The Plank-Road Craze
The Plank-Road Craze
Fads. Americans in the antebellum decades exhibited a mania for whatever trend promised to reduce to man ageable proportions the nation’s vast distances and long communication gaps. Obsessed with speed, hating isolation, yet tired of long and uncomfortable journeys and letters that took weeks or months to reach their destinations, ordinary Americans found potential salvation in each new transportation technology. The railroad and the telegraph satiated their appetite for a while, capturing the national imagination for most of the nineteenth century (before the telephone and the automobile started the whole process going again), but not before one last craze swept the country: a mania for wooden roads. 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.
The Farmer’s Railroad. Plank roads seemed like a good investment. A growing network of railroads and canals linked all of the nation’s larger cities by the late 1850s, but these advances were of limited use to the thousands of rural residents living on dirt tracks miles from the nearest rail line. The wooden road seemed the ideal answer to the problem of how to connect the countryside with the new system of canals and railroads. In fact, commentators often referred to plank roads as “the farmer’s railroad.” Utilizing America’s most abundant resource, wooden roads were cheap to build. By placing them over existing dirt roads, builders saved money on grading and draining. Plank roads were easy to construct, consisting of nothing more than heavy planks three inches thick and eight feet long attached crosswise to wooden stringers set into the roadbed. At about $1, 500 a mile the plank roads were relatively easy to finance and could be built by small companies with little capital in a short time, usually two to three years. These companies recouped their investments by charging tolls.
Promises. To increase traffic and revenue, promoters constantly touted the advantages of the wooden roads for farmers. They told farmers that plank roads could cut their travel time to city markets and thus allow them to make more money on their produce, which was a true enough point. But promoters also assured farmers that plank roads would add “value from 10 to 15 per cent” to their farmland, which was considerably less certain. Most imaginative of all, some developers claimed that the new plank roads would improve rural living by connecting farms with urban culture. One article claimed that the access to stores and schools provided by plank roads had worked wondrous changes in the Indiana countryside: “the people … are changed” the editor wrote, they “dress better, look better—their manners are better. Their wives and daughters are no longer the same persons; they have improved wonderfully.”
Decay. Like the boosters of most other transportation manias, the plank-road enthusiasts could not sustain their illusions in the face of reality. When kept under repair, or where the weather was dry, the roads fulfilled much of their promise. But where 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. Replacing these parts proved expensive, and plank-road companies found that toll revenues would not cover repairs and provide profits as well. In fact, plank-road owners found out quickly that rural residents were good at finding ways to bypass the toll booths, evidence of which can still be found in Midwestern towns with streets named Dodge. When the plank roads went unrepaired they became both inconvenient and dangerous. Rotting planks gave way under the weight of horses and wagons, damaging cargo, injuring human passengers and animals alike, and leading to numerous expensive lawsuits. Moreover, the spread of rail networks to ever- smaller communities reduced pressure for publicly funded common roads and dried up some of the capital for private investment in plank roads. Indiana and Illinois had 1, 000 miles of plank roads in 1851, of which only about 150 miles remained in operation by 1855. The depression of 1857 provided the final blow for many of the remaining companies, ending yet another short lived transportation craze.