Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Plank Road History in the Chicago area.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

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When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


Like taxes and death, the demand for better highways is omnipresent. Leaving the Indians out of this account 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 the starting point from which to measure new advances.
This map is presented as a visual aid. © 2020 Dr. Neil Gale
The first step in establishing any new community in the western wilderness was usually laying a road. Indeed, the road usually preceded the settler. But when speaking of pioneer roads, the modern reader should carefully free their mind from its accumulated conceptions of today's highways. The pioneer settler of Illinois could no more have imagined the splendid thoroughfares of concrete that crisscross the state than could 19th-century people conceived the space flight. To the pioneer, a road was any track leading to a designated point. It was often not even a track, so the route would be identified by a trampled prehistoric animal migration path.

However, with the progress of settlement, the demand for improvement of these paths connected the outside world. The streams would be bridged, the swamps corduroyed, while trees and even stumps would be removed from the path in timbered sections. Spurred on by the commercial rivalry between different settlements, the pioneer would even occasionally 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. 

However, the cleared roads did not suffice to meet the country's insistent transportation needs. 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 entirely 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. He had traveled by stage to Mount Vernon on the Ohio River with one companion. 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. The round trip of thirty miles was a hard two-day job for a four-horse stagecoach.

In the same discussion, Owen tells another illustration of the excessive tax imposed upon a community by the poor roads of the pioneer era. "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 neighborhood farmer declared that he had a team of four horses that no road could daunt and 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. After a grueling journey, their owner finally reached Shawneetown, where he managed to secure 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." In 1850, southeastern Illinois had been settled for a generation, during which time Shawneetown had been its principal commercial center of trade and commerce.

However, such transportation stoppages affected the city merchants no less disastrously than the farmers. "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 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 road-building problem was common to all new communities, and its burden was appalling enough. But the task that 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 were 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.”)

Widow Barry's Point was located near the present-day town of Lyons. It was a stopover point for travelers on the road between Chicago and Joliet. The Widow Barry, whose name was Mary Barry, ran an inn and tavern at the point. The point was named for her after her husband, who ran an inn and tavern there, William Barry died in 1833. The exact location of Widow Barry's Point is uncertain, but it was likely on the banks of the Des Plaines River, near the intersection of present-day 5th Avenue and Barry Point Road. The point was eventually engulfed by Lake Michigan, and no trace of it remains today.

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 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 the horses and the coach to be changed.

"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 wide wheels 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 are no leaf-spring shock absorbers.
While this change of coaches was in the making, we had to wait in the bar room of one of the most filthy and wretched houses we had yet seen, in which the smell of rum and tobacco, mingled with other powerfully disagreeable odors, was most offensive; the hideous-looking bar-keeper appeared like a man who never washed or combed [his hair], and none of whose garments had ever been changed since he had first put them on; altogether, nothing could be more revolting. At length, the broad-wheeled and lumbering coach being ready, we all seated ourselves and, at a creeping pace, left this last stage, the horses strolling all the way, at the rate of about two miles an hour, with baitings at every pit [stop] and slough to survey the road, before crossing it, and with the wheels scarcely ever less than six inches, and often a foot deep in mud and water. Altogether, this last night was by far the most disagreeable we had ever spent journeying through the United States. We had all the evils of bad roads, thick darkness, suffocating heat, a crowded stage, disagreeable companions, filthy stage houses, venomous mosquitoes, and continual apprehensions of being upset in the mire (an area of the wet, swampy ground, marsh). Then we left to grope our way to the nearest house for shelter. When daylight opened upon us, we obtained a distant sight of the white houses of Chicago a long way off on the plain; but, distant as they still seemed, never did weary mariner hail the first opening of the harbor, into which he was running to escape shipwreck or storm, with more joy than did we welcome these first tokens of our approach to a place of rest. It was past sunrise before we reached the town, having been six hours coming the last twelve miles and forty hours performing the journey of ninety-six miles."

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 in 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 for 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. Such obstacles to commerce and inland trade should be removed in an enterprising community like ours. If our citizens and the surrounding inhabitants understand their true interests, they will be removed. If individuals cannot 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 meeting was held, and a committee of three was appointed to consider ways and means and report to an adjourned meeting of the citizenry, appointed for June 15, 1840, "the best mode of construction of the road from this city to the sand ridge, the probable expense, the mode of construction with the probable amount that could be raised by subscription for the construction of said road, and all other necessary information that may be required to carry into operation this most important improvement." 

Despite a temporary setback, the project briefly stalled due to a lack of public funding. Ten days later, the Chicago Daily American editorial called for the road's construction and suggested calling a public meeting to rally support for a fresh start.

The result is revealed in a report by the "Executive Committee on the Road between Chicago and the Sand Ridge." The Committee had taken popular subscriptions to $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 all the expectations that have been formed of it in usefulness." Almost two years later, in September of 1842, the Chicago Daily American announced 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 improved the natural swamp through which it ran. Still, unless the "expectations" 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 seemed several feet deeper than on the prairie in its normal, plastic condition. The clay is composed of 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.
"Even when some of our courageous citizens tried in their desperate moments to improve it and made a toll road, they found the task too much for them; the ruts were too deep, the mud too bottomless. Huge stones were hauled, from year to year, at a great expense to the disgruntled taxpayers, and it was hoped that these would form a good foundation for the improvement. But they only stuck out at every point, sad monoliths of the little ones buried among the broken wheels and axles of defunct wagons. There, they stood in stubborn stateliness, while the largest of them defied the best efforts of the corporation to reduce them to cobbles. The curses heaped upon the pike for so many years, and which the brute seemed to enjoy, were now divided between the road and the citizens who had the preposterous audacity to try to reform that which was not meant to be reformed. The band of presumptuous men were finally glad to relinquish their hopeless charge to the anathemas of the teamsters and the public, who had no alternative but to continue to drive their sad, sore, prematurely old, broken-down teams over its ever-changing surface."

Canada came at length from the land of distant Russia by way of backwoods to solve Chicago's problem of bridging the troublesome situation that nature had thrown around her. After many years of residence in Russia, an English official, Lord Sydenham, became familiar with building plank roads to create an outlet across the marshy ground to produce certain mines. Later, on becoming governor-general of Canada, he persuaded the inhabitants of the utility to adapt the Russian device to their own particular situation. Beginning in 1839, when the first Canadian plank road was built, the idea spread rapidly 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 pretty astounding. New York took the lead, the first plank road company to receive a charter in this country, 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 concluded 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 incorporating plank roads.

As the Barry Point road was the first highway out of Chicago on which any genuine attempt at road building was ever made, 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.
Financially, this first plank road out of Chicago was a great and immediate success. The cost of construction was approximately $16,000 ($469,275 today). A four-horse vehicle paid 37½¢ toll for the privilege of traversing the ten-mile highway; a single team paid 25¢ and a horse and rider paid 12½¢ (equals 1 "bit"). Even though the short length of the highway and bad roads at either end combined with handicap traffic, the receipts from the first month's operation amounted to $1,500 ($44,000 today). In the Chicago Democrat of October 9, one observer reported that 96 persons had passed through the toll gates in a single hour, "and this, we are told, is no ordinary spectacle." The enthusiastic reporter calculated that this meant a $24 per hour return on the road costing $16,000."

To draw any general deduction from a single observation would be, of course, absurd. Still, 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 stagecoach 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."
The Southwestern Plank Road bridged the ancient "nine-mile swamp" between Riverside and Chicago, and the farmer gladly paid the toll of 25¢ exacted for the privilege of using it, avoiding thereby the far heavier tax In time and labor which hauling his load through the marshy ground entailed. "The rate of toll allowed by law is 2½¢ per mile," wrote the editor of the Prairie Farmer in March of 1849 to an inquiring Iowa subscriber, "and the whole amount is charged hitherto (up to this time), but it is far too high and will be reduced. The public does not complain because they are glad to have a road, at any rate." Two years later, the editor of the Chicago Democrat was "credibly informed that some of the plank roads from the city are paying from 30% to 40%." Little wonder he closes with the succinct comment, "The best investment afloat."

Within the next few years after building 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 Naperville, where it connected with a road under construction to Oswego. Three miles east of Naperville, it also connected with 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 4 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 (Niles, Ill.) toward 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, fifty miles from Chicago.

Less important than the preceding 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 constructed by way of State Street and Vincennes Avenue line as far as Kyle's Tavern, ten miles out, in 1851, for $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 abandon all thought of extending it farther. Yet even the short fragment built proved immediately remunerative, for at the close of 1851, the directors could declare a 14% dividend from the results of the first year of operation. 

In 1854, landowners organized to make their land more attractive and valuable by constructing Lake Shore Plank Road, which became Evanston Avenue and was renamed Broadway in 1913. Lake Shore Plank Road was the last wooden plank road built in Chicago. From the junction of Clark Street with North Avenue, at the time, the city limits, the Lake Shore Plank Road ran parallel with the lakeshore to Hood's Tavern on the Green Bay Trail, a distance of about five miles. The length and amount of traffic on Lake Shore Plank Road made this the least important member of Chicago's plank road system.

It remains to be spoken of the Blue Island Avenue  Plank Road, the last addition to the plank road system built in 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 city's southwest border. 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 on the role of the 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 the 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; 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 in passing. Lengthwise of the road, two rows of girders, sometimes as small as two by four inches, were laid, embedded 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 primary function was to prevent the tendency of the planks, mainly 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 cost factors 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. The Southwestern Plank Road was first planked with pine, but within a year or two, the planks began to give out, and after that, 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 in Chicago, the construction cost was about $2,000 per mile. The toll rates 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 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. 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 stockholders receiving dividends running as high as thirty or forty percent, one might suppose the solution to 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 known. But actual experience revealed many drawbacks which the rosy imaginations of the promoters had not foreseen or painted, and these, combined with a fantastic 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 the maintenance of the roadway. In theory, the planks were to rest on a hard roadbed, 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 traffic volume. But experience quickly demonstrated that the roadbed could not be kept free from water over an Illinois prairie. To facilitate this, the builders had dug ditches on each side of the road, but to 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 constructing that thoroughfare, "transforming what has sometimes been a raft into a road." In contrast, 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.
A Planked Toll Road near Belleville, in St. Clair County, Illinois.

With water under the planks, the impact upon loaded vehicles caused them to slip, and a cavity soon developed. In addition to the extra strain and wear resulting from this condition, the air caused the planks to decay on the underside. In the first enthusiasm of plank road construction, it had been assumed that a three-inch white oak plank would last twelve to fifteen years before renewal became necessary and that the annual cost for repairs would not exceed ten dollars per mile. This estimate proved ridiculously incorrect, but under its influence, the companies paid out in dividends the significant income received during the first few years, and no adequate sum was set aside for maintenance or reserve built up for renewal of the planking when this should become necessary. 

The consequences of such a course are fairly obvious. Before many years, roads became more a source of discomfort and danger than an advantage to travelers. Under such conditions, the public objected to paying the exact tolls or even using 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 1860s, 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 "Philanthropist" 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 Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. it is my understanding, supported by your location of the endpoint of riverside and the extension to Naperville (and then Oswego) ; that the southwest plank road was precursor to Ogden Avenue. This puts it north of the south branch of the Chicago River, rather than south & east as the path of the original track to Widow Barry Point is marked on your map. Today,one can travel from Oswego to Ottawa (upstream of Purue, which remained the head of Illinois River low water navigation at the time of the I&M canal)on route 71 (following the southeast side of the Fox River); but perhaps earlier travel was on the south side of the Illinois and Desplains Rivers (which would have routed through Joliet). More miles, but perhaps more passable in those earlier times.

  2. Could the Blue Island plank road have followed the route of the road to Barry Point?

    1. No. See the Berry's Point map and text in the article.

    2. No. The Blue Island Road was just a directly SW line to Western Ave. On some maps the road South of that point was then called Blue Island Road. That directly South portion was later called Western Ave. just like the road North that was named because it was the Western border of Chicago.

  3. "and the swamps corduroyed" What a wonderful descriptor you taught me today!

  4. Love this article and the pictures! You do a great job doing all of this research, that is for sure.

  5. Growing up in Elgin and being a lover of history, plank roads were often a topic of discussion in the Elgin Historical Society exhibits. To this day, one of those roads connecting Elgin to Sycamore is still called 'Plank Road'.

  6. Great and educational article!When did they change Plank rd to Irving Park rd?How long did it take? THXs

  7. What a wonderful resource! I grew up in La Salle-Peru near the I&M Canal. You make this so easy to read and I felt I was experiencing the problems encountered by the early travelers and investors. Thank you for keeping history alive!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, AMB.
      Here is the Index page to my blog:

      Happy reading, wondering, learning.

  8. Great and very interesting article. Any Information on Harlem ave.Thank you!💬💫


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