Plank roads were 19th Century Thruways

This historic marker reminds today’s motorists of a time when uncounted numbers of 19th century horse and buggy drivers traversed this same route at 1 ½ cents per mile. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

19th century American’s quest to get from here to there and back again ever faster was answered by developing steam technology that powered railroads and ships, but neither trains nor ships went everywhere.

Even before the steam age, the success of the Erie Canal caused additional canals to be built, and meanwhile, thousands of short-length stage lines continued plying the dusty roads of America as they had since before the Revolution, but the average citizen who simply needed to cover short, local distances on business or social errands, continued to be victimized by muddy, rutty local roads, often little more than beaten-down forest trails.

These commuters welcomed the benefits, starting in the late 1840s, of flat, wooden toll roads, considering them well worth the standard toll of 1½ cents per mile. These highly useful toll roads were usually built and maintained by locally-owned transportation companies, bankrolled by selling shares of stock to area investors.

Of the several plank roads in this vicinity, let’s focus on the Amsterdam and Fish House Plank Road Company. Organized by prominent Amsterdam citizens Thomas Bunn, Isaac Jackson, David Cassidy and others, it began in west Amsterdam at the intersection of West Spring Street (now Guy Park Avenue) and the Northampton Road, ascending Northampton to the intersection with Upper Market Street, where gate one was located: it ran northward into Fulton County to Perth Center, (gate two), onward to Vail Mills, (gate three, etc.), through Broadalbin, North Broadalbin and Benedict’s Corners, ending at Fish House. As toll roads went, it was a long one.

In all, there were eight tollgates on this sixteen-mile 1849 version of Route 30. Did this primitive “improvement’ roughly following today’s route make much money?

Well yes, in 19th Century terms. In the June 30, 1940 Amsterdam Evening Recorder, columnist Edward Bartlett, writing about this road, included a list of tolls received for the month of December 1855 at tollgate one.

There were five dates that month when tolls totaled less than a dollar. I noticed each of these low-toll dates were seven days apart, and upon checking the 1855 calendar, I discovered, as I suspected, all five of these dates were Sundays, suggesting that, other than going between church and home, people simply didn’t travel on Sundays in those old times.

Bartlett reprinted only tollgate one’s income, noting there was also the tollgate’s collector to reimburse for his work.

“Received from the Amsterdam and Fish House Plank Road Company by the hands of Thomas Bunn, Superintendent of Plank Road, $8 in full for services as Toll Collector for Gate Number One for the month of December 1855.”

Bunn reported tollgate one’s December revenue was $135.05, minus the eight dollars he received as collector, but Bunn, an important man as well as company president, probably had someone else actually collecting the money in the drafty toll booth.

That $135.05 doesn’t sound like much income, but according to the internet site westegg.com’s inflation calculator, in today’s money it amounts to $3,607.79, and that from just one tollgate.

Bartlett doesn’t name his source, but as the June 16, 1937 Canajoharie Courier reported a donation to the Montgomery County Archives of “The Treasurer’s Book of the Amsterdam and Fish House Plank Road Company,” most likely he found it there.

By 1850, wooden plank roads had proliferated to the extent that a traveler’s guide book, “Plank Roads in the United States and Canada” by William Kingsford, was published in 1851.

Of this particular road, Kingsford remarked in part, “Although only opened last fall, (it) has already had considerable effect on property. Business of the tanneries has already increased owing to the greater facility of carting hides and taking leather to market. Three new tanneries are now in operation on the line. The value of land on and near the line has increased twenty percent.”

Investing in toll roads probably seemed a can’t lose opportunity, but there was a lot of money and work involved in maintaining a wooden highway. The longevity of this plank road suggests the company recognized and exercised its responsibility to keep the 16-mile road in good repair.

This was neither easy nor cheap, but it was necessary: road company directors rapidly discovered that early, optimistic reports declaring the planks would only need to be replaced about every eight years, was woefully unrealistic, particularly in the Northeast, where snow, ice, rain, plus heavy commercial wagons transporting lumber, hides, and farm produce to the Schenectady and Utica Railroad station at Amsterdam, all combined to give those unhappy, overworked wooden planks too hard a pounding and too wet a soaking, under which torture the beefiest plank lasted no more than three years, if that. One wonders how much longer today’s treated lumber would have survived.

In 2011, the Broadalbin Historical Society erected an historic marker commemorating this plank road. The marker reads, “1849 Plank Road — Route of a Toll Road from Amsterdam to Fish House, it linked the Rural Economy of the Sacandaga Vly to Rail and Canal Access at Amsterdam.”

It’s located aside South Second Avenue, where the old wooden road entered Broadalbin, between the Broadalbin Stewarts and the intersection of Second Avenue and West Main Street, and it can be viewed at HMdb.org (the Historical Marker Data Base). The 1870s advent of local railroads, like our own FJ&G, soon consigned still-surviving plank toll roads to oblivion.

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