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The Construction of Plank Roads

Plan, Materials, Cost, Durability

Washington, May 25th, 1850

From the Plough, the Loom, and the Anvil, originally published in the Prairie State newspaper on Saturday, September 14, 1850. Transcription may contain typos.

J. S. Skinner, Esq.:
     Dear Sir: – In reply to yours of the 8th instant, I have to say that I have seen plank roads constructed, and have rode on them, and am interested in two of considerable extent.
     There are three of these roads that touch on my farm, and pass on it over two miles. They are the best roads imaginable – better by far than the best paved or “macadamized” road – pleasanter for the person riding – easier for the animals, and far less destructive to the carriages that roll upon them.
     In the State of New York they have adopted, by common consent, a grade of not over one foot in sixteen, and this is rigidly adhered to. A good span of horses will draw on a road of that grade, an hundred bushels of wheat thirty miles in a day with ease; a smart span of horses will draw two tons forty miles a day. I mean horses of good breed, action, bone, and muscles, &c., horses that will weigh when in good working order, nine hundred each.
     The average motion of the stage on these roads is eight miles an hour.
     A very little snow – six inches – is enough to make capital sleighing, and you can drive in the night as well as in the day for the horses will instinctively keep the road. The roads are usually eighteen feet wide, and the center of it only is covered with plank eight feet long and usually three inches thick. In a very sandy soil there is no need of a raised road, as the porous nature of the soil absorbs the water without the aid of any rain.
     In other soils the road is formed like a turnpike, with suitable well-formed drains or ditches each side, giving the best chance for the water to run off. The intention is to have no water standing on the road, or by its sides. Your road being thus formed, the first process is to lay the ‘stringers’ as at AA in the diagram.
     These should be of two inch plank, and not less than one foot wide, and on every account, are far preferable to square scantling. They should be so imbedded in the road, that the soil or material of the road, that the soil or material of the road should be plump up to and even with their upper surface; and at such distance apart, say four feet from centre to centre, as that the wheels of the carriage, with the ordinary length of axle, will travel over the stringers. These stringers are both to be of the same grade, and the same level.
     The stringers being laid, for a short distance ahead, the planks are laid on them. To do this with accuracy, two parallel lines are stretched on the outside of the stringers, eight feet and about six inches apart. The first plank that is laid, will, of course, touch the line on one side, while its other end will not quite touch the line on the opposite line. The second plank will touch the line on the opposite side, and leave a space between it and the line which had been touched by the preceeding plank; and so on alternately, so that there will be a jog on each side for the outside wheel to catch on, and recover its place on the road when by any means it has got off, instead of cutting a rut in the earth at the end of them.

Plank road construction

     When the plank is laid, the stringers must have no earth or other material on their surface; and each plank must be settled with a ‘commander,” or large wooden mallet, until it rests flat and on the stringers and solid on the ground from end to end, no space being left for air beneath them. Each plank should be laid close to the preceding one, and driven up to it with the commander. No pining is necessary. When the road is thus well laid, it is very difficult to raise a plank. It can hardly be done, except with a lever. The plank being laid the next business is to embank a little more earth on the sides of the road, so as to raise the road on each side at least three or four inches above the surface of the plank. It will soon pack so as to be on a level, and should not be permitted to be when packed, lower than the surface of the plank – thus the planks are kept from moving endwise, and it is easy to get the wheel of the wagon on to the plank, when it gets of when on carriage is passing another, or otherwise.
     Where there is no heavy grading and not an unusual amount of bridging, and where plank can be delivered on the road for five dollars a thousand, one thousand dollars will pay for making a mile of plank road.
     There is some inconvenience and some additional expense in cutting the plank only eight feet long, that length is not suited at the sled on which the log is brought in winter from the woods to the sawmill, and it requires a greater number of logs to be loaded, and sawed, and a greater number of planks to be handled. This inconvenience may be obviated by cutting the logs of any convenient length; say twelve feet and laying th plank diagonally across the sleepers. It is needless to add, that when thus laid, the sluice-ways are covered without the aid of cross pieces. The mode of laying the plank diagonally has not found much favor, but it is thought that planks thus laid will wear longer than if at right angles with the stringers, and that the wheel rolls easier on a plank lengthwise, or partially so.
     But if this mode be adopted it is desirable that there should be at intervals of half a mile a change in the direction of the plank, as is illustrated in the diagram, which also show the position of the stringers, and the mode in which the sluice is covered, as at B. Unless there is a change in the direction of the plank, the wheels of the carriage will crowd and grind on the same shoulder of the axle and the same linch pin all the time. It is proper precaution to have “washers” against both the shoulder of the axle and the linch pin always covered with some anti-friction composition; otherwise in fast driving, the hub of the wheel will heat. There is in most axles, what is called the “gather,” that is an inclination which induces the wheel to run on, rather than off the axle; there is no inconvenience in this on common roads, for its effect is continually counteracted by the inequality of the road. On the plank road where the planks are laid at right angles with the stringers, the tendency of the wheel that has a “gather” in its axle, is continually to crowd the shoulder. There is no use in this gather anywhere, and it is particularly injurious on plank roads. There is much saving in sawing the logs through and through and then edging the plank; and there is no need that the plank should have square and full corners on each side; it is enough if on the under side of the plank both bottom edges are straight, for an inch of its width from end to end. The “wane” on the upper side, will immediately fill with dirt; but it is well not to place two waney planks together, and always lay the waney side of the plank up. As to the durability of these plank roads, the estimate is, that they will require to be covered once in seven or eight years, unless there is so much travel as to wear out the plank sooner, which is an event devoutly to be wished; but the stringers being continually moist and nearly excluded for the air, will outlast three coverings.
     I have no doubt that in the free use of pulverized charcoal, or some other antiseptic material to imbed the plank in, the means will be devised of saving the plank from rotting, and I have no doubt that a thin coat of hot pitch, on the top of the planks, with gravel sifted on, would in a great degree prevent the planks from wearing out.
     In common roads, where lumber is plenty, the plank road is the greatest improvement that has yet been made; and we, who have spent most of our days where, in the spring and fall, the roads were nearly impassable, and in the summer none too good, are impatient when we reflect how much needless toil and expense we have undergone, and how much we have suffered, by being jolted over corduroy roads. I have no doubt that a plank road from Albany to Sackett’s Harbor would have saved the Government during the war of 1812, ten millions of dollars.
     The toll house should extend across the road, so tht when the traveler stops to pay toll, he should be under the shelter of the roof, and it is desirable, that it should be a comfortable dwelling, with cellar and cistern, and well and garden, and then the plank road company will be more likely to obtain the services of a civil, respectable and honest family, to attend their gate. The gate should “swing” – accidents are apt to occur if the gate is made to rise. I have thus, I believe, given an answer, perhaps too tedious and minute, to your inquiries, and remain, with great respect, your obedient servant.

Charles E. Clarke

Contributed by Marty Crull and his volunteers.

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