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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Going Down the Road Feeling Bad

This winter's record snowfall and vicious temperature swings have left our roads looking like a pock-marked lunar landscape. This points out how much we take for granted a universal system of smooth and reliable roads – a utopian ideal that would have made our forebears laugh out loud. They'd have been downright grateful to drive their horse-drawn wagons along concrete roads punctuated by six-inch deep craters every 50 feet.

Until the early 20th century, unpaved roads made travel all but impossible during much of the year. The varying axle-lengths of horse-drawn vehicles quickly wore main roads into a maze of overlapping ruts that bounced and jostled travelers even at the best of times. In wet weather, these turned into thousands of grasping hands that reached up to snare wheels and slow or stop one's progress. In low or swampy stretches, settlers laid logs side-by-side to make aptly named "corduroy roads." The experience of riding along them on wooden wheels and iron springs is easy to imagine.

When Moses Butterfield, a Racine attorney, came to Madison by stagecoach in 1850, he said that he arrived "half dead with bruises and knocks by staging over these rough roads in the night time... By the power of gravitation we kept pretty near the surface with now and then a jolt that would make a fellow feel after the joints in his neck. One, I remember, gave me the worst shock I ever experienced in that way, and my head aches yet and will I presume till I have time to rest."

Some clever fellow thought to improve things by constructing plank roads – nailing milled planks to runners, rather like a railroad covered with boards. These, of course, were not durable for very long, and many a traveler found his wheels breaking through rotting boards, or split cross-pieces poking up vertically between the axles. When plank rodes were abandoned, some local residents covered them with brush and burned them, thinking that cinders would serve as a better road surface. They soon blew away.

Oddly enough, it was not automobiles but bicycles that prompted modern roads. Bicycling became so popular in the 1880s and 1890s that enthusiasts formed associations to demand smooth and durable roads. Their "Good Roads Movement" was already well-underway when automobiles were invented. By 1905, 1,492 cars were registered in Wisconsin and motorists jumped on the bandwagon for good roads. In 1917 the state legislature directed the State Highway Commission to establish a system connecting every county seat and city with a population of 5,000 in a network of reliable roads.

The rest, as they say, is history.

View a gallery of pictures on the history of Wisconsin roads

View pictures of road construction

Learn more about early roads

Learn more about modern roads

Learn about the history of bicycling in Wisconsin

Learn about Wisconsin's automobile industry

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 5, 2008

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