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Plank Roads

Since mud or snow often slowed passage on even the best early roads, plank roads came into vogue for a very brief period.   Successful reports of plank road use in European countries created the opinion that they would be an improvement over the crude military and state road conditions.  Plank roads were seen as a practical means for agricultural products to reach markets, since farmers could use their own vehicles and such roads were cheaper to construct than railroads.

To help finance road construction, private turnpike and plank road companies were chartered and organized in the state.  The earliest plank road to be chartered and surfaced in Wisconsin was built between Lisbon and Milwaukee in 1846.  Between 1846 and 1871, 135 turnpike and plank road companies were organized and chartered by the legislature.  One of the most successful of these was the Milwaukee - Watertown Plank Road, built in 1847.

Plank roads were typically constructed of wood planks two inches thick and eight feet long, which were nailed to four-inch-square stringers at a 90-degree angle.  Tolls were charged for traveling on the roads, usually one-cent per mile for single animal vehicles and an additional half-cent per animal hauling a vehicle.  A typical drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay with a team would cost $3.78.

Between 1852 and 1871, there was a gradual decrease in charters granted, and plank roads eventually fell out of favor, in part, because they did not prove to be as profitable as had been expected.  Stock company dividends were small and irregular, and actual operations of the plank roads revealed that the surface decayed badly in five or six years, making it hazardous for travelers and costly to repair.  Rather than make necessary costly repairs, many owners abandoned the roads.  The abandonment by private owners and lack of public interest in maintaining the road, prompted the legislature to authorize and direct town supervisors to declare such roads a public highway if the owners had neglected to make repairs or collect tolls for a period of 60 days or more.  The towns then assumed responsibility for repair.

Although several of Wisconsin's plank roads continued to carry large volumes of traffic until the early 1900s, the majority were abandoned in the wake of railroad development during the 1860s and 1870s.  Although the plank roads themselves have disappeared from the landscape, some of the routes exist as parts of Wisconsin's road system.  For example, the Watertown Plank Road travels from Milwaukee to Watertown on much of the original route and retains the historic name in some urban areas.

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