The Midland Highway running through Bagdad, about 1900 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)
The Midland Highway, until the 1930s 'the Main Road', from 2002 'the Heritage Highway', is Tasmania's major thoroughfare, connecting the two main urban centres of Hobart and Launceston. In 1807 Lt Laycock was the first to traverse the island, his eight-day north-south trip taking him well to the west of the present road, his return by a more similar route. This route was surveyed by Grimes later in 1807, and Meehan in 1812, and travelled by Governor Macquarie in 1811 and 1821. Even by the latter date it was still only a track worn down by carts, with plenty of alternative routes, such as via the Coal River instead of the Jordan Valley to avoid Spring Hill, or York Plains instead of St Peters Pass.
Construction began under Major Bell in 1821, but progress was slow. A coach service started in 1834, and after the Bridgewater causeway was opened in 1836 this was the preferred route, but the highway along its present route (more or less) was not finalised and macadamised until 1850. After this date it was highly praised by visitors. Its highest point is Spring Hill (488 metres). As motor traffic grew, the 25-feet wide, two-lane highway was sealed in the 1930s; as well, some railway level crossings were eliminated, the Pioneer Memorial Highway was planted along some sections, and Mr Cashion of Oatlands established decorative topiary at St Peters Pass.
Greatly increasing traffic meant major changes between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. To bring the highway up to contemporary standards, the road was widened, with passing lanes and up to four lanes in places, especially the entrances to Hobart and Launceston; realignment eliminated some bends and bypassed towns such as Oatlands and Ross; rest areas were set up and trees were planted. However some improvements, like the long-suggested Brighton bypass, were not achieved, and by the early 2000s there were renewed compaints that the highway was not up to contemporary standards.
Further reading: G Stancombe, Highway in Van Diemen's Land, Launceston, 1968.