“The longest and most noted of the plank roads constructed in North Carolina,” the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road stretched 129 miles from Fayetteville to Bethania, a Moravian village outside of Salem. But its size contributed to its demise as a major avenue of trade.
There were a few discussions to start the road in the early 1840s, but once boosters worked in earnest, enough subscription money was raised in surprisingly short time. Once $80,000 was raised, the state promised to contribute $120,000. After meeting their initial financial goal, the stockholders convened, and the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road was soon after incorporated.
Stockholders initially debated the exact route of the road from Fayetteville to Salem. Many feared the possible collusion between road developers and politicians and hoped the road was built for the public good and not personal benefit. The stockholders, however, allayed what might have been unwarranted fears of corruption and decided to build the road in sections, the first being from Fayetteville to the Little River. After a sluggish start in 1850, the road was built quickly: eighty-seven miles in 1851 and in 1852, forty-two miles (ending seven miles from Salem.)
The Fayetteville and Western was not only a large road but also a large business needing professional management. A full-time president, the first being Edward Lee Winslow, whose salary included $500 a year and traveling expenses, managed the company. During the mid-1850s, the plank road earned large profits. In one business year the company’s income was $27,419.77. But after 1855, income diminished. By 1858, the company was doing good to make $15,000 (not enough to make a profit after maintenance expenses). Times were so bad that the company hired traveling toll collectors—essentially spies–to track down toll cheaters.
For many reasons, the use of plank roads declined. Fayetteville and Western officials blamed railroad competition. Others considered the environmental and economic destruction of the Civil War as the main reason.
Many positive things resulted from the short life of the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road, however. Because of its existence, the town of Fayetteville became a hub of trade. Boosters there were no doubt pleased. Soon, throughout the Cape Fear and Piedmont regions, entrepreneurs created plank tributaries to connect with the Fayetteville and Western, the main artery of trade distribution. They hoped their efforts were as successful as that of the Fayetteville and Western (No one seemed to contemplate failure). The road also contributed to the formation of new towns, such as High Point, which was situated at the intersection of the Fayetteville and Western and the newly built North Carolina Railroad. Property owners along the road (at least those who escaped the clutches of eminent domain legislation) were pleased, for land value increased dramatically. From the coast to the mountains, North Carolinians also benefited from receiving goods faster.
Robert B. Starling, “The Plank Road Movement in North Carolina: Part II” North Carolina Historical Review (1939) 16: 147-73 and Alan D. Watson, Internal Improvements in North Carolina (Raleigh, 2002).