Travel in the United States on Plank Roads

Turnpike Stock

(The image is from a stock certificate in Oldham County to help fund a plank road.Courtesy Oldham County Historical Society)

As Rob Morris traveled he would come across plank roads.Plank roads were introduced to the United States via Canada around 1840. George Geddes, born near Syracuse, NY, perfected the plank road construction techniques. Road builders would lay down two parallel lines of timber, four to five feet apart, called “sills” or “stringers” that formed the road’s foundation. Then wood planks, about eight feet long, were laid at right angles across the timbers. The weight of the planks was the only thing that secured them on the timbers. No nails or glue was used. A wide earthen track was graded along the plank road to allow for vehicles to pass another vehicle in the opposite direction. The estimated cost was about $1,500 per mile. Plank road companies rapidly appeared across the United States. Within a few years over 1,000 companies built more than 10,000 miles of plank roads nationwide.
Investments in plank roads came from the local community. Toll gates were established to collect user fees. Landowners, merchants, farmers, and artisans provided the initial stocks to build the plank roads with little dividends in return. However, the expectation of safer and more convenient travel made plank roads an easy sell for the community.
Plank roads were promoted to last eight to twelve years but in reality they needed a lot of upkeep and their life expectancy was only four or five years. They also were extremely hazardous when they began to deteriorate. Wagon wheels or horse’s legs would sometimes slip between the plank boards that needed replacement resulting in horses with broken legs and deadly accidents for travelers.
As steamboats and trains became more feasible the plank roads and turnpikes were less desirable. More landings on the Ohio River, which Morris frequently used, allowed for convenience in transport up and downstream to Cincinnati and Louisville. By 1861, when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, the need for plank roads quickly degenerated and few if any existed by the turn of the century.