NMHS Newsletter, May 2018


Research Notes
by John Knarr


The first plank road in North America was constructed near Toronto, Canada, in 1836. Reports of its popularity and smoothness in transportation contributed to a plank road craze in the State of New York. The first plank highway in that state was completed in 1846 near Syracuse. Pennsylvania passed a general plank road act in 1849. Indiana also passed an act (January 15, 1849) authorizing the construction of Plank Roads. In 1850 the state of Indiana had about 400 miles of plank road completed, at a cost of $1200 to $1500 per mile, and about 1200 miles more were surveyed and in progress. [History of Huntington County Indiana, 1887, p. 205] By comparison, 212 miles of railroad were in operation in Indiana in 1850, of which 124 were completed in 1850. [ibid]


The virtues of plank roads were celebrated in newspapers and journals. Books and manuals on Plank Roads were published. William M. Gillespie published in 1847, A Manual of the Principles and Practice of Road-Making which included a chapter on Plank Roads; George Geddes, Observations on Plank Roads (1850); William Kingsford, History, Structure and Statistics of Plank Roads in the United States and Canada (1851); and the Hoosier State’s own, Robert Dale Owen’s widely acclaimed book, A Brief Practical Treatise on the Construction and Management of Plank Roads (New Albany, 1850).


Plank Roads were deemed an improvement over the older, rougher, bone-jarring corduroy roads, consisting mostly of logs. The lament was frequently voiced about the atrocious condition of pioneer roadways. Michael Knoop, living north of Manchester, petitioned the County for road improvement and re-routing the road passing through his lands: “...it is impossible to keep the said present road in a passable condition for either wagons, horses or footmen, the bridges and bridging being taken away by nearly every freshet of water.” [Wabash Co. Commissioners Record D, Dec. Term, 1853, p. 217]


Gillespie in his Manual (p. 231) described the basics of Plank Roads: “In the most generally approved system, two parallel rows of small sticks of timber (called indifferently sleepers, stringers, or sills) are imbedded in the road, three or four feet apart. Planks, eight feet long and three or four inches thick, are laid upon these sticks, across them, at right angles to their direction. A side track of earth, to turn out upon, is carefully graded. Deep ditches are dug on each side, to ensure perfect drainage; and thus is formed a Plank Road.”


Private Plank Road Corporations governed by a board of directors were formed and tolls collected; profits were disseminated to the shareholders in the form of dividends. The Articles of Association for the Huntington-Liberty Mills Plank Road Company were dated September 11, 1850. The capital stock was to be $25,000 with 500 shares @$50 each. [See Combination Atlas Map of Huntington County Indiana (1879), p. 16]  The capital stock of the Lagro and North Manchester Plank Road Company was initially fifteen thousand dollars, divided into shares of fifty dollars each. This was approved on January 21, 1850. [Local Laws of the State of Indiana Passed at the 34th Session of the General Assembly, Indianapolis, 1850, p. 447]


The usual practice was for a group of promoters and prominent citizens to plant favorable publicity in the local newspapers, create a charter and sell stock by holding public meetings. Tolls were charged to defray expenses and make a profit. Tolls were applied to those using the plank roads.


Research Note: As a youngster in the 1940s and 1950s I recall the toll booth at the outskirts of Liberty Mills on the eastside bend in the road.


According to Sec. 13 of the 1849 Indiana Act: “…the directors of such company may erect toll gates at such points and at such distances from each other as they may deem proper, and exact toll from persons traveling on the road, not exceeding the following rates: for every sled, sleigh, carriage, or vehicle drawn by one animal, one and one half cent per mile, and for every animal in addition thereto one half cent per mile; for every horse and rider or led horse one cent per mile; for every score of sheep or swine two cents per mile; and for every score of neat cattle [ED: oxen, heifers, beef, horned cattle], mules or asses five cents per mile. Persons going to and from funerals, and soldiers of the United States or of this State, while in actual service, shall be exempt from toll.”


Much of the agitation for planking of roadways happened in the antebellum period and especially  between 1849-1859. Enthusiasm and excitement exuded from various publications and pronouncements and from the mouths of promoters. Claims were made that plank roads would enhance the farmers’ and manufacturers’ ability to market their crops and products, and would thereby contribute to increasing land values on the frontier and in the hinterlands. It was boasted that one team could take a load of grain from North Manchester to Lagro and return the same day, while it was a two day trip for four horses over the old dirt roads. [News-Journal, “Memories of the Old Plank Road,” July 17, 1933]


But realities soon set in. The challenges in making profit were great. Anticipated profits were overly sanguine projections. Wood deteriorates and decays. Wood is subject to wear and tear. Often planks became loose, broken or missing. Boards would warp. Flooding often eroded the earthen base and scattered the floating planks. Proper drainage was always a problem. Engineering questions arose as to whether the stringers themselves prevented proper water drainage. Repaving proved costly and time-consuming. The toll-paying public became disgruntled and litigious if roadways were not maintained to a certain standard. Sec. 10 of the Indiana Act provided: “…if such company shall suffer the road to be out of repair to the hindrance or delay of travelers for an unreasonable length of time, they shall have no right to collect tolls thereon until the same is repaired.”


Competing technologies and alternatives developed. In southwestern Ohio (Dayton and Cincinnati) and Kentucky, macadamized turnpikes were more common. The inventor of macadamized highways was John L. McAdam, and the earliest implementation was in England in 1815. Macadam roadways had a foundation of rocks with layers of smaller stone or crushed stone. The development of “free” gravel roads where the public paid no tolls eventually sounded the death knell for the plank toll road movement. Railroad construction rapidly expanded, and the early promoters of plank roads such as John Comstock of Liberty Mills turned their attention and applied resources to promoting the rail connections of their communities. The canals too had a foreboding and doubtful future as their relative role lessened and their economic significance dwindled.


Research Note: Thomas Comstock’s diary entry on his travel through Kentucky by stage coach: “Covington, Saturday, April 9th, 1853 Left Cov. For Lexington at 7:20—84 miles. The country for some 60 miles is quite hilly. We had an excellent McAdamized all the way. Passed through Williamstown & Georgetown; the latter is a beautiful village.”


According to R.J. Skinner’s large 1861 Wabash County map at our Center for History (one also hangs at the Wabash County Historical Museum), FIVE PLANK ROADS existed in 1861 within our county. Each of these roads importantly served as conduits, feeder routes or tributaries to the Wabash-Erie Canal.


Two plank roads existed in Chester Township: Lagro-North Manchester Plank Road and Huntington-Liberty Mills Plank Road. The Lagro-Manchester road, passing through New Madison (Servia), connected the Eel River communities with Lagro and the Canal.


John Comstock was the primary mover in the development of the plank road running all the way from Liberty Mills to Huntington. The terminus in Huntington was at the intersection of Jefferson and Matilda [Park} streets. Some sections of road today follow this early diagonal route: There is a stretch of road just northwest of the Sycamore Golf Course as well as the diagonal road between State Roads 105 and 5 commencing at Bracken (Claysville) north of Bippus (West Point).


The Lagro-Marion-Jonesboro Plank Road connected Lagro with Grant County, and it was routed through the community called America and passed to the East of Ashland (LaFontaine) in Liberty Township. The Wabash and Mt. Vernon Plank Road ran through Waltz Township, passing to the West of the Mo-shin-go-ma-she Reserve and crossing the Mississinewa River. Mt. Vernon was located just east of Somerset.  Elias Ogan, brother to Peter and John Ogan of North Manchester, was a property owner at Somerset and also a large property owner along the plank road. Elias Ogan built a steam saw mill in 1854 to provide planking for the road. [Helm, 470] The Wabash and Eel River Plank Road ran through Noble Township and connected Roann with Wabssh.


The landowners (in 1861) in Chester Township along the Lagro-North Manchester Plank Road included (starting at Manchester): J.L. Williams, Henry Heeter & Jno Heeter, R. Krosier, J. West, Frame’s Heirs, D. Shock, Jesse Mowrer Heirs, James Early, F. Rockhill Heirs, C. Mylin, W. Warren, M. Swank, J. Augenbaugh, S. Goble,  village of New Madison (Servia), Charles Fudger’s Heirs, W. Honius and Peter Honius, J. Reed, D. Hamilton, Jno Walker, Levi H. Smith, Geo Cronisterr, J.L. Pugh, Wm Thorn, Peter Wright, C. Pauling, Jacob Misner, J. Bush, Jno Reed, Geo Guffin Heirs, Ezekiel Reed, Reeve and Hibben. A steam saw mill was erected on the south side of New Madison by Storey & Bowser of Fort Wayne to furnish the lumber for the plank road being constructed between North Manchester and LaGro. Wm and John Honius later became owners of the saw mill.


Starting at Liberty Mills, the landowners in Chester Township along the Huntington & Liberty Mills Plank Road were: Wm Ross, A. Collett, J. Ruse and H. Ruse, Frederick Nabor, A.D. Parrott, A. Baugher, S.B. Clevenger, Abr. Holderman, R. Calhoun, Christ. Fruit, E. Miller, [southwest corner of Whitley County], Lewis Webb, F. Webb, P. Bolinger Heirs, [Huntington County Line]. The diagonal route ran north of Simonton Creek and did not cross that stream. A steam saw mill (about one mile southeast of the Sycamore Golf Course on County Road  at 700E and north of Jenks Cemetery) had been erected to cut the timber for the road. The 1861 map shows the saw mill to be owned by the Tillman brothers.


In a public posting, the Huntington and Liberty Mills Plank Road Company announced it was receiving sealed proposals on November 15, 1851 for “Grubbing, Grading, Bridging, Planking and Completing said Road from the Saw Mill on section three, on said Road, to Liberty Mills, to be let in sections of one mile each, or thereabouts.” Also, at the same time and place was sold, “the new Steam Saw Mill, now in progress of erection, four miles Southeast from Liberty Mills, the Mill to be paid for in Plank Road Lumber.” [Indiana Herald, Huntington, Indiana, Wed. October 29, 1851, p. 3]


Even today, one can stand at the Novae corner of 650E and State Road 114, looking to the southeast, and view the grassy swath of land that once was the line of the Plank Road. The steam saw mill was located along the plank road at 700E. Recently the treeline was removed, and the grassy path will someday be plowed under. In the summer of 2018, though, one still has the opportunity to view the diagonal route taken by this plank road. Thanks to Rex and Betty Metzger for pointing this out. The plank road traversed the Metzger farm in Whitley County. The angling Tillman Road, northwest of the Sycamore Golf Course, also follows that line taken by the old plank road, as does the angling Bracken Road between Routes 105 and 5. The plank road stayed north of Simonton Creek and never crossed it. On the Sycamore golf course today one can envision its approximate course over the high ground existing between Green No. 2 and Green No. 11.


PLANK ROAD INFO IN WABASH WEEKLY GAZETTE, February 6, 1849. Letter excerpts follow:

Recommendations submitted by John S. Patterson, road contractor at Logansport:

1. Purchased steam saw mill from Newel Taft, Lyons, New York for $1000 + $100 for freight and insurance.

2. Use oak and walnut for the plank, and in ascending hills, use yellow poplar. The stringers are of oak, or walnut about 4 inches square, and laid almost under the track of the wheels.

3. No turnouts are needed since the graded earth form a good enough turnout.. Single plank track; plank are nine feet long, three inches thick and from eight to sixteen inches wide. No fastenings necessary.

4. Cost of plank road construction approximately $1200 per mile.

5. When road crosses over what are ordinarily called “corduroy bridges”, do not remove them, but build plank road over them. Care should be taken to secure drainage and to fill up with earth, the space between the surface of the old road and the underside of the plank.

6. Plank roads are better than Coal, and much cheaper. We have tried both and have abandoned Coal Roads.



The two steam saw mills running at Fort Wayne cost each about $2250, everything included. These mills the company have sold at cost, and take their pay in sawing at $1.62 per 1000 ft. Their stringers for the road are 2 by 4 inches, and the plank 3 inches thick. Their mills cut from 600 to 800 feet of 3 inch plank in 24 hours.


Research Note: Judge Hanna was Samuel Hanna, older brother to Hugh Hanna who founded Wabash and Laketon. Samuel Hanna and James Barnett erected the first grist mill in the Fort Wayne area on the St. Mary’s River. It is interesting to note that the first steam powered mill in Allen County, Indiana, was erected in 1835, and the boiler for the mill had to be dragged by eight yoke of oxen from Dayton, Ohio. [Charles R. Poinsatte, Fort Wayne During the Canal Era 1828-1855 (1969), p. 80]



1. The shoulder on the ditch side of the plank should be brought up just even with the top surface and so wide as to avoid the earth being carried away from the plank, but slightly inclining so as to offer no obstruction to the easy and rapid passage of falling water from the surface of the road.

2. Wherever necessary sluices or culverts should be built, so as to ensure as quick and perfect drainage as possible.

3. The cheapest and most desirable road: a plank track 8 feet wide with two stringers 4 by 4, or 3 by 6.

4. The stringers are generally not less than 13 feet long, and are laid with the ends abutting each other. Where two pieces of stringers come together on one side shall not be directly opposite to the like point on the other line of stringers. An offset is recommended.

5. With proper grading completed, two men can lay the plank road about 1000 rods a day.

6. Average cost of grading and laying the plank road, including superintendence would not exceed one dollar per rod, for a mile about $320.0.

7. Three inch plank 126,720 feet to a mile, 4 by 4 stringers, 14,080 feet to a mile (at $3 per thousand) would cost $841.80.

8. Including other expenses, say $223.48, total cost per mile would be roughly $1400.00. Additional expenses would include the cost of gate houses and their lands.

9. By erecting steam mills on the line of the road, a company would be enabled to furnish themselves with lumber for at least $140 per mile less, and their mills would readily sell after they were done with their use.

10. The oak roads will last at least 12 years if not longer. The road way should be at all times covered with at least one and a half inches of earth or sand, which will reduce the tendency of oak to warp. The covering of fine gravel or sand will protect the planks from steel rimmed wheels and horseshoes. In Chicago, the lower part of Lake street, one of the busiest thoroughfares of that active city has been for more than three years covered with 3 inch oak plank, over which is a coating of beach sand. There has been very little if any wear and no decay whatever.

11. The railroad benefits very little the local producing population along its line. The termination points of the railroad alone locally benefit. In contrast plank roads will reduce the expense of the avenues of entrance and exit to their locations. Our common country roads will benefit with planking, and local land values thereby are increased significantly along with populating and developing the interior economically.

12. Mcadamized or Stone Roads are expensive, and repairs are expensive. Dirt roads can become impassable.

13. Plank roads allow for an increase in load (in weight) and saving of time. These advantages more than offset the cost of tolls on such roads.


The Huntington Indiana Herald [July 31, 1850, p. 2] trumpeted six advantages of Plank Roads--

1st. They are of easier and cheaper construction than Railroads.

2nd. The repairs are less expensive, and they yield a larger and more certain return to the stockholders.

3rd. Produce can be carried over them cheaper than on Railroads.

4th. The material for their construction is found in the abundant forests of our country, and not in the iron regions of England.

5th. They accommodate a larger number of people, because they can branch almost to every man’s door, while Railroads cannot be so diffused.

6th. They tend to sustain the neighborhood and village population, and create a home market in every neighborhood they traverse.




Letter from A.J. Neff to the Editor of Wabash Gazette (February 6, 1849), advocating Plank Road route from Wabash to Laketon, as also Hugh Hanna was urging (Hugh Hanna founded Laketon):


MR. KNIGHT: SIR—Having noticed in a previous number of the Gazette, an article on Plank Roads, the utility of the same, &c., and that the citizens of Wabash and vicinity, had in contemplation the erection of one to North Manchester, and that the citizens of the latter place were ready to subscribe half the amount of stock necessary for the erection of said road. This may all be very true. But what I wish to say, is this, that you are advocating the wrong route for a plank road across the Eel river country.

Now by building your road North from Wabash to Laketon, you not only run it on a direct route to Warsaw, but you strike the central portion of the grain growing or grain raising country. And another fact worthy of attention is, that Lagro is determined to build a plank road to Manchester, and if so, you make that place a central point for both roads. Hence it follows that farmers West and North of Laketon, will be obliged to drive to Manchester before they can get on to this road, and when at Manchester they have twelve miles to Lagro and fifteen to Wabash. Now I ask you, where will trade go? Most assuredly it will go to Lagro, whereas if the road was built North to Laketon, the whole North and West would bring their produce to Wabash, otherwise it will go to Lagro, as it has formerly gone.


Then after taking these facts into consideration, I think that any rational man would say, build your road to Laketon. And in reference to subscribing stock, I would say, that the citizens of Laketon and vicinity, would not be behind their friends at North Manchester.

Yours truly,




In the aforementioned article in the News-Journal (July 17, 1933), some faulty and misleading claims were made. It was said that “history seems to be silent upon the names of the incorporators” [North Manchester-Lagro Plank Road].  In regards to the Huntington-Liberty Mills Plank Road, the News-Journal misleadingly asserted that “there is no mention of any other stock holders aside from Mr. Comstock” and “Nor is there any public record of how the affairs of that company were closed.” The newspaper writer was apparently alluding to such lack of information in Helm, History of Wabash County, page 144.


When the Lagro and North Manchester Plank Road Company was incorporated on January 21, 1850, the following persons were identified as constituting the “body politic and corporate”: William Thorn, Samuel Davis, John Harter, Eli Gomery, Mahlon C. Frame, and Madison S. Wilson of North Manchester; and Curtis Paulding, Joseph Hopkins, Daniel Sayer, John N. Stephenson, Wilson Michael English, and Wilson B. Barlow of Lagro. [See p. 447, Local Laws of the State of Indiana Passed at the Thirty-Fourth Session of the General Assembly (Indianapolis, 1850).]


When the Huntington and Liberty Mills Plank Road Co. was established, notices were posted in Indiana Herald (Huntington IN). According to announcements in that newspaper, John Comstock was elected President (1850-1852); John Roche, Secretary pro tem (1850); James R. Slack, Secretary (1850-1851); L.P. Milligan, Secretary (1851-1852, 1854); S.H. Purviance, President (1854). Samuel Moore reportedly was also one of three directors [History of Huntington County Indiana (1887), 521]. Patrick O’Brien in 1851-1852 superintended the construction of the Huntington-Liberty Mills Plank Road [ibid, 523]. Later, Milligan and A. Moore in the 1870s led the impetus to gravel road construction in Huntington County. [Huntington Herald, Nov 16, 1907, p. 3, “Early Roads of Huntington County”]


J.R. Slack had been an early promoter of a plank road between Springfield (South Whitley) and Huntington [The Indiana Herald, Huntington, Wed. Dec 12, 1849, p. 3] with a possible spur to the town of Millersburg [i.e. Collamer]. That particular line never materialized,  and Slack teamed up with Comstock. Interestingly, about this time, a grist mill had been built by W.W. Arnold and Brothers in 1848. It was originally powered by water from the Eel River with the aid of a wooden dam. An historical plaque with an original mill stone was erected in 1987 on that South Whitley site.


When the plank road companies dissolved or the plank roads were abandoned by the companies, the county and its commissioners inherited the property according to state statutes. The Huntington-Liberty Mills Plank Road was sold by the Huntington, Wabash and Whitley county commissioners in 1910, and parties filed a petition asking that the Liberty Mills Plank road be considered a part of the proposed free gravel road for which a petition had been filed. [Daily News-Democrat, Huntington, Sat., May 28, 1910, p. 1]






Plank Road Meeting. [Indiana Herald, Huntington, Wed., Jan 23, 1850]

The citizens of Huntington, Whitley, and Kosciusko Counties are requested to meet at the Court House in Huntington, on the 24th day of January, 1850, for the purpose of organizing a Plank Road Company, under the provisions of an act granted for that purpose. As this is a matter in which all are equally interested, it is hoped there will be a general attendance at the meeting on that day.


Huntington and Liberty Mills
[Indiana Herald, Huntington, Wed., Oct 2, 1850]

NOTICE is hereby given to the Stockholders in the Huntington and Liberty Mills Plank Road Company, that at a meeting of the Board of Directors of said Company, held at Huntington on the 28th day of September, 1850, it was ordered by said Directors that the Stockholders in said Company be required to pay to the Treasurer of said company, within thirty days from the date of this notice, ten per cent of the amount of their subscription of stock to said road.

JOHN COMSTOCK. President.    JOHN ROCHE, Secretary pro tem.
Huntington, October 2, 1850


Huntington and Liberty Mills
Plank Road Letting.
[Indiana Herald, Huntington, Wed. Dec 18, 1850]

NOTICE is hereby given that Sealed Proposals will be received at the office of the Secretary of said Company in the town of Huntington, until the 15th day of January next, for the Grading, Bridging and Planking of Seven Miles of the Huntington and Liberty Mills Plank Road, commencing at the intersection of Matilda and Jefferson Streets, in the town of Huntington, thence north along the Goshen and Liberty Mills road seven miles. The Road to be completed and made in good traveling condition. Plans and Specifications of the work can be seen at the office of said Secretary.

JAS. R. SLACK, Secretary.
December 11, 1850


Plank Road Notice. [Indiana Herald, Huntington, Wed., August 27, 1851]

THE Stockholders in Huntington and Liberty Mills Plank Road Company, will meet at the Court house in the town of Huntington on the 1st Monday and 8th day of September next, for the purpose of electing one President, three Directors, one Secretary, and one Treasurer. A general attendance of the Stockholders is requested.   JAS. R. SLACK, Secretary
August 13th, 1851

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