Plank Roads

On August 29, 2013 · 5 Comments

I used to drive between Washington, DC and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, nearly every weekend for about eighteen months a number of years ago. I became very familiar with the route and every landmark placed upon it, as one might imagine. One of those included an exit for Boydton Plank Road along Interstate 85 near Petersburg, Virginia. I thought it had to be hyperbole. A plank road? Really? An actual wooden road constructed of boards, I’d smirk sarcastically. Much later I learned that plank roads actually did exist for a period of time, including this one.

Boydton Plank Road

Lots of great resources on this topic exist on the Intertubes. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s "Back in Time – Plank Roads" and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ "The Plank Road Craze" both provided excellent overviews. From the FHWA:

A modern movement at that time [ed., late 1840’s-1850’s] called for the building of wooden roads, a great improvement in transportation… wagons loaded with merchandise and agricultural products — and the animals pulling them — were not slowed or stopped by mud, but could enjoy a hazard free ride once they reached a plank road… Plank roads were still popular into the 20th century where the first motorists, struggling to negotiate muddy roads and bumpy gravel roads with their Model T, were all too happy to have a level surface on which to drive.

Plank roads were expensive and they required vasts amount of lumber. U.S. states, and especially those on the frontier, often did not have sufficient resources to build and maintain them. They allowed private companies to construct plank roads speculatively as turnpikes, with tolls used to cover ongoing repairs and hopefully provide a financial return for investors. The Michigan website mentioned "A total of 202 plank road companies" receiving charters from the state in the last half of the nineteenth century, with the preponderance of them bestowed right around 1850 plus or minus a couple of years. Other states did the same. One of the longest was built in North Carolina, the 129 mile (208 kilometre) Fayetteville and Western Plank Road constructed between 1850-1852. That was the heyday of the "plank road craze."

There were a couple of issues leading to the demise of this unusual road-building technique. First, wood exposed to the elements didn’t last very long. Maintenance costs began to soar after only three or four years. Second, railroads became increasingly popular, expanding their networks exponentially as the century progressed. Plank roads got a bit of a reprieve in the early days of the automobile and then quickly disappeared under ribbons of asphalt.

I never did stop at Boydton Plank Road even though I drove past it dozens of time. That was a pity since it was also an historical site. It saw combat during the Civil War, the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, October 27-28, 1864. Of course, it’s difficult to go anywhere in Virginia without running directly into a Civil War battlefield before long.

Did any of those old plank roads still exist, I wondered? In a sense they did. There must be hundreds upon hundreds of streets with Plank Road somewhere in their names. I’ll bet there’s one near the hometown of every 12MC reader in the United States or Canada. The closest one to my home might be about an hour away in Fredericksburg, VA. Their names carried forward to the present day although their roadbeds were long since paved.

Glamis-Thanksgiving 2008
Glamis-Thanksgiving 2008 by Sandy & Co., on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

West of Yuma on the California side of the line, down along the Mexican border, deep in the desert, exists what may be the only remaining original section of an historic plank road.

View Larger Map

It survived because it was built during the very latter-part of the plank road era, 1915, and because it was set in an extraordinarily dry area where it didn’t rot. The Bureau of Land Management protects the remaining segment, a mere 1,500 feet (457 metres).

This wooden road once spanned the Imperial Sand Dunes, providing a means of commerce and transportation to the southern Imperial Valley… Before the construction of the plank road cars were forced to go around the dunes, either south through Mexico, or the more popular northern route, through Brawley. The Brawley route presented its own challenges, going directly through Mammoth Wash, which was known for its flash floods that could sweep cars away in a matter of minutes.

Today, Interstate 8 follows much of the original plank road path through the dunes.

Old Plank Road Trail
Old Plank Road Trail by reallyboring, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Another plank road survived in spirit in Illinois in the guise of the Old Plank Road Trail (which also served as a railroad route after the demise of the plank road itself). It runs from Joliet to Forest Park Park Forest and receives 128,000 recreational users per year (route).

Illinois was also the home of an original plank road toll house, preserved at the Dickson Mounds Museum: "This structure is one of perhaps only a dozen plank road toll booths still surviving in the United States. It is one of two known wooden structures and the only one with an onion-shaped dome" (map).

Last place went to the Plank Road Brewery, the makers of Icehouse Beer. The Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent brewers, would describe Plank Road as a "Crafty" brewery rather than a Craft brewery. The name attempts to pass itself off as a small brewer when really Plank Road is a subsidiary of Miller Brewing, which in turn is a subsidiary of SABMiller. The Plank Road in the title referred to the street that passed by the old Miller Brewery during the plank road craze, the Watertown Plank Road.

On August 29, 2013 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Plank Roads”

  1. Greg says:

    This may not be the same thing, but there’s a very short road on the campus of my alma mater paved in wood since the turn of the last century. In that case, the boards are vertical, so the surface of the road is actually what would be the end of a board. Picture here:

    It’s held up remarkably well over the years, but walking over it when there’s snow/ice on the ground is hazardous at best.

  2. Philip Newton says:

    “Old Plank Road Trial” should be “Old Plank Road Trail”.

    • Funny thing, I kept typing Plank as "Plan" (leaving off the k — I guess as a reflex action). I had to keep going back using search to correct it because auto-correct couldn’t flag it. So then I transpose ai and ia… 😉

      Thanks, I’ll make a correction.

  3. stangetz says:

    You’re right – we have a bunch of ’em around NWPA. They’re all dirt or asphalt now, though.

    Interestingly enough, one of the plank roads we have here has a bridge (technically more of a culvert) that uses railroad rails as the support struts. Another of the plank roads uses an iron railroad tank car with the ends cut off as a cross pipe. Not surprisingly, they are in better shape than the steel pipes more recently used.

  4. Dennis McClendon says:

    Old Plank Road Trail runs from Joliet to Park Forest (not Forest Park, which is a completely different Chicago suburb far away).

    But that gives me the chance to suggest a placename game: places in the same state that consist of the same words in reverse order. Here in Chicago, we’re not sure whether to count Montrose/Rosemont.

    As for plank roads, several important routes converging on Chicago were once plank roads, including Ogden, Milwaukee, and part of Blue Island/South Western avenues.

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