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Plank roads history

May 22, 2011
By DON WILLIAMS , The Leader Herald

Once Americans found the unsurpassed Adirondack Region of New York state, they found ways to penetrate those depths to search out those sparkling lakes, forested mountains and quiet glades. Old Indian trails, military roads, stage coach routes, rail lines, and waterways opened up the wilderness for hikers, anglers, hunters, trappers, loggers, tanners, visitors and settlers. Developing access points for the increasing traffic began long before the arrival of the automobile in the first decade of the 1900s.

One of the busiest gateways to the Adirondacks was on the southern border of the Adirondack Blue Line. Those early dirt roads became unpleasant and a real challenge for the travelers. Deep mud in the springtime turned into summer dusty roads. A solution was needed and, with some work, it was found at the midpoint of the 1800s; investors found that toll roads made of planks would make them wealthy.

Plank roads were not built by the taxpayers; plank roads were constructed by those private investing companies which collected the tolls to pay for construction and to turn a profit. Building a plank road, a wooden road, was labor intensive. Hundreds of trees had to be cut and hewn. The ground had to be leveled, parallel beams had to be laid as sleepers or stringers. Then, four by four planks were laid across the stringers. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway) the planks frequently wore out and were cut up and sold for firewood. (Recycled!) Warping of the boards was a problem and often the horses and carriages could be heard from a distance with the noisy rattling of the loose planks.

In 1850, an Adirondack gateway plank road was built between Johnstown and Gloversville and from Johnstown to Fonda. The old tollgate is still standing on the Fulton County line below Johnstown. The actual gate was a heavy wooden bar across the roadway that could be swung out of the way by the gatekeeper when the toll was paid.

In 1855, the plank roads entered the southern Adirondacks. A plank road extended from Amsterdam to Fish House and, shortly thereafter, a plank road was built from Fish House to Northville. Mail stages could now travel all the way from Amsterdam to Northville.

Earlier than these major plank roads, a plank road had been built in 1846 that connected Caroga Lake with Fonda. It served the large tannery and sawmill at Newkirk's Mills; the early plank roads were needed by the developing industries and the industries, in turn, helped to make it profitable to build the roadways.

Interestingly, another plank road had been constructed from Johnstown to Pleasant Valley, now Rockwood. It had two toll gates and, with a disagreement over who could collect, the road was soon abandoned.

Progress quickly ended the days of the plank roads. By 1904, the street railways took over the business of the wooden roadways and they were closed. Fulton County purchased all of the Johnstown-Gloversville plank road for $2,500 and took up the planks. They then turned the plank road beds into regular highways.

The contributions of the plank roads in the opening up of the Adirondacks are another part of that quilt of Adirondack history. I wish that I knew more about them. It is a "somewhat forgotten" story that should be told; maybe, just maybe, we need to preserve the old toll house and save that plank road story for our citizens and tourists.



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