Plank Roads

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.

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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.

Yuma Anomaly

I received an email message the other day from a first-time reader who happened to stumble across 12MC randomly through a search engine, hoping to learn the answer to a burning question. I’d never covered the topic on the site before so I didn’t have a ready answer. It fascinated me though and of course I dropped all of my other research topics underway to pursue it further because I have a short attention span and I love to follow tangents. I put as much effort into the question as I’ve done for any article I’d post ordinarily so I might as well share the results with the rest of you.

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The reader who went by "James" recalled an anecdote from the not-too-distant past. He was traveling through Yuma, Arizona and wanted a bite to eat. Sometimes it’s tough finding a decent meal on the road and we all have our own ways to deal with that. I like to go to brewpubs under the theory if the food falls short at least the beer will be decent. James homes-in on casinos for the buffets. I hadn’t thought of that option before so I’ll have to add that to my travel tip list.

Anyway, he crossed the Colorado River — the border between California and Arizona — only to discover a small chunk of Arizona on the "wrong" side of the river with the state line running through the casino parking lot. It’s the Paradise Casino owned by the Quechan Tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Indians). I don’t believe it was an issue of legality since there are Native American casinos in California, too. However it’s not particularly germane to the anecdote so I’ll leave the question of this particular state-hugging casino alone. The more important aspect was the sliver of Arizona within territory one would ordinarily expect to belong to California.

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One is able to appreciate the full extent of the anomaly by zooming out the map a little further. Rivers don’t normally flow at right angles so it’s not like the current state border followed an old riverbed that changed over time. Why, James wondered, did this artifact exist?

I had no idea. I thought it might trace back to old Fort Yuma, constructed in the 1850’s on the California side of the river to protect the new settlement on what was then the New Mexico Territory. That was an interesting bit of history, however, it didn’t provide an explanation.

The answer turned out to be much more recent: March 12, 1963. It seemed crazy that two long-standing states (California since 1850 and Arizona since 1912) were still arguing over their common border as recently 1963 since it was supposed to be the Colorado River, and yet that was indeed the case. That’s when the two finally agreed upon an "Interstate Compact Defining the Boundary Between the States of Arizona and California." The United States Congress approved the Compact in 1966, thereby enshrining the odd jog in the border permanently. The Compact explained its logic:

The boundary between the State of Arizona and California on the Colorado River has become indefinite and uncertain because of the meanderings in the main channel of the Colorado River with the result that a state of confusion exists as to the true and correct location of the boundary, and the enforcement and administration of the laws of the two states and the United States have been rendered difficult.

It also provided, in excruciating detail, 34 points forming the new border in perpetuity (e.g., "700 feet to Point No. 28, which lies on the easterly shoulder line of said north-south road due east of the northeast corner of the stone retaining wall around the Indian School Hospital…"), along with requirements for another 234 subpoints not monumented.

This was elaborated upon further in a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper published by the Government Printing Office, "Boundaries of the United States and the several States." The key reference can be found on Page 153.

Because determination of the position midchannel at the time California entered the Union would be difficult now, it was decided to place the boundary line in a position that would provide an equitable distribution of the land that had been affected by the movement of the riverbed.

A map found on the following page (Page 154) clearly showed the jog.

How the two states agreed that this particular block should become part of Arizona may never be known except to those involved in the 1963 negotiations. Was it because it was close to Yuma? Was it because it was easy to reach from the rest of Arizona? That remains unanswered. However it was clearly intended to compensate Arizona for changes in the course of the Colorado River that had not been well-documented over the prior century. It was an approximation so straight lines and right angles were appropriate and probably easier to survey.

Thanks James, and I hope you become a regular reader.