Plank Roads Were An Economic Engine Before the Civil War

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the 1840s, North Carolinians embraced the use of plank roads to improve the state’s economy. These wooden highways — built mainly with private funds — were purported to be an improvement over rough, dirt roads and a necessary step to create an intrastate (and eventually an interstate) trade network of plank roads, railroad hubs, and seaports.

During the late 1840s, entrepreneurs started receiving government charters to build plank roads, and by the mid-1850s, enthusiasm for such projects reached its statewide zenith. Support for plank roads, however, divided usually along partisan lines: Nearly three-fourths of Whigs supported construction and about the same number of Democrats opposed it.

The charter process was similar for most plank road companies. First, company officers were elected. Second, construction plans were provided. Third, subscriptions — the money given by investors for construction costs — were solicited and acquired. Fourth, when the starting amount was raised (which varied by law from 10 percent to 25 percent of the total expected cost of the road), stockholders convened to elect directors, who then gained control of subscription money. Fifth, directed by a board and president with the power and privilege of property rights, the companies were incorporated.

Many North Carolinians were excited about the possibilities of plank road construction. According to one historian, “the spirit of progress was everywhere.” Mountaineers hoped plank roads would connect them with the rest of the state. Those in coastal towns, such as Wilmington, envisioned plank roads leading to and from the ports and contributing greatly to an intrastate trade network. From the mountains to the coast, and everywhere in between, entrepreneurs projected profits and consumers anticipated quicker shipments of needed goods.

At times, the logistics of road construction produced contentious debate. Allegations of collusion between government and private actors sometimes arose.

The public soon learned that construction was not for those lacking heart or brawn; the arduous task required more effort, money, and maintenance than previously thought. Workers first graded a roadbed. Then they elevated the center of the road so that water could drain. Next, wooden sills measuring approximately 5 feet by 8 feet, were laid as support. After that, pine planks measuring approximately eight feet long, eight inches wide, and four inches thick were laid on top of the sills. Laws required the roads to be a minimum width of eight feet and a maximum of 60 feet, and typically plank roads were eight feet wide and adjacent to a well-graded dirt road. To avoid getting stuck in the mud, teamsters traveled on the planks, while individuals and light carriages passed on the dirt roads.

As with any construction project, the skill and speed of work crews, the accessibility of raw materials, and weather determined the time needed for completion. On average, a team of 15 could lay 650 feet a day, approximately one mile a week, or 40 miles a year.  

In the 1850s approximately 500 miles of plank road were laid in North Carolina. The longest plank road was the Fayetteville and Western, stretching 129 miles from Fayetteville to Salem. It was one of the few that received state financial assistance. Each year the Fayetteville and Western made a profit.

Some scholars suggest that plank roads were doomed from the start: Railroads, a faster mode of transportation, provided competition; the economic panics of the 1850s discouraged many investors; and they suffered much damage and destruction during the Civil War.

Even so, historians have considered plank roads an important development that rescued the state from its “slothful” economic condition. More scholarship needs to be done, however, to determine whether the failure of the plank road movement was “inevitable,” and if the Tar Heel State was indeed economically stagnant.