In this close-up of the 1855 Cortland County map (available at the Library of Congress website), you can see that the Plank Road is shown in detail. Look at Main Street and follow it out of town to see the little lines delineating planks!


When I started working at CCHS eight years ago, I had never heard the term “plank road,” and I bet many of you have never heard the term, either. A plank road is exactly that, a road made of wooden planks. Two parallel stringers were covered with planks of wood 3-4 inches thick and 8 feet long. The planks were not secured to the stringers, but they stayed in place because of their own weight. The ends of the planks were not trimmed because the extra projections were often useful when wheels went off the road. In my mind, it does not seem like it would be visually pleasing! Surprisingly, plank roads were fairly smooth and provided a good surface for wheeled vehicles. Although initial construction for plank roads was low, maintenance was expensive. Horseshoes cut into the wooden planks, and both water and sun contributed to deterioration.

The Plank Road in Cortland was constructed in 1849-1851 and connected the city to Syracuse. It was our Main Street and each day, the stagecoach ran two lines from Cortland to Syracuse in about 6 hours. Large bags and trunks were fastened to the outside of the stage and smaller bags could be stowed under the seats. Six passengers could fit inside the stagecoach. Every 15-20 miles a stop was made to switch out the horses with a fresh team. It’s hard to imagine what the trip to Syracuse would have been like! Was it noisy going over planks? Was it dusty and hot in summer? What was winter travel like without snowplows??? We have a story in the G.Z. House diary of a stagecoach driver who froze to death on his stage route. The horses were familiar with the route, and when they pulled into their stop, it was discovered that the driver was dead.
It seems so archaic to us today, but for a period of time, plank roads were innovative and more economically feasible than other road materials. One source I found on the internet indicated that in the 1840s, macadam (a crushed stone covering) cost about $3,500 per mile and planks came in at $1,500-$1,900 per mile. Plank roads seem to have hit their height in popularity in the mid-1840s through the 1850s. This corresponds to the development of railroads.
In addition to plank roads, I fell down a rabbit hole of early transportation that is absolutely fascinating! There is a great deal of information in our files, and I’ll continue along this line of research for another week or two to highlight the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century. We take transportation and readily available resources for granted today, but in the past, everything was much more labor-intensive and difficult. As interested as we are in the past, it makes you wonder if our ancestors would be as intrigued by our way of life today! ~Tabitha