Guest Post: Along Route 6 in Massachusetts

By James A. Gay, author of Along Route 6 in Massachusetts

What was once a Native American trail on Cape Cod for centuries, would one day be part of the longest highway in America. Beginning in Provincetown, the road would twist, turn, and run in various compass directions along the bay side of the Cape.  It starts in Provincetown, where in the late months of 1620 a mixed community of separatists and opportunists on board the Mayflower first eyed the New World. 

With provisions running low and many of them sick, they were in desperate need.  A scouting party was sent ashore to explore the area and the group included William Bradford. The group found plenty of evidence of Native Americans living in the area and would indeed make contact in an unfriendly manner right near what would be later become Route 6.  When the group returned after one their explorations, William Bradford was given devastating news.  His wife and mother of his son still in England, Dorothy, had either slipped or intentionally jumped off the Mayflower and drowned in Provincetown Harbor.

The pilgrims decided that the area was not suitable for their needs so the Mayflower weighed anchor and sailed to their eventual home of Plymouth. The name Bradford would be forever linked to Provincetown as in 1873 a new street was named after him.  Decades later, Bradford Street would also be the new state, Route 6.

In many ways, these saints and strangers would be linked to Route 6. Although settling in Plymouth, in later years a group of them purchased land that would settle new communities such they would later become Fairhaven, New Bedford and Dartmouth.  In addition, the pilgrim’s successful venture made it possible for other groups like the Puritans to leave England and start new towns in the New World.   These new arrivals would start communities on the Cape that Route 6 would travel through and eventually link up Fairhaven and New Bedford.

When the towns along the Cape increased in size, what was once a Wampanoag path would become the major road linking all of them.  First the future Route 6 was widened and became the main road for stage coaches on the Cape traveling from Provincetown to Bourne.  It would be called the ‘Kings Road’ and the name passed down from generation to generation.  Although, in early in the 20th Century, the Massachusetts state government and Cape Cod locals would clash over the name.

In 1920, an act of the General Court officially designated Route 6 the ‘Kings Highway’ and markers were placed along the road.  This upset the locals greatly, especially those in Orleans, who after eight years of the annoyance adopted a resolution in town meeting charging the state government with attempting, ‘neither historically nor geographically correct, to rewrite American history.’

All the uproar over the naming of Route 6 attracted the attention of the major newspapers of Boston and one featured the headline, ‘King’s Highway Galls Cape Cod.’  Soon other towns followed Orleans’ lead and passed similar resolutions with one community calling it ‘a deplorable situation.’  Then the resolutions were followed by outright destruction as mysteriously the ‘King’s Highway’ signs began to disappear.  Once again Orleans took the lead as the signs first started to disappear there and once again other town’s signs began vanishing as well.  Year after year the fight continued as when new signs went up, they soon went missing.

Route 6 received its numerical designation when the Joint Board on Interstate Highways recommended a 75,884 mile U.S. numbered system in 1925.  The highway would start in Provincetown and continue following the King’s Highway on the Cape and the use the main roads connecting Wareham all the way to East Providence, Rhode Island.  The Joint Board assigned even numbers to routes of prevailing east-west traffic to the road the proposed highway was given the number ‘6.’

Since the highways were owned by the state, the Secretary of Agriculture submitted the Joint Board’s proposal to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) for approval.  The proposal was approved by AASHO on November 11, 1926.  In Massachusetts, what had been nothing more than a dirt road for stages coaches was beginning to undergo a transformation as it was paved and used by a brand new mode of transportation, the automobile.

U.S. Route 6 officially became a transcontinental highway on June 21,1937.  Traveling from Provincetown, Massachusetts clear across the country to Long Beach, California it became, at 3,652, the longest highway in the United States.  With advent of the automobile, the newly Sagamore Bridge, Route 6 in Massachusetts ushered in Cape Cod’s new industry, tourism.  Along the road from Provincetown to Bourne, along the historic inns and taverns of stage coach days, new gas stations and restaurants appeared.    

To honor the Union Forces of the Civil War, U.S. Army Major William L. Anderson, Jr. proposed the idea of naming U.S. Route 6 the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Highway.  The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War embraced the proposition and soon began lobbying his idea in April 1934.  Since the individual states owned the highways, the members met with state officials to officially adopt the name.  Massachusetts Governor Charles F. Hurley was the first to do so when he signed the bill into law on February 12, 1937.    

One new change to the Cape after World War II that would dramatically change the numbers of cars on Route 6 was the building of the more modern mid-cape highway in the 1950’s.  This new expressway would be given the designation ‘6’ while the original Route 6 would become ‘6A’ between Bourne in Orleans.  Almost 40 miles in length, the new road offered an increased speed limit and saved considerable time.  Although it lacked the character and charm that former Route 6 offered.

In the early 1960’s Route 6 was no longer the longest highway in the United States.  The State of California renumbered its state highways and Route 6 no longer ended in Long Beach but instead in Bishop.  The change, which stands currently today, made U.S. Route 20 the longest highway at 3,345 miles and U.S. Route at 3,227 miles the second longest.  However, Route 6 is the longest ‘contiguous’ highway in America.   

Although it might be faster to take the mid-cape highway and Interstate 195to Seekonk, if you have the time, I strongly suggest following Route 6 as it is laid out in this book.  As it twists and turns Route 6 offers you both beautiful views and so much history you do want to miss it.