid out the route following as much as possible the old, historic Falls Line roads. The Falls Line roads marked the farthest point a cargo ship could penetrate the coast before running into falls or rapids, necessitating that goods be transferred to wagons. U.S. Route 1 would initially follow the Falls Line – where docks and warehouses and coastal towns had long been established. Sargent chose the route of the highway through Maine. 

During his tenure, Sargent led the expansion of Maine’s state system of highways from just 1,342 miles to more than 20,000 miles. He also sought to ensure that those routes were as interconnected with each other as possible.

As cars overtook railroads as the dominant mode of transportation, the tourist sector became the state’s largest industry. By 1930, two-thirds of rural families in Maine owned automobiles. Several railroads and trolley lines went out of business. As E.B. White wrote from Maine in the 1930s, “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”

The Grafton Notch Byway along State Route 26. (Photo:
The Grafton Notch Byway along State Route 26. (Photo:

Maine’s roads today

Almost anywhere in Maine can be reached by car today. However, according to many, the infrastructure is “fraying at the seams.” Of the total, 44% of the state’s major roads and highways are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the National Transportation Research Group. Moreover, the most recent Maine Infrastructure Report Card (issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers) gave Maine’s state roads a D grade. A study in 2019 estimated the state needed $198 million in additional funding (roughly one-third of the annual highway budget). It is almost certain that the amount of additional funding has grown since then.

State Route 11 in Maine, known as the Fish River Scenic Byway. (Photo:
State Route 11 in Maine, known as the Fish River Scenic Byway. (Photo:


As noted above, Sargent served as Maine’s first highways commissioner from 1905 until 1911, when he was chosen to serve as assistant director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads. He returned to Maine in 1913 to become the first chief engineer for the MSHC (which was ultimately replaced by the present Maine Department of Transportation in 1972). Sargent remained MSHC chief engineer until he retired in 1928. (He died in 1944 at the age of 71.)

Sargent’s leadership and contributions to road-building extended beyond the borders of Maine. In 1914, he was one of the founders of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in Washington, D.C. Following the association’s inaugural meeting the group then met with President Woodrow Wilson to promote state-level highway priorities and needs. In addition to helping to found AASHO (now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO), Sargent served as its fifth president in 1919-20. 

FreightWaves Classics thanks,, Wikipedia and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.

One Comment

Comments are closed.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.