Imagine traveling on plank roads like this between cities in Alabama

There were several plank roads in Alabama before the advent of the railroad. They have disappeared now.


Plank roads were short-lived in Alabama

A plank road is a dirt path or road covered with a series of planks, similar to the wooden sidewalks one would see in a Western movie. Wagon roads surfaced with plank, kept the road open for traffic during the entire year which otherwise would be impassable during wet weather.plank road wikipedia

Similar to corduroy roads

Plank roads are similar to corduroy roads. A corduroy road or log road is a type of road made by placing sand-covered logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area. The result is an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, yet rough in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to shifting loose logs.

Building a plank road  (Wikipedia)

plank road built

The first plank roads in this country were built in the State of New York in 1846 in Syracuse to transport salt and other goods. This coincided with the culmination in Alabama of the state-wide agitation for cheap and convenient channels of commercial intercourse, in a multitude of schemes and projects for canals, railroads, and wagon roads of various sorts—some of them practicable, but more of them altogether visionary.

Cheap and easy to build

The sponsors for the plank road system emphasized their immediate availability, because of their comparative cheapness and ease of construction The people of the State felt that Alabama had lagged behind the rest of the country in such improvements and were in a receptive attitude toward any plan which promised quick attainment of the advantages of ready communication and interchange of products. It required little argument to convince many of the most influential men of the State that the construction of extensive systems of plank roads offered the readiest solution of the transportation problem in Alabama.

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The first plank road was introduced in Alabama in 1849. Easily built in a region where virgin timber was plentiful, it consisted of parallel rows of squared oak “sleepers” covered with timbers eight feet long and three inches thick.

Old plank road Prattville (waymarking.com)

Govenor H. W. Collier was one of the early converts to this theory, and he placed himself on record in the following language: “The opinion prevails extensively that plank roads are quite as well adapted to our wants as any other mode of intercommunication, and being less costly, may be made in those parts of the State where they are most needed by associations of individual enterprise, and capital. In New York (and perhaps some other States), a general plank road law has been enacted. I respectfully recommend, with the view of encouraging such improvement, that a similar act be passed by the General Assembly, prescribing the manner in which such corporations may be formed, their powers, &c., so as to render it unnecessary to apply to the Legislature for a specific charter. This enactment would prevent delay, by permitting individuals to associate and commence work whenever they were prepared for it.”

Example of old plank road

3old plank road.jpg

Apparently it was not Gov. Collier’s belief that plank roads would fill the place of railroads or even seriously compete with them. It was their feasibility under wretched local conditions that impressed him—their cheapness and facility of construction. The prevalent idea was to adopt the readiest means at hand for connecting the plantations with the towns, and plank roads seemed to offer the means.

Plank roads were easy to maintain

Some enthusiastic engineers undertook to demonstrate by elaborate series of arguments and tables of figures, not only that plank roads could be more cheaply and expeditiously built than railroads or macadamized highways, but that they could be maintained at much less expense, and, consequently, would be a more profitable investment for capital.

They asserted that freight could be hauled over them by wagons at the same price per ton that railroads would have to charge, and, by the use of relays of horses, almost as quickly. Another advantage, they claimed, was the fact that the road itself represented the entire investment, an expensive equipment of motive power, rolling stock, depots, repair shops and machinery, and the requisite employees to operate and care for them, not being necessary as in the case of railroads, for the patrons of plank roads would furnish the motive power and rolling stock in the shape of their own wagons and teams. These and numerous other arguments persuaded many persons that plank roads represented a more real and immediate public need than railroads.

However, warping in winter and attacks of boring insects and dry rot in summer made created expensive repairs.

First Plank Roads in Alabama

The first plank road company in Alabama chartered was the “Cane Brake Plank Road Company,” which projected a road from Demopolis to Uniontown. and was incorporated by the legislature, March 4, 1848.

Plank road at Tannehill State Park

Plank road at Tannehill

On February 12, 1850, a general act providing for the incorporation of companies to construct macadamized, graded, turnpike, wooden, rail roads, or plank roads was approved, and during the same session— 1849-50—24 separate companies were chartered. During the session, 1851-52, 10 new companies were incorporated, and 5 or 6 acts authorizing existing companies to borrow money were passed. During the session of 1853-54 only 1 new charter was issued, making 35 in all during a period of slightly over 5 years.

No record of exact number of miles of plank roads in Alabama.

There are no available records to show the exact number of miles constructed, but several such roads were either wholly or partly built and used as toll roads for varying lengths of time. Among those best known were the Montgomery South Plank Road, of which 17 miles, between Montgomery and Steep Creek in Lowndes County, were completed; the Central Plank Road, projected between Montgomery and Guntersville via Wetumpka and Talladega, of which about 60 miles north of Wetumpka were put in service; the Tuscaloosa and Greensboro Plank Road, all or most of which was completed and used for several years.

The Central Plank road began at Montgomery and kept mainly along the Judkins Ferry Road, crossing the Tallapoosa River at the ferry. It reached the hills and kept the river lands at the foot of the hills, and came into the public road near Harrowgate Springs, and from there into Wetumpka. It passed through the business part of town and then kept to the edges of the hills running in front of the penitentiary, and then though Central. it by-passed Nixburg as the people of Nixburg had, in some ways, irritated the John G. Winter, a banker of Columbus, Georgia who was the president of Plank Road Company. It came into Sylacauga and from thence to Talladega.

Central Plank Road Certificate of Stock

Central Plank Road certificate

Saw mills moved with the road building

Saw mills were erected along the way to cut timbers for the road building. The saw mills were moved along the road building.

These were toll roads, capitalized at $50,000 each, there was a charge of 2 1/2 cents a mile for a four house private pleasure carriage; a loaded wagon with two horses was 3 cents per mile. Also there were bridges that charged tolls. However, there were no charges for funerals or for people going to church, to mill, to a blacksmith, or to a doctor. There were besides several shorter stretches of planked road constructed in different localities over the State, aggregating, with the above mentioned, probably 150 miles.

Plank road station, Winterboro, Alabama

Plank road station

The public welcomed the plank roads at first. A large barbecue was held at Sylacauga, “a distance of 70 miles from Montgomery, a large barbecue was planned there and everybody was invited. The Company wanted to show the people an improved road. The speaker for the day was William L. Yancey. Relays of horses and buggies had been provided for Mr Yancey’s trip. The horses were not to be driven consecutively orver 6 or 7 miles; and at the end of this distance horses were kept harnessed ready for the change. Mr Yancey started at sun up, reached Sylacauga, stayed 2 hours for the speaking and dinner, and returned to Montgomery at sunset, making the 140 miles with a stop of only two hours between suns.”

Interest in plank roads lasted about five years

The enthusiasm for plank roads was comparatively short-lived, lasting only about five years. This was due partly to the overshadowing interest in railroads which arose among capitalists almost simultaneously, and partly to the great disparity between the estimated and the actual cost of their construction and maintenance.

Where maximum estimates of the cost of construction made by engineers in 1849 had been $1,200 to $1,500 per mile, the actual average cost by 1852 had been found to vary from $2,000 to $4,000 per mile, and even more where there were long stretches to be built through marshy or swampy country, and the cost of maintenance in proportion. The plank roads that were thus built were used for a time, but soon became merely relics of one of the sporadic phases of the development of transportation in Alabama.

Plank Road Station lodge in Winterboro

A non-profit organization is restoring the Plank Road Station lodge for the purpose of a community center, educational outreach facility, art gallery, and museum in Winterboro, Alabama. Winterboro which is approximately 10 miles South of Talladega, 10 miles North of Sylacauga and 9 miles West of Childersburg in Talladega County, Alabama. The lodge sits next to Winterboro School, one of the very few remaining “in use” rock schools.

Plank road station, Alpine, AlabamaPlank road station museum, Alpine, Alabama

In 1921, the Winterboro Masonic Lodge was located near the intersection of current Alabama State highways 21 and 76. The intersection held historic significance dating back to the 1850’s as being the northern terminus of a 60 mile, well traveled, toll road built of wooden boards known as Central Plank Road. Masonic meetings in the lodge were discontinued in 1957.

This is a rural area with no town/city support in the immediate surrounding area. They have Market Day on the 2nd Saturday of the month during the warmer months to help raise funds for restoration projects as well as other projects. Visit their website at Plank Road Station to learn more

Additional Note: 

Thank you Donna for putting the piece about the AlJerald Powers Plank Road Station Masonic Lodge on your web page today. Since the Lodge was moved in 2003 and restoration  and began on it.a small group of dedicated and interested local people have worked very hard to become a non-profit organization and make something of the old building that was moved to its present location beside the Winterboro School on highway  # 21. In the future it will one day be a shining example of what can be done to restore an old building to become a center for local activities and a place where all can see items from an earlier time in its museum.

The Plank Road Station is always looking for people who would like to join us and work with us in reaching our goal. We have a monthly meeting on the 3rd Tuesday night of each month down at the Lodge building at 6 p.m. We welcome anyone who would like to come and become a member of the group.

We will be having several suppers at the Lodge in the months ahead , which are always popular.

 

SOURCES

  1. Central Plank Road in Elmore County, Alabama from: Excerpt from “History of Wetumpka” by Elizabeth Porter
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Plank Road Station

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

58 Responses to Imagine traveling on plank roads like this between cities in Alabama

  1. I remember going over planked bridges

  2. My husbands grandad said ft Payne streets were naked and he saw them all burn. ???

  3. I remember the wooden lanes that you drove on to cross bridges in Tallapoosa County, Alabama.

  4. A great piece for Talladega County history buffs!

  5. An elderly lady told me years ago about driving in Alabama during the 1930s. She owned a car and had a job as a traveling librarian. She said there was only one paved highway in Alabama during that time (can anyone verify?) so driving was slow. She also mentioned that when it rained she would spend a lot of time scraping the red mud/clay from underneath her car!

  6. Co Rd 1 in Fairhope, AL still has the original wood under the asphalt! During heavy rains and hurricanes the wood swells causing the road to rise and fall all along the road.

  7. There are plank bridges still being used in Conech County.

  8. Sue WoodSue Wood says:

    Be very hard to drive on today following some people; considering the way they drive!!

  9. My grandfather told me years ago when he was a child his mother would send him looking for his father in Troy, AL. He told me the streets were made of planks and he remembered seeing the saloon doors like we see on westerns.

  10. When i was young we could still see the supports and remnant of plank sidewalks in the Sipsy swamps near Fayette, Ala. They didn’t burn when the rest of the town did.

  11. Highway 9 in Wetumpka was a part of the Central Plank Road. I remember old folks actually calling it Central Plank Road.

  12. They are so cool but how did you pass someone if you were in a carriage?

  13. I lived on central plank road for years, and when I started asking why it was called that, I was amazed when they told me, the things I learned when I was living in Wetumpka, they had great history.

  14. Crossed many creeks on them. Remember all the dirt (not gravel) roads of Clay County.

  15. Highway 216 going through Crisstown used to be a plank Road !

  16. Where can I get the book Alabama pioneers

  17. Interesting history, but what did they do if they met someone on this one lane road? Seems like it was poorly thought out and what a waste of natural resources. It took hundreds of years for the trees to grow only to be cut and laid on swampy ground where they would likely rot within a short period of time. This is part of the reason there are only a very small remnant of virgin timberland in Alabama and many valuable hardwoods that are now rare or extinct. It is unfortunate that these early settlers were not thinking of future generations.

  18. I use to live off of Central Plank Rd which is now Hwy 9 in Wetumpka. it was a very long road.

    • I believe I saw a historical marker with that info. once. Thanks for the update.

    • Bill CappsBill Capps says:

      I once helped the AU Archeology Department do a test dig at the site of the Indian casino in Wetumpka. We found old nails space about a foot apart and spaced 3-4 foot across. It was determined this was the remnants of the old plank road that ran along the ridge beside the river. The nails fastened planks to logs. The wood all rotted away leaving only the nails. It was neat.

  19. Tim MayTim May says:

    Wasn’t 119 a plank rd?

  20. More like red, muddy dirt.

  21. Looks lovely like a flat wooden roller coaster!!!

  22. Faye RichFaye Rich says:

    ‘Cordero ‘ roads were around first. They used logs to make roads. Bumpy!!!

  23. I remember a bridge with planks when I was a young kid.
    Our dad would have us walk behind as he drove the car across. It was near Petrey , Alabama.

  24. Ann AnglinAnn Anglin says:

    How did you pass when you met someone?

  25. I did not know this. Very interesting.

  26. I remember going over bridges in south Al. That were almost like this!

  27. They didn’t invent cars until after railroads were all over the country?

  28. JoAn AlgerJoAn Alger says:

    My mom told me about wooden roads crossing g the desert. Single lane. With pull offs every so often, in case you met a car coming from the other direction

  29. I have never heard or read about these!

  30. I’ve seen roads around AL named —Plank Road and always wondered about the history. Amazing how the settlers used their ingenuity to build roads over swamps with hard wood trees when there was no cement, asphalt, or even gravel for roads. They persevered… It was that kind of fortitude that makes Alabama such a great state!

  31. I didn’t know thst

  32. That was a “cool” article!! I do not remember seeing these roads, and I’m a senior from Alabama. I cannot tell you, Donna, how much I enjoy this site. It keeps me connected to the state I spent the first twelve years of my life in…and the state I dearly love.

  33. JD Warren says:

    While visiting Talladega County a few months ago (where I grew up in the 1960s), I was surprised to see the Winterboro Station had recently been moved to the other side of highway 21. I inquired why and found that it was necessary because the highway is planned for widening. I guess that after almost 200 years the traffic is finally picking up on that route.

  34. Cecile Simmons says:

    I never knew such a thing as a plank road existed, this was so interesting.

  35. Thanks for sharing pictures. I remember my grandparents talking about them and all males were required to work on them. It is great to put a picture to the words.

  36. What would happen if you met someone going in the opposite direction?

  37. We had some in California as well. Some remnants can be seen in desert palms area. I believe Huell Howser shared about that in one of his programs about California landmarks.

  38. Sure looks smoother than 21.

  39. There was a plank road in Coosa county . Went through my parents land off highway 280 on to Wetumpka I think.

  40. Pingback: 22 Things You Might Not Know About The State Of Alabama - Sweet Southern Sugar | Sweet Southern Sugar

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