Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Early Cook County Roads -- Part Two
Nature Bulletin No. 739   January 18, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

EARLY COOK COUNTY ROADS -- PART TWO -- THE PLANK ROAD ERA


For ten years after Chicago, with a population of 4,170, was chartered as a city in 1837, its commerce and growth were crippled by wretched transportation to and from the hinterlands. During many periods of each year it was surrounded and isolated by mud.

To be sure, there were dirt thoroughfares in all directions, graded and drained as best they could in those days, but not surfaced. No one who has never experienced it can appreciate how gooey and gluey a black prairie soil can be when wet. A wagon's wheels often become solid cylinders of mud as wide as a bass drum.

Then, in 1848, there occurred a "break through": three developments of vital importance In July the Illinois and Michigan Canal from Chicago to Peru and the Illinois River, started in 1836, was finally completed and opened for traffic.

In October the Galena and Chicago Union, the first railroad (now part of the Chicago & Northwestern Ry.), was completed across the Slough of Despond and to the Des Plaines River. Within a few years, five other railroads had arrived: the Michigan Southern, the Michigan Central, the Rock Island, the Illinois Central, and the Burlington.

And in September, 1848, the Southwestern Plank Road was completed from Chicago to Doty's Tavern at what is now the intersection of Ogden Ave with Joliet Ave. in Lyons, In 1850 it was extended to Brush Hill and Fullersburg (now Hinsdale), and in 1851 to Naperville. From there, a plank road was built to Oswego and Little Rock; and another to Warrenville, St. Charles, and Sycamore.

That was the first of a network of plank roads that radiated outward like the spokes of a wheel. Chicago was the hub. In 1849, the Northwestern Plank Road was constructed on Milwaukee Ave. to Oak Ridge at what is now Irving Park Blvd.; thence to Dutchman's Point (now Niles); and finally to Wheeling. The Western Plank Road was built westerly from Oak Ridge to Bloomingdale in DuPage County and thence to Elgin.

In 1851 the Southern Plank Road was constructed along the lines of State St. and Vincennes Ave. as far as Kyle's Tavern at about 83rd St. where it was halted by the approach of the Illinois Central RR. In 1854 the Blue Island Plank Road was completed on Western Ave. to its junction with Blue Island Ave., then the southwest corner of Chicago. There was also a 5-mile plank road parallel to the lake shore from North Ave. and Clark St. to Green Bay Road.

In 1839 a plank road was built in Canada, instigated by the governor-general who had seen them in Russia. The idea spread to New York, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana where laws governing the incorporation of plank road companies were enacted. Built at a cost of about $2000 per mile, they were very profitable at first. There were toll gates at intervals of 5 or 6 miles. On the first stretch of the Southwestern Plank Road, the tolls were 12 1/2 cents (one "bit") for a man on horseback, two bits for a single team, and three bits for a 4- horse vehicle.

Usually there was a row of heavy stringers on each side of a 16-foot roadway and across them were laid (but not spiked) heavy planks of pine and hemlock or, better, oak and walnut. However, the planks soon warped, decayed, and frequently floated away or were "borrowed" by neighboring settlers. After a few years, with little or no maintenance, most plank roads became so uncomfortable and dangerous that they were abandoned. The decline of those "revolutionary improvements" was almost as rapid as their rise.

Much of the foregoing information was obtained from "Chicago's Highways -- Old and New", by Milo M. Quaife.


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