The Plank Road in Allegany County

(Miriam Thornton Fisher lived at 198 North Main Street, Wellsville,NY, when she wrote on February 18, 1947 part of her “Articles on Allegany County History” in typewritten form.  From a copy on file at David A. Howe Library in Wellsville,NY, I have drawn the following excerpt from her chapters entitled “Wellsville Transportation”.)

“In these days of rapid transportation my mind reverts to pioneer days.  When settlers first came to this section it was a long trek by foot or horseback to Almond or Bath to have their meal ground.

A plank or toll road was built in 1849 from here beginning at PLANK ROAD STREET which is now Pearl Street through to the Eleven Mile.  The principal stockholder and promoter was Seymour Johnson (who built my house in 1856).

It was used for the hauling of lumber, logs, and hemlock bark for our tanneries.  Mr. Johnson had many teams drawing thousands of feet of lumber over it daily.  It was heavily traveled for fifteen years.  I can remember it distinctly as a child because Martin Moogan, Sr., the first drove our horses and when he started with us children he always had us close our eyes tight and then have us guess where we were.  We instantly knew when we were on the Plank Road, because of the peculiar sound of the wheels on the planks and the much smoother surface than the ordinary dirt road.

Then we could always tell when we were on the Howard Tannery Road, now Earley Street, because of the tanbark of which the road was made was so soft and cushiony.  We did not feel the need of rubber tires on this road.

From my brother, Lewis H. Thornton’s notes, I found this interesting information:  “Plank roads and tram roads were built and used in the middle years of the 19th century.  Tram roads were built of wooden rails laid on cross ties over which were drawn cars.”

One was here on what is now Elm Street.  The 1869 map marks it as TRAM ROAD STREET.  Another was located at Pikesville where the cars were drawn up to the summit loaded and run down by gravity.

There were three plank roads in Allegany County, one from Angelica to Belvidere, another from Scio to Allentown by way of Knights Creek.  Allentown was called “Head of the Plank”.  The third plank road ran from Wellsville through the Four Mile Wood to Alma and to Eleven Mile, PA.  The long plank road built for hauling lumber to the Erie Railroad at Wellsville started at now Pearl Street, formerly PLANK ROAD STREET, to Brooklyn Avenue to a Toll Gate near a lane which is now the north border of the Sinclair Oil Refinery (Gypsy Lane),  then south along the West River Road, then a second toll gate at the corner of the farm now(1948) owned by Paul Regan and the Fords Brook Road.  (Perhaps you know it as the road leading to Shady Glen).  Another toll gate at the intersection of the road that leads to Mapes.  Farther on the road forked going up Marsh Creek toward the head of Honeoye Creek.  Another toll gate on this branch, and ended about two miles before reaching Alma Corners.

The south branch of the Plank Road ran to Eleven Mile, PA saw mill ending at point near the A. B. Walker farm at Eleven Mile.”
(In her 1959 publication “THE ALMA STORY”, Hazel Shear had several interesting facts which are presented below.)

“The small barn close to the road on the present William Cook farm (Lot 39) in Willing Township is the former tollhouse;  originally, it was a bit farther south.  There was another at Elmwood or “MacDougall’s Stand” in Willing.

The 1855 census of Willing states that there is a Plank Road crossing the town with a valuation of $5,500.  It ran very nearly east and west across southern Alma.  Valuation of the road in Alma must have been at least equal to that in Willing.”

The Alma and Willing Plank Road Co. was granted the right to take and use any part of any public highway in the Town of Willing for the construction of their road in July 13, 1855, thereby allowing them to widen the original plank road constructed starting in 1849.

As one old-timer put it, “as soon as they got the road built they began doing things to both widen and improve it.”  The first cutting back of trees along the road after the widening was done by the Postal Telegraph Company which soon followed the Plank Road, and the next cutting back was by the Empire Gas & Fuel Company to make room for its gas lines.

Logs used for the plank road were of virgin pine all first quality and were donated by people living along the road.  The Quimby & Shaw, the Hubbell & Wright and the Foland sawmills along the route ran night and day.  The men worked long hours, lying down to sleep near the mills and going back to work as soon as rested.

State funds provided some of the money to build the road, but, how much or how it was used will probably never be known.  The towns gave the rights of way, the settlers gave the lumber, and the people who used the road paid tolls for the privilege.  Thousands upon thousands of dollars’ worth of lumber moved over the road and uncounted thousands of dollars’ worth of material goods moved in.”

(Hazel Shear; THE ALMA STORY, 1959; self-publication).

"New Hudson, Caneadea & Rushford Plank Road"

(From "History of Allegany County,NY" 1896-Allegany County & Its People)

"The New Hudson, Caneadea and Rushford Plank Road was built in 1852, the main projectors being Southworth & McGraw from Tompkins county, who owned 2,100 acres of timber land in New Hudson, and had 4 sawmills.  The capital stock was $20,000.  Timothy Rice, Abel S. Nicholson, Luke R. Hitchcock and John Smith were its active promoters in Caneadea, and J.B. Luther, Wilson Gordon and O.T. Higgins in Rushford.  The road ran from McGrawville, following closely Rush and Caneadea creeks to Caneadea, with a branch from Kellogg's to Rushford.  The plank were cut 8 1/2 feet long and 3 in. thick, and were furnished at $5 per M.  For a while the road did a good business.  It was later sold by the sheriff and March 20, 1859, came into the hands of Columbus Balcom who continued it till the flood of 1864, which tore up and carried off a good share of it, especially in the gorge."

"The First Plank Road"

Central New York has the distinction of being the site of the first plank road in the United States; the first of what would become a common type of road construction. The road extended from Salina, at the same intersection where Crouse-Hinds was later built, to the village of Central Square.

The Plank Road roughly followed the path that Native Americans had used to travel from Pennsylvania to the St. Lawrence River. They had called this footpath the Thousand Island Trail. Later, the New York State Legislature had the same route cleared, calling it the Salt Road northward from Salina. The farmers with contiguous lands were taxed for the construction of the road, and were also expected to maintain it.

In 1846, a group of businessmen saw the profit to be made by improving the road and charging for travel on it. Planking was chosen as the material because timber was so plentiful along the route, and because planks would’t break up in the winter thaws or wash away in the spring.

The road cost $23,000 to build, and this money was raised by the sale of stock. Four tollhouses along the route ensured that a profit was returned to the investors.

Eventually, plank roads were built to Tully and Cortland, Oswego, Camillus and Elbridge, Fayetteville and Manlius, and one between Jordan and Skaneateles.  Warren Street in downtown Syracuse was originally a double plank road.

The planks were removed gradually, first from Central Square to Brewerton in 1873, then from Brewerton to Cicero three years later, and finally from Cicero to the Syracuse city line. The road was paved in 1914, and the road became a state highway. This same route today is known as Route 11.(Jo Anne Bakeman - Copyright © 1999 Jo Anne Bakeman (Oswego County GenWeb))