Plank Road Fever
North Carolina embraced plank roads – wooden toll turnpikes – as the transportation infrastructure of the future.
In the mid-1800s, North Carolina was gripped by an acute case of plank road fever. Toll turnpikes surfaced with wooden planks had been used in Canada and in New York State, where they stimulated commerce and brought impressive profits to the companies that built and owned them. For North Carolina, where quagmire roads were bordered by extensive forests, the technology seemed a natural.
On these new marvels, also called “Farmers’ Railroads,” wagons did not become bogged down in mud. Indeed, they moved faster and carried heavier loads than wagons on dirt roads. Fewer horses were needed to pull the load, meaning less feed. (Worry about fuel consumption did not arrive with the automobile.) A Canadian newspaper editor boasted that a horse driven for six miles on a plank road, “seemed more in a gay frolick than at labour.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, touring the south as a reporter for the New York Daily Times, took note of the possibilities.
Plank-roads, it will be obvious, … are admirably adapted to all the circumstances of this country. They suit the habits of the people, and the value of land being small, and the country heavily timbered, they may be built at a low cost. On them the farmer may drive his wagon, as he has been accustomed in the Winter, but carrying double his usual load, and in less time, and with much less liability to accidents.
The plank-roads are as good in winter, when the farmer has leisure to drive to market, as they are in summer; and he can take upon them a much heavier load, thirty-five miles a day, than he formerly wore out his horses and exhausted his patience to drag seventeen.
Between 1850 and 1860, 84 plank road companies in North Carolina received state charters authorizing them to build and operate a toll turnpike.
A charter was no guarantee an actual road would be built. It was simply a green light to sell shares in a proposed business venture. Tiny Chapel Hill alone claimed seven companies chartered to build plank roads, yet not one of those companies ever actually built a road. Still, North Carolina laid 500 miles of plank roads at a cost of some $800,000 (about $22 million in current value).
Communities across the state – especially those without access to transportation via water – saw huge possibilities in the new technology. The Raleigh Register editorialized in February of 1849:
To an inland town like ours, roads are substitutes for navigable rivers. The more widely they radiate in every direction, and the better their condition, the greater will be our prosperity… Of all modes of improving their surface, Plank Roads are the most effectual, at the smallest cost.
If optimism was one side of the coin, the other side was a fear of being left behind. Tarboro’s The Southerner voiced that anxiety in October of 1852:
If the the other parts of the country improve their ways, and we do not, the life of business and enterprise will forsake our region for those more favored – and property must decline instead of advancing. As yet the game is in our hands – say, shall we win or lose?
North Carolina's plank road fever was intense, but it was short-lived.
The untreated lumber used to construct the roads rotted more quickly than expected. And a roadbed with rotten places was worse than a muddy road, as it posed a danger of man and beast crashing through rotten planks. In 1858, The Salem Press commented favorably on the decommissioning of a local plank road:
The need of a renovation of this road was becoming more and more apparent, as the greater portion of the plank was either partly or wholly decayed, and the pieces which yet remained were scattered about in such a manner as to prove dangerous to the traveler, especially after dark.
Challenging as physical decay was, there were other powerful forces working against the new roads. The coming of the railroad brought stiff competition, and the Civil War effectively put an end to the building or maintenance of wooden roads. The plank road movement that had arrived with such promise in 1849 was dead by 1862.