Plank roads enjoyed a brief popularity in the early 1850s, touted as an inexpensive and effective means of improving short-distance travel.
Plank roads enjoyed a brief popularity in the early 1850s, touted as an inexpensive and effective means of improving short-distance travel. Thick planks were laid across wood stringers in a roadbed, creating a level, smooth surface for wagons and other road traffic. Russia was the first country to construct plank roads, and the roads made their initial appearance in Canada and New York in the 1830s and 1840s. By the early 1850s South Carolina had joined the mania for plank roads. The textile manufacturer William Gregg became an effective early advocate, arguing that plank roads would be cheaper to build and easier to maintain than roads built of gravel and stone. In an 1851 essay Gregg called on the state to construct a nine-foot track from Abbeville to Charleston, a distance of 160 miles, estimating that the expense would be around $1,700 to $1,800 a mile. This amount, he assured, would easily be covered by tolls collected from plank-road travelers.
Between 1849 and 1853 the General Assembly chartered no fewer than ten plank-road companies in South Carolina. By 1850 legislators permitted plank-road companies to bypass the assembly and to receive charters directly from the governor and the secretary of state, one of the first general incorporation acts passed in South Carolina. Several roads were built. The longest, the Edgefield and Hamburg plank road, extended twenty-six miles. Others included the Cheraw and Anson plank road, which extended up the Charleston Neck, and a short road running north from Edgefield to the village of Cheatham. But despite the initial promise, the plank-road mania quickly subsided. They were expensive to build and even more costly to maintain, requiring constant maintenance to replace worn planks. In addition, farmers generally used plank roads only with full wagons, preferring to use free dirt roads for their return home once their cargoes had been sold–and thus denying plank roads return tolls. Plank-road companies soon found themselves deeply in debt, and most were out of business by the start of the Civil War.
Downey, Tom. Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Gregg, William. Essay on Plank Roads. Charleston, S.C.: Walker and James, 1851.
Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917–1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.