Walking the Plank

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Does this conjure up an archetypal bloodthirsty pirate saying, “Arrr!” as a scurvy knave faces a horrible, watery death? It does for me, but today I want to share with you another use of the plank.

Transportation has come a long way—just look at how much easier it is to get to parts of Indiana via Interstate 69! That said, it’s not always easy — witness the flooded streets in parts of Evansville after a heavy rain. At least those roads are paved … think of how much more difficult it was for our ancestors in pre-automotive (or early automotive) days as they attempted to go from place to place. Before any sort of paved roads, walking, riding a horse, or riding a wagon over dirt paths wasn’t easy. Depending upon the soil type, it could be muddy or sandy and just plain treacherous. And slow! “Slowly they dragged their way through timber, streams, and swamps and over prairies covered with native grasses until then marked only by the trails of Indians, trappers, and traders. Two or three miles a day was good progress even in the more settled areas. … Teams bogged down, then wagons were unloaded, the whole family carrying the contents forward and returning to put their shoulders to the wheels. With every passing group of settlers, however, such trails as these widened, for each immigrant wagon sought to avoid the mud holes caused by preceding vehicles by seeking a new and firmer foundation for wheels and animals. What had been a narrow buffalo trail or a single set of wheel tracks thus soon became a widely extended maze of ruts and quagmires.” Once a town was established or a farm settled, the inhabitants needed to get their goods to market and be able to acquire other materials–clearly this wasn’t going to suffice. One solution was a plank road.

Just what is a plank road? “A plank road is a dirt path or road covered with a series of planks, similar to the wooden sidewalks one would see in a Western movie. Wagon roads surfaced with plank, kept the road open for traffic during the entire year which otherwise would be impassable during wet weather. Plank roads are similar to corduroy roads. A corduroy road or log road is a type of road made by placing sand-covered logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area. The result is an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, yet rough in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to shifting loose logs.

On the left, you can see people traveling along the plank road. On the right, there is a diagram of how the plank road was made.
Images courtesy of the Wade House.
Travel along the plank road during harvesting season.
Image courtesy of the Wade House.

As primitive as it sounds to us today, the plank road was a boon to those early travelers. The earliest example of a plank road in the New World was built near Toronto, Canada in 1836. (The concept for such roads originated in Russia.) About 10 years later (1845-1846) the United States was able to claim its first plank road, built to cover the 14 miles between Syracuse, New York and the foot of Oneida Lake. Construction of these roads was done by private companies, not the federal or state government. Application was made to the state legislature for special charter plank road companies. “The provisions of the New York law, which was the pattern for many of the other states which likewise experimented with plank road construction, required that stock to the amount of at least $500 for each mile of proposed road must have been subscribed and at least five per cent of the subscription paid in cash before the articles of the company could be filed. The supervisors of the counties in or through which the road was to be constructed had to approve before work would commence. Stockholders were liable for an amount equal to their stock. Work on the project was required to be commenced within two years and completed within five.

Central Plank Road certificate of stock for a road to be built in Alabama.

From the late 1840s until the business depression of 1857 Americans invested some $10 million in more than seven thousand miles of plank roads concentrated mostly in New York and the Midwest….” Investors were paid back via tolls charged on the plank road. In Alabama, and this practice was probably similar for other plank roads, “there was a charge of 2 1/2 cents a mile for a four house private pleasure carriage; a loaded wagon with two horses was 3 cents per mile. Also there were bridges that charged tolls. However, there were no charges for funerals or for people going to church, to mill, to a blacksmith, or to a doctor.

Looking the at the list of Sources Consulted below, you can see ample evidence of some of those 7,000 plus miles of plank roads. One of the oddest experiments, in my opinion, was the road built across the Imperial Sand Dunes portion of the Algodones Dunes in Imperial County, California. The 8 miles must have been a nightmare to build—just picture vast amounts of constantly shifting, blowing sand! “From 1916 to 1926, crews of workmen struggled incessantly against nature to keep the road passable. Hard winds blew drifting sand across the road an average of two or three days a week, rendering the road nearly impassable about one-third of the time. The crew routinely worked the road with Fresno scrapers hitched to a team of draft animals, and travelers huddled in their vehicles while the sand swirled around them.

Pulling off the road onto the turnouts so that others might pass tried the patience of motorists. Traffic jams in the midst of desert vastness were not uncommon. On one occasion, a caravan of 20 cars encountered a lone traveler going in the opposite direction. Whether through timidity or stubbornness, the driver refused to back up to a turnout behind him. Finally, the party took matters in hand. The men lifted the car and set it on the sand, while the women proceeded to advance the caravan. When they were past, the car was lifted back up on the road, and all continued on their way.

In northeastern Indiana, the Lima Plank Road was constructed 1847-1849 “to connect Fort Wayne, the area’s center of commerce, to such promising outlying towns as Lima, Goshen, Yellow River, Kendallville, Piqua and Van Wert, Ohio, Winchester and Huntington.” In southeastern Indiana’s Floyd County, there were 5 plank roads built between 1851-1863: the New Albany, Lanesville, and Corydon Plank Road, the Old Vincennes Road, the New Albany-Jeffersonville Plank Road, the Slate Run Plank Road, and the New Albany and Charlestown Plank Road. Of more local interest was the September 1849 Indiana Plank Road Act which authorized construction in Posey County. Robert Dale Owen was one of the directors of this company. The road between New Harmony and Mt. Vernon (some 15 miles) was crucial to getting goods to market, but it wasn’t easy to travel due to mud, streams, etc. Why not use river transport? Well, there were dangerous rapids south of New Harmony on the Wabash River, so goods needed to be transported over land to Mt. Vernon to access the Ohio River. Owen hired an engineer to plan the road, following the path of least resistance and using the highest ridge possible to lessen drainage issues. Only perfect logs were used—hewn and floated down Big Creek to a steam sawmill called “The Mammoth.” The road was graded to 18 feet on its surface. There were actually two roads – one plank, one dirt. Which one you traveled on depended upon your mode of transportation. From Big Creek to Mt. Vernon the plank road was on the west side and the dirt on the east. This pattern was reversed in the Big Creek to Mt. Vernon stretch. Planks were 8 ft. long and 2 ft. thick, with width varying from 4 to 18 inches. Mile posts were painted white with black lettering and numbering. There were 3 toll stops – one just outside Mt. Vernon at Green Farm, then another in an old house ¼ mile south of Smith School, and a final one south from the Gentry house on Old New Harmony Rd. Toll houses were built with an extension over the roadway to protect the collector, who lived there with his family, collecting tolls and keeping records. The road was completed in 1851. Remley J. Glass provides these further details about its construction.

Although it was thirteen years after the first plank road was built in Canada, Owen realized his, and his fellow directors’, abysmal ignorance of plank roads all too well, and began an investigation of highway problems and plank road construction in the Empire State where such roads had been in use for two or three years. Fortunately, he embodied the information he gained in a thin, little sedecimo volume with the title Owen on Plank Roads embossed in gold on its cover. … Twelve or fifteen men formed a crew in charge of a foreman, equipped with “a wooden roller composed of a butt end of a large burr oak,” shovels, a “stout road plow of large size,” a strong iron rake, and iron crowbar, a heavy wooden maul, a scraper requiring two horses and two men, “a stout ox cart and three or four good yoke of oxen.” Two and one-half or three-inch planks sawed in eight-foot lengths were placed in convenient piles on one side with the stringers on the other, ready for the men to put them in place. Short lengths of plank were put under the joints of the stringers to avoid sinking during wet weather. Mr. Owen reckoned the cost of this lumber, “good and sound timber free from sap, bad knots, shakes, wanes and other imperfections impairing its strength and durability,” at $7.00 to $8.00 per thousand board feet. The eight-foot strip of hemlock, pine, or oak planking, with yellow poplar on the steeper inclines to give the horses a surer footing, was laid on one side of the grade on stringers imbedded in the earth with additional sections every two hundred yards or so for turn-outs. With this equipment of men and machinery thirty or forty rods a day, or perhaps half a mile a week, allowing for rainy weather, could be constructed at a labor cost of about $200 per mile.

Plank roads, as it turns out, were somewhat like a fad—very popular, with many areas jumping on the bandwagon, but short-lived. “From the late 1840s until the business depression of 1857 Americans invested some $10 million in more than seven thousand miles of plank roads concentrated mostly in New York and the Midwest, an investment which literally rotted away before their eyes. … Builders had projected a life span of at least seven years for the wooden roads, in reality they lasted only one or two years in the wet prairie areas of Indiana and Illinois. Even in drier areas the sun warped the top boards while ground moisture rotted the stringers.” Maintenance was troublesome: “after a few years of wear, the planks began to warp and rot away. The cost of repair, more lumber, gravel, toll buildings, employees, and management all came into play. As the planks deteriorated, gravel was used to compensate, making for a slower and bumpier ride.” Alabama’s plank roads suffered from warping in the winter and dry rot and insect damage in the summer. Plank roads there were used for only some 5 years. The Old Plank Road in California across the sand dunes lasted 10 to 12 years.

Timing, as they say, is everything. “It was the misfortune of these road projects … to come quickly into competition with the railroads, actual and dreamed of, which spanned Iowa. The expense incident to grading and planking of turnpikes coupled with the ever-present danger that a railroad might parallel the highway was a serious deterrent. The financial and civic interest in plank roads was unable to withstand the more compelling interest in subsidized railroad construction which would connect the newer regions not only with the Mississippi River, which was all the plank roads could do, but also with Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the Atlantic seaboard. The final construction of railroads in and across Iowa marked the end of the Plank Road.” What was true in Iowa was true elsewhere. “Scholars suggest that plank roads were doomed from the start. First, they competed with railroads, a faster mode of transportation. Also, the timing of plank road construction was bad; in 1856 the North Carolina Railroad connected the mountains with the coast. Second, travelers cheated road companies by avoiding tolls. Third, the economic panics of the 1850s discouraged many investors. Fourth, plank roads required continual and costly maintenance. And fifth, the circumstances of the Civil War damaged or destroyed many plank roads.

Doomed as they were by the advent of railroad travel, plank roads still serve a purpose, some of today’s highways and roads are built atop the old foundations. You may not walk these planks, but apparently you can still drive them!

Check out this link for a blog on another infrastructure project doomed by its timing.

Sources Consulted

Causey, Donna R. “Imagine Traveling on Plank Roads Like This Between Cities in Alabama.” Alabama Pioneers website.

DeLeers, Michael. Plank Roads. Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects online.

Gagen, Bob. “Traveling the Lima Plank Road.” kpcNews.com. November 29, 2007.

Glass, Remley J. “Early Transportation and the Plank Road.” The Annals of Iowa 21 (1939), 502-534.

Kelley, Anna E. The Plank Road. Greenfield, Ind.: Old Swimmin’ Hole Press, 1951. General Collection F526 .K3

Kickler, Troy L. Plank Roads. Encyclopedia entry in the North Carolina History Project online.

Longfellow, Rickie. Back in Time: Plank Roads. Highway History–United States Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration.

Old Plank Road. dangerousroads.org

Old Plank Road:Imperial Sand Dunes. DesertUSA.com

“The Plank-Road Craze .” American Eras . Encyclopedia.com.(May 19, 2020).

”Plank Road, New Albany to Corydon.” Southern Indiana Genealogical Society Quarterly, v. 9:no.4, October 1988.

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