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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

The Invention And Extinction Of Plank Roads

Dallas Bogan on 30 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

About the middle of the 19th century a road building project became popular which was known as the "plank road." Construction consisted of planks of wood laid crosswise to the flow of traffic.
An act passed in 1851 defined that any five persons could incorporate such a company. It read that "the width of the road will be 60 feet, with 16 feet covered with stone, gravel or wood, and with no ascent over five degrees."
These roads were popular mostly in the northern part of the state, primarily because of the large forest reserves in the areas of Michigan and Canada. They cost about $2,000 per mile and lasted approximately seven years.
The first corporation in the State of Ohio concerning plank roads was the Milan and Richland Plank Road Company.
The editor of the Cleaveland Herald writing in regards to this new type road says:
"As we drove over the road yesterday from Newburgh to the city [Cleaveland] in 30 minutes, we could not help contrasting the fine smooth track with what it has been at this season for years, when our horse has labored through the deep sand this side of Newburgh, or floundered belly-deep through mud of the brickyard hills and flat.
"There may and undoubtedly will be some fault found with the road on account of tax in tolls which is a new thing on this route, but we think that any farmer who brings produce into market will consider the much greater loads he can carry on a plan than on an earth road and the great saving of time he will never after object to the toll paid.
"As regards Cleaveland, the opening of this, the first plank road, is an area in the history of its trade. The Rockport and Cleveland and Willoughby Companies will soon each have five miles of road completed, and another season will open the way into the country for many miles on each of these routes.
"New companies will extend these roads still farther until 15 of the best counties in northern and central Ohio will pour their products into this market, and by their trade, build up and greatly add to the prosperity of the Forest City on the lakes."
In 1852-53, the Wapakoneta and St. Mary's Plank Road Company organized to construct a plank road between the two towns. It was engineered and built by a stock company composed of citizens from the two villages. This toll road was of outstanding service to the county for a period of 30 years.
The Ashtabula Sentinel had this to say about the plank road in that county:
"Ashtabula Central Plank Road, the road from Ashtabula Harbor to Jefferson, a distance of 12.5 miles, is now completed. The last plank was laid on Thursday, and the laborers have been paid off and discharged.
"We can now boast of 12.5 miles of as handsome and durable plank road on one of our principal thoroughfares as there is in the state of Ohio, or any of our sister states. Its benefits are just beginning to be appreciated.
"Towns and its terminals have received an impulse in the way of business, and durable improvement such as they have not seen for years. The farms and real estate along the whole route have increased in value almost enough to pay the cost of building the road and are in good demand to all those who desire to sell.
"The traveling community who have business at Ashtabula Harbor now find at all times of the year, in all kinds of weather, a pleasant and agreeable road to travel over, and what they pay in tolls is more than made up to them in the increased lands they can draw, the savings of horse flesh and the comfort of body and mind they receive in going to and returning from market over a good plank road."
Plank roads were a paying investment for a period. The directors of the Miland and Richland Plank Road Company at one time declared a dividend of 25 cents on 11 miles of road for an average of 14 months. With this profit in hand, the directors proceeded with these instructions.
"Go ahead with the Cleaveland Plank Roads! They will pay well and benefit both country and city. Plank the road to Wooster as soon as possible and man and beast who travel it will bless the plankers!"
Road building expenses for the project were approximately $22,000. Stock was to pay a fair monetary percentage and was expected to be anxiously sought after. There is no record as to whether the stockholders received any money from this venture.
For several years the road was kept in passable condition. However, in due time, it got so bad that those who had to travel it protested against its condition, which soon became deplorable. The planks began breaking up and large holes were left for wagons to drop into.
Still the owners forced the gatekeepers to charge as high as 18 cents for a loaded wagon with team. Other rates were lower in accordance with their loads.
Road condition became so bad that the folks of one neighborhood plotted against the owners for retribution of toll money.
One citizen pulled up to a tollhouse as a gate dropped before his team. He did not stop to argue with the keeper, but, unhitching his team from the wagon, he fastened them to the gate and dragged it away into a gully.
As the owners of the roadway would not fix it, and as the traveling citizens refused toll under such conditions, the road gradually went to pieces.
An experiment was tried by laying planks of rails lengthwise to the road so as to form tracks upon which the wagon wheels were to ride. The trial section of the road ran from Milford to Goshen. This project proved disastrous, and later the planks were taken up and the areas were filled with stone.
Quick profits were in line for the investors. Materials were too perishable and could not withstand the rough usage through which they were constantly put. Many of them never paid for themselves.
Plank roads eventually went into oblivion. They ultimately began to crack and break under the weight and strain of the vehicles, not to mention the sudden weather changes. Timber began to disappear and repairs became expensive. Planks were broken out here and there, leaving huge gaps for horses to stumble over or wagons to topple into.
One such example of the perils of the plank road was the route between Wilmington and Harveysburg, which was installed in 1852. It was constructed of sawed oak plank 1.5 inches in thickness, 8 0r 10 feet in length, and laid on the ground. It was never a success; one reason being the plank would spring and rise up at the ends. Another problem was that the boards became very slippery in wet weather.
It was the source of several accidents, and was not favorably received by anyone. In a few years, gravel was placed upon the planks, and in time they were buried out of sight.

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This page created 30 August 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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