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Early Transportation Part 2 of 3

22 February 2021

Wooden Plank Roads

Entrepreneurs in the mid-nineteenth century understood the difficulty of travel and realized there was money to be made.  They began building wooden plank roads that were relatively smooth and without obstructions, charging travelers by the mile.  It took a lot of money and hard work to build a wooden plank road in 19th century America.

It started with a survey to find the best route from one location to then next. The roadway had to be cleared and thousands of board feet of lumber cut and milled to start the road. Local farmers and laborers used shovels, hoes, rakes and teams of horse-drawn scrapers, under the supervision of engineers, to level and grade the road surface, requiring many months of manpower, equipment and horses to complete. 

The roads were generally graded to 24 feet wide with the center graded 6” higher than the sides to provide water runoff, and a ditch was dug on each side to keep water drained away from the road.  Milled logs provided the foundation along the length of the road, with 3” thick oak planks nailed crossways for the top layer.  Plank roads were generally well-maintained.  No longer did travelers or merchants have to clear trees, traverse swamps, and suffer the numerous pits and swales that led to delays and many broken axles along the way.   

See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: 1

Locally, Watertown-Plank Road ran from Goerke’s Corners in Brookfield, WI to Watertown, WI, and was one of the longest in the state.  Tolls were set up every five miles, where travelers were charged 1 cent a mile for each animal.  Travel time from Milwaukee to Watertown via the new plank road went from 6 days in bad weather, to 3 days regardless of weather.  Wagonloads of heavy merchandize made their way along the plank roads. Eventually the widespread network of railroads gave merchants a quicker and more reliable transportation option. Though short-lived, the use of plank roads reduced travel time in half, and became great sources for transporting goods and merchandise across the frontier.

(Excerpts from “Early Transportation” by Mike Rice)

(Next time – The Buffalo Roller)

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