In the mid 19th-century, a great interest spread from New York to Alabama in the construction of plank roads. Private companies contracted to build these roads. Because they offered a smoother, less-strenuous ride to both wagons and carriages, the public eagerly awaited their completion. For their time, plank roads were the smoothest ever built until the later concrete roads. The original cost was about $2,000 per mile, but the lifetime of a plank road was only about five years without repair. By the end of the Civil War, most plank roads had disappeared, although a few remained in use until the turn of the century.
Locally, there was lively interest in building a plank road from Elkton, Md., to Lewisville, Pa. A letter writer, who identifies himself only with the initials W.H.B., enumerated the advantages of plank roads in the Cecil Whig of Feb. 12, 1852. In his view, they were the cheapest to build, and their annual capacity was about 50,000 tons.
“A good team” he continued, “may draw on a well-made macadamized road three tons, but the same team may draw over planks six tons, while the common road will often not permit the carriage of more than one and certainly not more than two tons.”
While details of construction vary according to the terrain, the writer gave the general procedure in the making of a plank road. First, clear and level the roadbed. Then lay down three string pieces — six inches in width and three in thickness. Over these run a heavy roller until everything is smooth. Now put down planks of uniform size (about 8’ x 3” in thickness) at right angles to the string pieces. “Build an embankment at each end and your road is done,” said W.H.B.
How easy it sounded on paper! The idea gained support, however, and by February 1853, someone had taken the initiative to procure subscriptions to the stock for the amount of $16,000. The Whig noted, “It would seem to be an important improvement, and one that would pay well. Several heavy manufacturing establishments lie along the route, and a large amount of travel daily occurs in that direction over a road celebrated for its uniform badness.”
A year later the matter was still being debated. Another correspondent to the Whig declared that every person along the road was exceedingly anxious for it, and that for a seven-mile stretch of the proposed route, there would be not grading or bridging required.
By mid-May, the Whig announced: “The managers of the plank road are pushing its affairs ahead with great spirit. On Monday last they elected James McCauley, Esq., Engineer of the road — a most excellent selection. He has already commenced operations.”
The managers decided to construct the first several miles (from Elkton) themselves. They appointed Joshua L. Gatchel to supervise the work. The new superintendent employed between 20 and 30 hands in the preparatory grading.
Stockholders met in June to elect managers for the following year: George Earle, Samuel B. Foard, Joseph Miller, Francis G. Parke, William G. Carter, Nicholas Hiss, Joshua L. Gatchel, E.T. Richardson, and William Rudulph. Then the managers elected George Earle, Esq., President and F.G. Parke, Esq., Secretary.
The managers then contracted Francis Green to grade and lay the next four miles of the road (beyond the first three miles that were being done by Gatchel) at $800 per mile. The company agreed to deliver the planks. Green would also grade the balance of the road to the Pennsylvania line for $500. At this point, the whole road had been surveyed to Pennsylvania, a distance of just over eight miles from the railroad in Elkton to the state line.
In September 1854, the Plank Road Company bought from Col. Samuel Hollingsworth, a fourth of an acre of land near town for $125. Here they intended to erect a toll house.
Everybody eagerly anticipated the completion of the road. The Democrat noted on Oct. 14, 1854, the establishment of a stage that ran from Elkton through Cherry Hill, Andora and Fair Hill on the way to Lewisville. Passengers along the route took these stages to Elkton to meet trains for Baltimore or Philadelphia. “There is every prospect of the speedy the plank road is completed, it will greatly facilitate the transportation of the mail and passengers.”
The Whig was pleased with the progress of the plank road in November: “This work is steadily progressing and will soon be completed to Cherry Hill, a distance of four miles. Tolls have been collected on two miles of the road for a few weeks, and the receipts are quite flattering and leave no doubt but the road will pay well — that it will besides paying a good interest on the money invested, furnish a fund for relaying the track by the time it is required.”
The company advertised that on Feb. 20, 1855, they would be selling stock at $25 a share in Elkton for three days. On Feb. 23, they would do the same at Thomas P. Sutton’s hotel in Fair Hill. Two dollars in cash was to be paid on each share at the time of subscribing.
The news was good the next January (1855). At a Stockholders’ Meeting, the Treasurer gave a favorable report of the tolls received on the plank road. A Committee was formed to notify stockholders when and where to apply for payment.
The Whig said, “The Plank Road Company was organized on the 8th of last April, and commenced operations under disadvantageous circumstances; it has succeeded beyond the expectations of the most sanguine. The Plank Road is bound to do well.”
But winter chill must have taken its toll on man and road alike. People began to go around the toll booths. They did not mind paying for the completed road. The next section, however, had been graded in the Fall and had since become a quagmire. One writer called the unfinished portion “the worst road in North America, almost impassable on horseback.”
In March of ‘55, George Earle resigned as President and Manager of the Company, noting that he was leaving with undiminished confidence in the project, even though it was only half-finished.
Over the summer, the Whig urged public-spirited citizens to find a way to complete the road. One writer blamed the road’s disintegration on careless wagoners who kept the westerly wheel on the edge or just outside the plank. A heavily-loaded team with its western wheels grinding against the ends caused the planks to slip, some nearly 18’ out of place.
By 1858, the road was put up at trustee’s sale and withdrawn when the highest bid was only $5,350. The next year, it changed hands with heavy mortgages against it.
In spite of the new company’s determination to enforce the provisions of the charter, Sheriff Cosgrove and his Deputy, E. W. Janney, arrested two teamsters for cutting down a toll gate. Said the Whig, “We don’t think the act much of a misdemeanor in view of the condition of the road.”
By 1864, the planks were torn up and piled along the road. The Whig railed, “Having long served no other purpose than to wreck vehicles, they are now placed in a position to frighten horses. This is all that remains to show that a plank road ever existed here. It is the first one ever constructed in this part of the country, and its fate will most likely be a damper on all future enterprises of the kind to put our roads in good condition. It is believed that had this road been laid no further than Cherry Hill, it would have paid well, and the Company could have kept it up.”