What Exactly Is a “Plank Road”?

Some folks have heard the term “plank road” but aren’t really familiar with what that is. (I really wasn’t, although I’d often driven on a ordinary-looking street in the Milwaukee area still called Watertown Plank Road.)

Now that I’ve read Plank Road Summer, by Hilda and Emily Demuth, I’ve gotten more interested in those mysterious bygone roads!

So here’s a simple description.

A plank road was a wooden road. The plank roads had a surface of big wooden planks (laid across heavier wooden “stringers,” that ran like the rails of a railroad). The idea was to avoid the mud and ruts of dirt roads.

Imagine a wooden boardwalk, wide enough for a wagon, stretching a hundred miles through the woods and fields.

The plank roads were sometimes called “the farmer’s railroads” as they helped farmers transport heavy wagonloads of wheat, corn, hay, and other produce to a big market or port city. Here in southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois, for instance, the plank roads went from inland towns on a beeline for port towns like Chicago, Racine, or Milwaukee.

Also, the plank roads were toll roads. Like the railroads that came later, they were privately built, and were investment schemes. A company would be created and would sell shares of its stock to investors. With the money, the route would be grubbed, graded, and ditched, and the stringers and planks laid.

The idea was to make a profit. So they had toll-houses every 3 or 5 miles, and charged farmers a fee (such as “a penny a mile for each animal pulling a wagon”). The toll was collected, maybe a nickel at a time, when the farmer drove their wagon through each gate.

Some of the toll roads worked well and made money (for a while). Others didn’t do as well at making their shareholders rich. Some never even got built. And of course they cost money to keep in good repair, to hire the toll-keepers, and all that.

All in all, there were hundreds of plank roads built by private companies, mostly in the eastern half of the U.S. (and Canada).

But eventually, they were replaced by the railroads.

Today, nearly all traces have disappeared. Not much is left . . . some old maps and stock certificates in historical societies, a plank here and there that somebody saved, and some traces of toll houses. Of course, the routes are still used as rural roads, city streets, bike trails, and the like.

For those who want more detail about the roads and how they were built, here’s an article about the Watertown Plank Road.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from that:

“The one remaining step was the placing of the actual planks. They consisted of oak boards three inches wide and eight feet long. They were placed on top of the stringers and pounded down with a heavy maul until they rested on the stringer. The planks were not nailed down or fastened in any other manner. This proved a disadvantage when the road was engulfed by high water, as the planks would float away. It was done because nails or similar objects would work loose and injure horses’ hooves.”

Yikes! The planks would float away? Sounds even worse than the potholes I’ve been dodging this spring. But for the most part, the plank road was a better choice for a farmer in the 1840s or 1850s than getting a heavy wagon of wheat stuck in a giant mudhole, miles from the nearest town.

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Categories: History of Plank Roads, Plank Roads | Leave a comment

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