Secret History Trip: America’s Forgotten Wooden Roads



What do you think of when you hear the word “street”? Pavement, rural dirt, Old-World cobblestones? How about wood?

For a brief time in our history, wooden roads were poised to be the great American mode of transportation, more hyped-up than even New York’s Erie Canal. What happened? For such a simple topic, the history is kind of fascinating.

Central New York State has historically been full of farmers and lacking in accessible roadways. Even in modern times you can view picturesque farmland and orchards while running into dirt side streets along the Finger Lakes. Back in the mid 1800s, an idea struck. What about building roads made of wooden planks? Goodness knows we had plenty of wood. Northeastern U.S. is full of harvestable hardwood, sturdy oak comprising over 52% of it. Builders promised farmers that these plank roads would allow them smoother travel, and the ability to move goods even in weather that would normally strand them on their land.

Around 1844, the plank road boom began, resulting in many thousands of miles of roads being built just in New York State. the 16.5 mile Syracuse-Central Square road was the first plank road incorporated in the U.S., built for a whopping $23,000 (which equates to at least $700,000 today). Everyone was confident that the 8 foot wide, 4 inch thick hemlock boards would last almost a decade with minimal upkeep. It turns out they greatly overestimated, and the roads were rotting from snow and traffic within just a few years. The NY plank road system collapsed quickly. Investors lost their money, and farmers were greatly disappointed.

Vestiges of plank road history remain, but are waning. The Plank Road Historical Society disbanded in 2007 and donated their collection of artifacts. For anyone who is interested in visiting pretty quaint towns and discovering quirky historical artifacts, bits of these roads survive today.

Lengths of California’s Old Plank Road still remain today, even though it was built over a century ago in 1915. San Diego was in a race to become the traffic hub of Southern Cali over Los Angeles, and the Old Plank Road was seen as their ticket to success. In the relatively dry weather of Southern and Central California, the planks held up much better than those laid in New York. However, the cost of upkeep eventually became a burden. On top of that, smoother concrete roads were becoming a possibility.

In 1909, Detroit built the first concrete road. It was only a mile long and cost $13,492.83, equivalent to almost $350,000 today. Obviously, that’s pretty pricey for a single mile of road. Nevertheless, people recognized how smooth and durable concrete roads were compared to their other contemporary options, and so they worked at improving the technology. By the time California was getting fed up with the Old Plank Road, it was viable to replace much of the road with concrete and pavement. Today, much of what used to be the Old Plank Road has been replaced by Interstate 8.

Built in 1914, Roslyn Place in the Shadyside Neighborhood of Pittsburgh is famous for being one of the last wooden streets in the world. It’s not a plank street, but instead, it’s 250 feet of wooden blocks, almost resembling brick. The residents are very proud of its history, convincing the city to restore instead of pave it, and making their own repairs when necessary.

To be fair, wooden roads just wouldn’t be able to handle the wear and tear of modern vehicles. Even emergency vehicles can’t park in Roslyn Place; not just for preservation reasons, but because of how narrow it is. And can you imagine a wooden road in California today? California has more pickup trucks than any state, around 4.6 million or 24% of total vehicles. Trucks are wide and heavy, certainly not meant to drive safely on a wooden road.

So like the pony express, air-borne postal service, and cobblestone roads, wooden roads have rightly gone the way of history. Of the surviving scraps of plank and wooden road, they’re worth checking out. The surrounding areas are typically pastoral fields, awesome desert, or quaint neighborhoods. If you like discovering odd bits of American history hiding in modern life, try hunting down some plank road pieces.

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