By Adam Azzalino
In the years following statehood the major means of travel used by Wisconsin farmers were plank roads, often dubbed “farmers highways” by their promotors and the press because of the advantages the roads gave to farmers transporting crops to market. Plank roads were constructed by setting two parallel timbers a road’s width apart and then laying wooden planks, usually three feet thick, across them. Plank roads offered stability over dirt and gravel roadways created by early settlers because, unlike their predecessor paths, they could be traversed in all seasons and weather and conditions.
In 1851 William Kingsford, an English born Canadian Civil Engineer involved with the construction of plank roads in New York, wrote an influential pamphlet promoting plank roads to Americans. Kingsford described how plank roads would make rural farmers more connected to and active in their local communities: “Sunday, the farmer can go to church with regularity, which was not always possible in the fall, when the church was one fourth of a mile from the farm. He can live with more friendliness with his neighbors—for the plank roads have led to an increased intercourse between families. Socially, the farmer becomes a better and a wiser man. He can meet people of his own pursuits more frequently, and converse upon prices current and improved modes of farming…”
There is some debate among transportation historians about where the first plank road was laid in the United States. Some sources suggest that the initial thoroughfare was opened in Syracuse, New York in July of 1846. Philip P. Mason, however, contends the first plank road was chartered in Michigan in 1837. Regardless of their place or date of origin in the United States, plank roads became a dominant feature of travel in Wisconsin for a period of twenty years beginning in the 1850s and ending in the 1870s. Daniel Klein and John Majewski have found that 130 plank roads were charted in Wisconsin during that era. According to Klein and Majewski, only Wisconsin, of all the states with plank roads that they studied, continued to construct them past 1857, creating its last one in 1871.
Plank roads were approved by the Wisconsin state legislature but private companies backed by stockholders were formed to carry out construction. In 1850, the legislature chartered the Milwaukee and Fond du Lac Plank Road with a stock of one hundred fifty thousand dollars. This road cut through Ozaukee County, beginning at Milwaukee’s Teutonia Avenue, extending along the route of the modern-day Cedarburg Road.
The road was maintained by collecting funds at a series of tollgates. The toll to pass through Mequon was a penny per house per mile. In 1860 when the Milwaukee and Fond du Lac Plank Road fell into foreclosure, the owners of the of the mortgage, Henry Kirchoff and John Hiltz, decided to purchase the property and the Milwaukee-Cedarburg Plank Road. Carl F. Wilbert, Mequon’s first Mayor and author of a history of the town, described how the tollgates functioned between Cedarburg toward Milwaukee: “Travelers with single or double means of conveyance from Cedarburg south to Milwaukee had to pass through 2 tollgates. This would cost 4 cents per horse or eight cents for a double horse vehicle. And the money so collected was used for the upkeep of the road. People driving to church were not required to pay tolls. These tollgates, 2 of them, were placed on 1/4 mile north of Highland Road with the second ½ mile south of Donges Bay Road. These tollgates required an attendant to be on duty 24 hours a day and night.”
Wilbert also described two troublesome spots for travelers where farm wagons would get bogged down in the fresh spring mud. A spring bubbled under the railroad tracks near Thiensville about a half a block off Division Street toward the Cedarburg Road and the water would seep into the road and churn it into a quagmire that would entrap wagon wheels. Farmers had to extract their wagons “…. [by using] a second team of horses to be hitched onto the mired wagon and horses to pull them out of the mud.”
At another difficult spot near Brown Deer where the Green Bay Road and Cedarburg Road split, Wilbert described how farmers cooperated to help each other get unstuck from the mud. Wilbert wrote: “…farmers were accustomed to carry big log chains on their wagons when hauling their produce in the spring and fall of the year. During a rainy season, the road was nearly impassible on this particular spot. Farmers would help each other; if one got mired, another would unhitch one team and hook it on to the other by means of the chain and thus pull first one and then the other out of the axle deep mud.” The Cedarburg Road was plagued by water problems well into the twentieth century. In 1924 a flood in Thiensville coincided with the anniversary of the opening of the plank road. The floodwaters were so deep that residents could ride in their boats along the route.
Initially thought of as an innovative solution to transportation problems, plank roads proved difficult to maintain. Planks would expand and turn brittle in summer temperatures, leading to surface fractures, and wet winter weather would often rot them after five years of use. Philip P. Mason estimates that in Michigan the annual cost of repairing the roads was 20 to 30 percent of the cost of initial construction. There were other drawbacks as well. The hard planks often led to the injury of animals, and some farmers resented paying tolls. Sources indicate that the old plank road was paved and then locally maintained into the 1910s and was transferred to the state Highway Commission in 1962.