In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.
Like death and taxes, the demand for better highways is omnipresent. Leaving the Indians out of this account, it began with the advent of the first settler in the wilderness and has continued to the present. Nor is it to be expected that the completion of any highway program now under contemplation will permanently solve the problem, for in any progressive society the existing standard of highway achievement will ever be made the starting point from which to measure new advances.
|(This map is presented as a visual aid. © Neil Gale)|
1854 Chicago and vicinity map showing the locations of the four major plank roads.
But with the progress of settlement would arise the demand for improvement of these paths which connected the outside world. The streams would be bridged and the swamps corduroyed, while in timbered sections trees, and ultimately even stumps would be removed from the path. Spurred on by the commercial rivalry between different settlements, the pioneer would even on occasion undertake to improve the road by making it a toll road; it must be admitted, however, that in the early period this last improvement was seldom encountered.
But the cleared roads did not suffice to meet the insistent transportation needs of the country. The soil of pioneer Illinois was as rich and black — its mud as deep and clinging — as today, while it was saturated with moisture to a degree quite unknown to the present generation. It followed that during much of the year the highways were impassable, while most of the remaining time they could be traversed only at an enormous expenditure of time and effort. A story told by Robert Dale Owen of New Harmony, Indiana, in his treatise (a written work dealing formally and systematically with a subject) on the construction of plank roads aptly illustrates the situation. With one companion he had traveled by stage to Mount Vernon, on the Ohio River. It required four active horses to transport them, with two small trunks, a distance of fifteen miles; the fare was three dollars per person, and the charge, at this, was moderate, for the horses "sunk literally to their girths" in the frequent mud holes, and the round trip of thirty miles was a hard two days' job for a four-horse stagecoach.
Another illustration of the excessive tax imposed upon a community by the poor roads of the pioneer era is told by Owen in the same discussion. "Last winter," he says, "the inhabitants of McLeansboro, a small town in southern Illinois, some forty or fifty miles northwest of Shawneetown, found themselves, in consequence of the miserable condition of the roads around them, cut off from all supplies, and thus deprived of coffee, sugar, and other necessities of life. Tempting offers were made to several teamsters, but none of them would stir from home. At last a farmer of the neighborhood declared that he had a team of four horses which no road could daunt and that he would risk a trip to Shawneetown, and bring back the necessary supplies. Ten days elapsed, and his empty wagon was slowly and painfully dragged into town by two drooping and jaded horses scarcely to be recognized as part of the fresh and spirited team that started on this expedition. Their owner, by great exertion, had reached Shawneetown, where he took in about half a load. Two of his horses were killed in the attempt to return; his load was left on the road, and the surviving horses so worn-down by the trip as to be unfit for use the rest of the winter." "The tax, in this case," concludes Owen, "was a severe one; considerably exceeding a hundred dollars for the trip." To which we may add the pertinent observation that in 1850 southeastern Illinois had been settled for a generation, during which time Shawneetown had been its principal commercial center of trade and commerce.
But the city merchant was affected no less disastrously than was the farmer by such stoppages of transportation. "Now that the trade of the city is completely prostrated by the late unfavorable weather," said the editor of the Chicago Democrat in December of 1850, "does not the fact of the want of facilities of communication with the country strike everyone most forcibly. The city is completely dependent upon and in fact a mere agency of the surrounding country. It derives every pulsation of its life and every breath of its existence from the agricultural region of which it is the depot."
The citizens of early Chicago had long been aware of the importance of improved highways leading into the interior. Without them the city could not prosper; with them, there seemed no limit to its growth. The problem of road-building was common, of course, to all new communities, and the burden entailed by it was appalling enough. But the task which Chicago faced in this connection was in one respect unique, for around it, as we have seen, stretched for many miles a prairie so low and marshy as to reduce the roads across it to a condition peculiarly villainous.
"The Whiskey Point road," says Edwin Oscar Gale in his book, "Reminiscences of early Chicago," over which I traveled so much, was a fair sample of them all. When the summer birds were singing in southern skies, when the frosts had come and the flowers gone, when the rains had filled the ground with moisture and the waters covered the face of the earth, making every depression a slough, without a ditch anywhere to carry off the accumulated floods; then the wheels sank to the hubs, and the hearts of the drivers sank accordingly; then blows and coaxing were alike unavailing to start the tired teams and the settling loads.
"The spring was worse, if possible, than the fall. The snow was deep and the ground was frozen, and during that time, as far as the eye could see, the whole outlook was a shallow, dismal, cheerless lake, without a house from the ridge to the engulfed city, and from Whiskey Point Road (originally a muddy Indian trail, today's Grand Avenue got its current name from the first president of Chicago, Thomas Jefferson Vance Owen who declared that Chicago was a “grand place to live.”) to the engulfed Widow "Barry's Point," six miles to the southwest of it.
|(This map is presented as a visual aid and may not be totally accurate. © Neil Gale)|
Whiskey Point Road (today's Grand Avenue) to Barry's Point, in 1850s Chicago.
Approximately from Grand and State to California and Archer.
Although the road to Barry's Point was the one great thoroughfare from Chicago to the southwest, it remained for several years but a track across the prairie, the passage of which called for special preparations on the part of stage proprietors. This is well set forth by the English traveler, J. S. Buckingham, who published at London in 1842 a three-volume journal of his tour in America. In June of 1840, his party ascended the Illinois River by steamer to Peru, from which point they took the stage for Chicago. After numerous changes, including all-night detention on the prairie, through the foundering of the coach in a slough, they arrived at midnight at Barry's Point, the last stage station before reaching their destination. Here, the travelers found, not only were the horses to be changed but the coach as well.
"The object," says the writer, "was to give us a much heavier vehicle with broad wheels like a wagon, as the road was said to be so much worse between this [Barry's Point] and Chicago than on any other part of the route, that a narrow wheel would sink up beyond the axle, and only very broad ones could sustain us.
|Note the heavy frame and broad wheels on this time-period stagecoach. You can tell it is an early coach because there is are no leaf-spring shock absorbers.|
A determined effort to secure relief from these intolerable conditions was now about to be made. In June of 1840, the same month of Buckingham's harrowing experience with the Barry Point Road, the citizens of Cook County and adjoining counties assembled at Chicago to consider measures or the improvement of the thoroughfare to the southwest. The Chicago Daily American accompanied the printed notice of the meeting with a vigorous editorial, entitled "The Nine Mile Swamp," whose spirit is strangely reminiscent of present-day fulminations on the local transportation system. The "dismal swamp" stretching from Chicago to Barry's Point was viewed as a "great impediment" to the prosperity of Chicago, and the urgent need of a turnpike "passable at all seasons," was forcefully presented. "So far as our experience has extended," continues the editor, "we have never seen worse roads than that to Barry's Point and five miles west to Doty's on the Naperville Road. In an enterprising community like ours, such obstacles to commerce and inland trade ought to be removed, and if our citizens and the surrounding inhabitants understand their true interests it will be removed. If individuals are not able to do the work, let them instruct the County Commissioners to do it. If the Commissioners of this county will not do it, let them authorize the city to make the road. But in any event, let the road be made. Public convenience and public prosperity demand it."
|Construction of a Plank Road.|
The result is revealed in a report made public by the "Executive Committee on the road between Chicago and the sand ridge." The committee had taken popular subscriptions to the amount of $2,480 and had contracts amounting to $2,750. In addition, a ditch was to be constructed, which would increase the deficit to $500. "One-half mile of the road is finished," the report continues, "and all but about a mile and a half in the wettest part of the route through the swamp were progressing slowly but surely. This section of very wet road had to be re-let, at an additional cost of about 32¢ per rod (1 rod = 16.5 feet). The road will be elevated about 2½ feet above the natural surface of the ground, and five feet above the ditch. The Committee feels that the road will surpass in usefulness all expectations that have been formed of it." Almost two years later, in September of 1842, the Chicago Daily American announces the completion of the turnpike to Barry's Point. But "All of the subscription money could not be collected, and it is asked that the subscribers step forward and keep their word so that the contractors, who have done such good work, may be paid."
The new turnpike was perhaps an improvement over the natural swamp through which it ran, but unless the "expectations" which the townsmen had formed concerning the improvement were exceedingly modest, they were doomed to disappointment. A turnpike made of the rich black soil of Illinois may be an excellent highway in dry weather, but at such times was the natural prairie. Its condition in wet weather requires little description to anyone who has ever undertaken to drive a farm wagon over the dirt roads of Illinois after heavy rain. "The turnpike," writes Gale in his reminiscences, "was never a success. The mud, when in its normal, plastic condition always seemed to be several feet deeper than on the prairie. The clay of which it was composed appeared to have a grudge against every living thing, horse, ox, or man, and threw its tenacious tentacles around all things, to draw them down to its infernal level. Human ingenuity could invent no rougher or more detestable roads to travel over than the pike at such times. Once on it, there was no escape to the side, save at the peril of your life.
From the land of distant Russia by way of backwoods Canada came at length the solution of Chicago's problem of bridging the troublesome situation which nature had thrown around her. An English official, Lord Sydenham, from long years of residence in Russia, had become familiar with the practice of building plank roads to create an outlet across the marshy ground for the production of certain mines. Later, on becoming governor-general of Canada, he persuaded the inhabitants of the utility to be derived from adapting the Russian device to their own particular situation. Beginning in 1839, when the first Canadian plank road was built, the idea spread with rapidity until, within a decade, upwards of 500 miles had been constructed.
From Canada, the plank-road idea spread, after considerable enthusiasm with which communities seized upon it was fairly astounding. New York took the lead, the first plank road company to receive a charter in this country being one from Central Square to Saline, opened for traffic in July of 1846. Its success was immediate, and the flood of applications to the state legislature for charters for similar companies became so great as to threaten to monopolize the entire attention of that body. To remedy this, a general law was passed in 1847 governing the incorporation of plank road companies, being the first of its kind in the United States.
From New York, the plank-road furor swept westward. An exhaustive report on the subject in the Wisconsin legislature of 1848 reached the conclusion that not only was it good policy but "an incumbent duty'* for the legislature to "encourage the construction of this class of public thoroughfares throughout the length and breadth of Wisconsin." Illinois and Indiana followed suit by enacting the following year's general laws for the incorporation of plank roads.
As the Barry Point road was the first highway out of Chicago on which any real attempt at road building was ever made, so it became the route of the city's first plank road. The contract for the initial section from Chicago to Doty's Tavern at Riverside, ten miles in length, began on January 20, 1848, and the road was opened to traffic early in September. It consisted of a single track, eight feet wide, made by laying down two stringers and covering them with a three-inch plank, the stringers being bedded in the earth so that the weight of the plank rested directly upon it.
|A Toll Plank Road.|
To draw any general deduction from a single observation would be, of course, absurd, but the fact is clear that for a time the road returned to the stockholders a profit on their investment which could not fail to stimulate the desire of outsiders to put their money into similar projects. In the illustration which has already been cited Robert Dale Owen demonstrates that one dollar would have been a fair charge for his fifteen-mile stage-coach journey if made over a good road; the remaining two dollars was the tax paid "for the privilege of wading, at the rate of three miles an hour, through mud under which our wheel-hubs were continually disappearing."
Within the next few years after the building of the road to Barry's Point, the citizens of Chicago and the adjoining country had constructed a network of plank roads radiating out from the city like spokes from the center of a wheel. The Southwestern Road, whose beginnings we have already noted, was completed as far as Brush Hill, a distance of sixteen miles, early in 1850. By the close of 1851, it extended to the vicinity of Naperville, where it connected with a road under construction to Oswego. Three miles east of Naperville it also made a connection with the St. Charles and Warrenville Plank Road, two and one-half miles of which were completed in 1851. Still, other roads were built from Naperville to Sycamore, and from Oswego to Little Rock, so that the Southwestern Road with its connections constituted a network of improved roads throughout the rich country to the southwest of Chicago.
Similarly, the Northwestern Plank Road connected the city with the upper Des Plaines Valley. It left the city on Milwaukee Avenue, the line of the old Milwaukee Road, with Wheeling as the ultimate destination. Begun in 1849, the Chicago Democrat of September 4th reported that plank had been laid as far as Oak Ridge, eight miles out. During the next two years, the mainline was run three miles beyond Dutchman's Point (modern Niles) in the direction of Wheeling, with two shorter feeders thrown out to the Des Plaines River. The cost of the twenty-three miles of the road built, together with toll houses, gates, and one bridge, was reported to be $51,000 ($1,554,875 today). From the Northwestern Road at Oak Ridge, the Western Plank Road ran west to the boundary of Du Page County, where it connected with the Elgin and Genoa Plank Road which ran through Elgin to Genoa in Kendall County, a distance of fifty miles from Chicago.
Less important than the foregoing were the Northern and Southern plank roads. The Southern plank road had been planned to run as far as Middleport in Iroquois County, a distance of seventy-five miles. It was actually constructed by way of the line of State Street and Vincennes Avenue as far as Kyle's Tavern, ten miles out, in 1851, at a cost of $21,000 ($640,250 today). Here the shadow of the future fell across the enterprise, for the location of the projected Chicago branch of the Illinois Central Railroad led the promoters of the plank road to abandoning all thought of extending it farther. Yet even the short fragment built proved immediately remunerative, for at the close of 1851 the directors were enabled to declare a 14% dividend from the results of the first year of operation.
From the junction of Clark Street with North Avenue, at the time the city limits, the Lake Shore Road ran parallel with the lakeshore to Hood's Tavern on the Green Bay Trail, a distance of about five miles. From the viewpoint both of length and of traffic this was the least important member of Chicago's plank road system.
It remains to speak of the Blue Island Avenue Plank Road, the last addition to the system of plank roads built out of Chicago. It ran from Blue Island due north on the line of Western Avenue to its junction with 26th Street and Blue Island Avenue which in 1854, the year of the road's construction, was the southwest border of the city. Turning northeast at this point, it followed Blue Island Avenue into the heart of Chicago. The length of the road was thirteen miles, and its strategic importance consisted in the fact that it afforded a direct route to the city for the heavy travel from the south which concentrated at Blue Island. In the annual review of Chicago's commerce published by Governor Bross in 1854, the Blue Island Road, then under construction, is spoken of in glowing terms. The earth excavated from the large ditches cut by the drainage commissioners along the road made a high and splendid grade, while the ditches themselves rendered the adjoining land dry and arable at all times. The Avenue across the prairie, 120 feet in width, was to be lined with trees on either side; moreover, "as by this road cattle could be driven to the city without danger of fright from locomotives, and as two of the principal roads entering the city meet at Brighton (modern Archer and Western Avenues), with abundant water at all times, and pasture and meadowlands in almost unlimited quantities beyond, no one can doubt its favorable position for becoming the principal cattle market of Chicago."
Thus did the intelligent editor of the Chicago Tribune essay the role of prophet less than seventy years ago. Today the "town of Brighton" exists but in memory, while for miles beyond its ancient site the "pasture and meadowlands" of old have been metamorphosed into city streets and squares. Two miles to the eastward lies the "principal cattle market," called the "Bulls Head Market" which opened to the public at Madison Street and Ogden Avenue in 1848, not only of Chicago but of all the earth. But instead of plodding along a tree-bordered country road as of old, unvexed by the sight of the puffing locomotive, the patient cattle from a thousand miles around ride to their doom in "palace" cars drawn over roads of steel by the iron horse itself.
The decline of the plank roads was almost as rapid as their rise, and that generation had lost all knowledge of this "improvement" which to the men and women of 1850 seemed nothing short of revolutionary. To understand the change which led so quickly to their abandonment it is necessary to take some note of the manner of construction, and the problems encountered in operating them. As commonly constructed, a roadway sixteen feet in width was graded and on this eight-foot planks were laid crosswise. This was deemed sufficient for a single-track road, the remaining portion of the grade being available for teams to turn out on in passing. Lengthwise of the road two rows of girders, sometimes as small as two by four inches, were laid, imbedded in the earth in such fashion that the planks rested directly upon it. The planks were not nailed to the girders, nor were the latter intended to support their weight. Their main function was to prevent the tendency of the planks, particularly when the roadbed was new and soft, to tilt or turn when struck by the heavy wheels. From the supporting roadbed all water was to be excluded, and the planks, resting directly on the compact earth, were expected to afford unyielding support for whatever burden might be brought upon them.
The kind of timber employed, and the cost of constructing such a road, varied with local conditions. The two chief factors of cost were the lumber and the labor of grading. Pine and hemlock were sometimes used for planking but oak and black walnut quickly demonstrated their superiority for the purpose. The Southwestern Plank Road was first planked with pine, but within a year or two the planks began to give out, and thereafter, around Chicago, oak seems to have been exclusively employed.
The roads were constructed by private corporations and had, therefore, aside from their public function, a private commercial aspect. As worked out at Chicago the cost of construction was about $2,000 per mile. The rates of toll which might be charged were prescribed by law, and collections were made by the keepers of toll-gate houses scattered at intervals of five or six miles along the line. The law in Illinois copied closely the features of the New York law, but the tolls which the company was permitted to charge were considerably higher in the newer western states than in New York. What rates were charged on the first Chicago road we have already seen. In the beginning, according to the editor of the Prairie Farmer, the public was "glad to get the road at any rate/' but this Arcadian state of mind did not long persist.
With a satisfied public, and with stockholders receiving dividends running as high as thirty or forty percent, one might suppose the solution of Chicago's transportation problem had been attained. To some degree it had, for there can be no doubt that the plank roads were a marked improvement over anything that had been known before. But actual experience revealed many drawbacks which the rosy imaginations of the promoters had not foreseen or painted, and these, combined with an amazing degree of shortsightedness on the part of the operating companies, before long caused the public to utterly abominate the very name of plank roads.
Chiefly, the difficulties encountered concern with the matter of maintenance of the roadway. In theory, the planks were to rest on a hard road-bed, from which all water, and even space for air, was to be rigorously excluded. Thus situated, the planks were expected to remain sound for a considerable period of years; in time, of course, the impact of traffic would wear them out, but the means for renewing them would be greater with the heavier volume of traffic. But experience quickly demonstrated that over an Illinois prairie the road-bed could not be kept free from water. To facilitate this the builders had dug ditches on each side of the road, but of what avail were the ditches when they were full? "They are improving the Southwestern Plank Road on the low prairie," notes the Chicago Journal less than a year after the construction of that thoroughfare, "transforming what has at times been a raft into a road''; while a letter from Belleville a year or two later anxiously urges that some method be devised for fastening the planks to the earth. A flood there had floated off many, while more had been taken up and stacked in piles to avert this catastrophe.
|Plank Toll Road near Belleville in St. Clair County.|
The consequences of such a course are fairly obvious. Before many years, roads became more a source of discomfort and danger than of advantage to travelers. Under such conditions, the public objected to paying the tolls which were exacted, or even to use the road at all. The decay of one link in the Chicago system, the road from St. Charles to Sycamore, is thus described by the historian of DeKalb County: "For about one season the road was a decided convenience, but soon the hardwood plank became warped by the sun; the road was as rough as the old-fashioned corduroy; no one used it when they could avoid it; the neighboring inhabitants finally confiscated the plank and the road was abandoned." The historian of Lake County records that in the early sixties he drove almost daily over the Lake Shore Plank Road; "it was an even choice between jouncing over a causeway with every other plank gone, or taking the deep sand on either side." A decade had sufficed to span the rise and fall of the plank-road system. "God bless the man who invented the plank roads," wrote "Philanthropos" to the Peoria Press in 1853; his feeling on the subject ten years later could not have been permitted expression in public print.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.