Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Old Plank Road

(from the April 30, 2002, Lowell Tribune, page 6)

Road building in the pioneer days was often made more difficult when swampy ground was encountered, so when early saw mills began to operate, many early settlers constructed wooden roads in the troubled areas.

Logs were laid side-by-side across the soggy ground, then more logs, called "stringers," were placed parallel to the direction of the road and covered with heavy, hardwood planks.

Ditches on the sides provided drainage and a trail alongside allowed wagons to pull over or pass each other. With courtesy on the road, the wagon with the biggest load was given the right-of-way.

The building of the corduroy plank road in the area of the pioneer community of Tinkerville (later Creston) was a much tougher challenge, for the road was built through the swamp from the little village to the Lake of the Red Cedars, three-quarters of a mile to the north.

Even though there is no recorded history of the date, it is estimated that the road was built about 1875, just a few years before the nearby railroad was constructed.

It was not an easy task for the men of the village to build this road, which spanned the marsh, for there were many problems. Three or four feet of water, beds of muck and peat, along with all kinds of marsh plants made the work even more difficult. This road would enable a man to take his team and wagon on a more direct route instead of following less convenient roads to the east or the west.

The hardy road builders went out on the marsh when there was a heavy coating of ice to drive pilings to support a framework which supported spans of rough planking, cut from local sawmills, powered by water or by stream. Before the saw mills were in operation wooden roads were made of logs.

The road was said to be still in use in 1912, for there is a story about a beer wagon making the short trip across the swamp that year. A third layer of the rough planks was added early in the 1900's. But in 1914 a resident started out on the old plank road to Cedar Lake from the village of Creston, and the old structure groaned and creaked in such a way he thought it better to stop his rig, unhitch his horses and turn them back. He fled south to safety and said goodbye to the old relic of the swamp.

In the early 1920's this writer was given a short tour of the plank road at the north end near the old village of Paisley, which was a railroad station on the southwest shore of Cedar Lake. His father carefully drove his 1919 Oakland four-door sedan onto the rotting planks of the old span, but quickly put it into reverse.

Photos taken from the air in 1970 clearly showed the lines of wood piling in the swamp from Creston to Cedar Lake. The road must have been more like a bridge than a road, by the looks of it. The road began at Creston near the pioneer church and ended near the present boat harbor at southwest Cedar Lake. In other areas in the days of the early settlers, private companies were formed to build corduroy roads of logs, and later plank roads. To finance the construction, they set up toll houses and charged for both man and beast.

In the late 1840's a craze set in for building plank roads. Those heavy planks spiked to log stringers were good for a time, but after a few years would loosen, warp and rot.

In those days the approximate cost of a road built of three-inch white oak planks was $2,000 per mile. The old timers said that you could hear a stage coach coming over a plank road a mile or two away, so noisy were the loose boards under the wheels of the wagons and the feet of the horses.

It was not until the late 1850's that gravel was used and the entire state of Indiana became dotted with private toll roads with their little toll houses and long poles for gates.

Because of tough and swampy land, two of Indiana's earliest highways, the Michigan Road (US 31) and the National Road (US 40), were built in part with logs covered with sand, but the logs quickly wore out.

One plank road, 15 miles in length, was constructed with three-inch-by twelve-inch planks cut in nine-foot lengths from the cedar forest, laid directly over tough marsh vegetation. The plank roads did not offer a very smooth ride, and it was said that "rapid deterioration of the wooden roadbed and the resultant high cost of maintenance quickly brought the plank roads into disfavor."

One of the first plank roads built in the Chicago area was the Southwestern Road, completed in 1848 as far as Doty's Tavern, now Lyons, IL, and then extended in 1850 to the area that is now Hinsdale, and on to Naperville in 1851. From there other roads went to Oswego, Warrenville, St. Charles, and Sycamore.

That was the first of a network of plank roads that radiated outward like the spokes of a wheel, with Chicago as the hub.

In 1849 the Northwestern Plank Road was built on Milwaukee Ave. to Oak Ridge and then on to Niles and to Wheeling. The Western Plank Road went from Oak Ridge to Bloomingdale and on to the city of Elgin.

In 1851 the Southern Plank Road was constructed along State Street and Vincennes Avenue as far as 83rd Street. In 1854 the Blue Island Plank Road was complete on Western Ave. as far as Blue Island Ave., at that time the southwest corner of the city of Chicago. A five-mile road of planks was parallel to the lake shore from North Avenue to Green Bay Road.

The plank toll roads were very profitable at first, with toll gates every 5 to 6 miles. The toll was "one bit" per person (12 and one half cents), two bits for a man on horseback, two bits for a single team and three bits for a four-horse vehicle.

Unlike some of the Hoosier roads, the heavy 16 planks in Illinois were not spiked to the stringers and soon warped, decayed, and frequently floated away or were "borrowed" by nearby settlers. After a few years, with little or no maintenance, most of the roads became so uncomfortable and dangerous that they were abandoned.

Last updated on May 7, 2002.

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