Round and round.

Dear Word Detective: I remember my father using the expression “beltline” to refer to a particular highway in Minneapolis. This was back in the ’50s before any highways encircled a metropolitan area, so it puzzled me then and has since. Are we talking about something that cuts through the middle? Something that wraps around? Or something else? When did the expression start and did it apply to subways or elevated trains at first? Or did it describe highways? — Barney Johnson.

Oh boy, highway nomenclature. I haven’t considered the subject lately, but what people called roads seriously confused me as a child. I grew up within coughing distance of the New England “Thruway” (aka Interstate 95) in Connecticut, but we often spent Sunday afternoons driving on the Merritt “Parkway,” and trips to Ohio usually involved the Pennsylvania “Turnpike.” Here in Central Ohio, people refer to I-70 as “the freeway” (or just “70”), although “freeway” is also applied to the “outerbelt” circling Columbus. (In Washington, D.C., the same sort of “outerbelt” is called “the beltway,” and “inside the beltway” serves as shorthand for the social and political world of DC insiders.)

Most of these terms are fairly easy to decode. “Thruway” (originally “throughway”) for instance, refers to a limited access highway that may or may not charge tolls. A “freeway” is the same thing, “free” referring to freedom of movement, not necessarily freedom from tolls. A “turnpike” definitely extracts tolls from travelers; the “pike” was originally, in the days of horse and carriage traffic, a staff which blocked passage until turned aside when the toll was paid. “Parkways” were originally highways elaborately landscaped with trees and shrubs to give travelers a scenic view to look at before the days of in-car DVD players (my personal nominee for worst idea of the century).

“Beltlines,” however, were developed in the mid-19th century, before the advent of the motor vehicle. They were routes followed within many medium and large cities by horse-drawn or electric trams or railways that connected various areas of the city, facilitating the transport of goods and materials as well as workers. The city of Buffalo, NY, for instance, had a “belt line” railroad, built in the 1880s, that connected nineteen stations around the city to a central terminal where transfers could be made to trains to anywhere in the US. New York City had several horse-drawn tram lines in the 19th century, but in 1887 more than a thousand horses perished in a fire at the Belt Line Railroad Company stable.

Such “belt lines” tended to form a closed loop, like a buckled belt, although not necessarily forming a ring around the edges of the city as modern “outerbelt” highways do. The idea was that a passenger (or cargo load) could board the tram or train at any point on the route and ride the loop as far as was necessary.

I think your father’s use of “beltline” to refer to a specific highway almost certainly came from the fact that the road formed such a closed loop, or something close to it. It may be that the highway actually followed an old “beltline” rail or tram route.

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