Landscapes may well be colored by the eye of the beholder, but driving along tree-shaded Route 6A on a mild summer day, with blue inlets of Cape Cod Bay on one side and white picket-fenced houses on the other, this may be one of the most appealing stretchs road in America. The 34-mile, two-lane road, also known as Old King’s Highway, begins in the west where Cape Cod juts out of the Massachusetts mainland and where the peninsula narrows and veers abruptly north.
In between is a world of wonders: salt marshes and tidal flats that are cradles of marine life; woodlands, Mayflower descendants; church graveyards containing headstones dating back to the early 1700s; a thriving playhouse that has launched the careers of Hollywood stars; and museums that swell with visitors when the cape’s temperamental weather turns soggy.
The Old King's Highway ,or as it is most commonly known,Route 6A parallels the shore of Cape Cod Bay as it travels through six communities from Sandwich to Orleans. Winding sometimes along the shoreline itself the road meanders past cranberry bogs and through great salt marshes interrupted by colorful historic villages.
The cape was formed by a glacier that retreated some 15,000 years ago, leaving behind the bay and the sandy peninsula that is constantly battered and reshaped by the Atlantic Ocean. By 8,000 years ago, the rising ocean had separated Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard from the peninsula’s southern coast.
The road beginning as a Native American trail passed from the Plymouth colony to Provincetown As colonial development increased on the Cape in the 1600's the cart path quickly became the major East-West pathway for early settlers.This road became an extension of the Plymouth colony's "King's Highway" in the 1700's. Maritime activities of the 18th century brought forth large sea captains homes and developing commercial business. During the 18th century, Cape Cod men turned ever more seaward, carrying produce, such as onions, corn and flax to Boston in their own vessels. Soon they built sturdy little schooners capable of coastal trading which brought them as far as the Caribbean, exchanging salt cod for rum
The end of the Bristish- American War of 1812 brought the smell of pitch and the sound of the caulking maul filled the air. The mackerel fleets started out, sloops and schooners began their coastal runs, and American brigs and barks were soon a familiar sight from Liverpool to the Straits of Malacca. Cape Cod became a prime source of the ablest masters and seamen in this greatest age of the American merchantmarine Packet ships regularly sailed between Boston and Provincetown.
During the 1800's farming and timber harvesting for maritime industry left the cape largely devoid of trees.A stroll along the shores of Cape Cod today passes pleasant homes, lawns and flowers, and ends at the dirt ramps of today's "landings" extending into serene and empty marshes. Major business was in salt production used to preserve food and the cutting and storing of ice for cooling in the summer. Many large ice houses still exist such as Brewster Ice on 6A, but their business is long gone,modern refrigerators replacing the ice wagons.
A couple of small boats of the summer residents are moored in the creeks. Gulls swoop, terns flit, a few swimmers cavort in the incoming tide, and the bay stretching off is empty except for an occasional sail or fisherman's flying bridge. But on a summer day in the 1830s, the scene was a bustling contrast. The sand and shell thoroughfares were churned by horses and oxen hauling freight wagons and carryalls, bouncing chaises bearing women in bonnets and long gowns, or a top hatted sea captain bound for the packet to Boston, to pick up his ship. Crowds would be collecting on at the Wharf, with eager hands ready to grab docklines to throw around a piling and warp packet sloops into dock.As the 19th century shut its doors, the need for tall ships sharply declined because the more popular machine driven steamships and barges didn't rely on the fickle wind for power. Also, the introduction of the Old Colony Railroad to Cape Cod in 1848, and to Yarmouth in 1854, allowed valued goods to quickly reach the Cape by land. Many sea captains retired or took up work on land. The so called Great Age of Sail lasted a mere generation but its significance to global commerce of the 19th century is remembered yet today.
The collapse of the maritime industry brought a new focus on cranberry production. Cranberries became king of all Cape crops in the 19th century.Earlier, resident farmers raised their cattle on hay from the salt marshes and tended sheep in droves.
There was more gold in Cape cranberries than out West for at least one 49er. Nathan Smith of West Barnstable brought his gold back home from California and invested in building cranberry bogs. By 1875, he employed 50 pickers. With demands of the cranberry growers for help, schools opened about August 20, ran for five weeks and then closed for harvest while students and teachers worked the bogs to earn pocket and clothes money for the next term.
The middle of the 19th century brought the planting of the shade trees which now as mature trees are the canopy for the road. As the automobile came into popularity the road continued to evolve by paving and construction of bypasses through wetlands that were skirted by the original roadway. Route 6a still follows the ancient footprint and continues to provide access to areas that were significant to the area's development. Designated as one of the longest spans of historic highway in the country, Olde King's Highway echoes a time when sea captains sailed home to awaiting families; and artisans, eager to sell their wares, lined the avenue.
Visits to old church graveyards. Etched on headstones area list of long-dead captains, many of them lost at sea. Land was no safer, as many of the headstones in the graveyards attest. Some belong to soldiers of the Revolution or the Civil War. An enchanting stretch of highway no matter what the season, once you've traveled its winding path, Olde King's Highway is sure to leave you with pleasant memories of the charm and distin ction of days long since past.
In 1973 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created the Old King's Highway Regional Historic District which was ratified by referendum vote by the citizens in each town of the district. Cape Codders realizing the value of the region voted overwhelmingly to protect their unique Cape Cod History by protecting not only the architecture, but the character and natural setting of the area too. This ensures that future development within the district honors the past.
As the largest historic district in America, it consists of the entire southern shoreline of Cape Cod Bay. The District contains more than eighty square miles of universally recognized historic and natural beauty. The first European settlers were drawn to the area nearly four hundred years ago, and the song “Old Cape Cod,” with its refrains of “sand dunes and salty air / Quaint little villages here and there” suggests the District’s unique appeal. Residents enjoy the special character of the Regional Historic District and heritage tourist, worldwide, come to the area to enjoy the many scenic beaches, historical settings and many fascinating destinations.
The backbone of the Regional Historic District is Route 6A named by the Massachusetts Legislature as the “Old King’s Highway” and designated as a state highway maintained by the state with the local protection of the Scenic Road Act. The scenic road crosses six town lines (Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster, & Orleans), as it meanders through the regional district. The road dates back to pre-colonial times as a trail connecting Native American encampments and villages. Three hundred and seventy-five years ago, the initial European settlers traveled this route from Plymouth and beyond. Today, the road is described by National Geographic as one of the “World’s Most Scenic Drives,” Yankee Magazine has declared it “iconic and timeless,” and Smithsonian Magazine has described it as the “most appealing” highway in America. Museums, antique shops, theaters, inns and restaurants, abound while still maintaining the District’s “quaint little village” character.
Within the District are located original examples of the many periods in American architecture dating back to the 17th 18th 19th & 20th Centuries. Unlike many other historic districts that only reflect a specific time in architectural history, the Regional District reflects a changing evolution. As a living district, with more than 45,000 residents, change is a constant. The recycling of a large sea captain’s home to a stately B&B or capturing an appearance from the past in a modern home or residence is an important part of the role-played by the Regional Historic District.