Source: W.E. Billings, TALES OF THE OLD DAYS (1926), pp. 43-45.


Mention has been made in a number of these sketches of plank roads that were built in an early day, but nothing has been told of how these roads were built, how they were operated, or their legal standing. A little of that may be interesting. They were all what were known as "toll roads," that is the people who used them paid for the privilege, stopping at each toll gate and paying a fee. In a certain measure it was like stopping at service stations today, and paying two cents a gallon extra for gasoline, the two cents to used for road purposes. There is a difference, of course, for now the two cent fee is sent to Indianapolis, and we have to depend on faith to believe that it, or any very considerable part of it will ever get back into this locality, while then the money was paid to the men who were supposed to keep up that particular road, and who had to do it in order to get people to drive over it. So in principle the thing is just the same--we call our roads free and try to kid ourselves into thinking they are, just because we do not have to dig down into our pockets every few miles and pay toll, but we are paying the toll just the same, and when we consider our road tax, our gasoline tax, and license fee tax we are paying in probably a more expensive manner than our fathers and grand fathers did.

The pioneers, of course, used bridle paths or trails through the wood, taking generally the shortest cut, with crooks and bends to avoid the muddy sloughs or the hills that were too high and steep. These paths were gradually widened into cart roads, but there was little done to improve them. Sometimes culverts of hollow logs were laid where there were little streams, and efforts were made here and there to bridge over the softest parts with corduroy of logs or poles. But at best these were only primitive, and the miles were long and the way was hard for the man who had to transport his products to market.

It was in 1849 that the first steps were taken to build hard surface roads in Indiana. The legislature on January 15 of that year passed a bill authorizing companies to organize to build plank roads. This law was fashioned much after a law that had been put into effect in New York state a short time before. It provided that any number of persons might organize themselves into a corporation for the purpose of constructing and operating a plank road. The road should be named and stock should be sold. When the stock sold amounted to $1500 a mile the articles of the corporation should be filed with the county recorder of each county through which the road was to pass. Not less than three nor more than seven directors were to be chosen to determine what kind of a road to build so as to secure a smooth and permanent road, the track of which was "to be made of timber or other hard material so that the same shall form a hard and even surface." There was also a provision that the county commissioners might allow this company to guild its line over any public road then in use, and that when so used that road should become the property of the road company, and toll houses could be operated thereon the same as where the road had been laid out originally by the company.

Several road companies were soon organized in Wabash county to build roads under this law. The first was what was known as the Wabash & Eel River Plank road company, the road to be built from Wabash to Roann. The company was started in January of 1850, and was fully organized on February 21, 1850, with a capital stock of $6000, shares being sold at $10 each. Work on the road was soon started, and a portion of it was soon completed, but while no authentic information is at hand, yet it seems that it was never fully completed.

It was not long after this that the Lagro and North Manchester Plank Road company was organized, and this bore the distinction of being the only one in the county that was fully completed. It started from Lagro in a northwesterly direction to the section line between 27 and 28, and then came directly north to Servia, and north from there to what used to be the Samuel Hamilton farm, now owned by the Aughinbaugh heirs. At that point it turned to the northwest, passing between the house and the barn, and coming to North Manchester. The road crossed Pony creek a short distance east of the bridge on the Light Harness pavement. A little to the east of this pavement and north of Pony creek may be seen about all that is left of this road aside from the memory. There for several feet may be seen a grass covered grade and it was on that grade that the road was laid.

When this road was first completed North Manchester was linked with the canal at Lagro, and a little later with the railroad by an avenue of transportation that was the envy of the rest of the county--just as the roads in Chester township today are the envy of the rest of the county, for though it cost a lot of money, yet Chester township was the pioneer in road building in Wabash county, having more miles of hard surface roads and more of improved gravel and stone roads than any other township. It might be said, in passing, too, that Chester township has paid for these roads herself, and they have not been built at county expense. When that plank road was finished one team could do the work of four in getting produce to market. There was some encouragement for the farmers about here to raise crops because they could be marketed at a profit. Where it had formerly been a two day's job with four horses to get a moderate sized load to Lagro and get back, it was an easy trip for one team to take a big load there and return. And for a number of years it seemed that the transportation question had been solved. But time was relentless. The planks would not stand use forever. They began to rot and fall to pieces. Then the days of good travel were over. Two planks in and one plank out, and often the variation of one plank in and two planks out, soon spoiled the business for that road. It soon went into decay, and in the later sixties and early seventies had reached a place where it was avoided instead of used. About that time the railroads came to North Manchester, and there was then thought to be no farther need of a particularly good road between here and Lagro. Just how the business of the company was finally settled, or whether the promoters ever realized anything on their investment is not recorded in history.

Judge Comstock at Liberty Mills was the ruling power in this section at the time the Lagro & North Manchester road was built, but he seems to have slipped a cog some place in this deal, though just why does not appear, for he had money, influence and ideas. But when he found that he could not get that road to come to Liberty Mills he issued the order that so far as his town was concerned Lagro should exist no more forever, and straightway set out to build a road from Liberty Mills to Huntington to connect with the canal at that point. It was known as the Huntington & Liberty Mills plank road, the company being organized in the summer of 1850, and $25,000 of capital stock issued in shares of $50 each. James R. Slack was the secretary of the company. This road left Liberty Mills on what is now the cement pavement, going in a southeasterly direction. It passed the William Feagler house on the south, and to the south of the Horace Rockwell house. The part of the road through that section has been closed these many years and those houses now stand off the regular road. Through the next section it passed by the H.T. Tilman, Frank Bowen and George Forst places, and that line is still open for travel as a gravel road, but east of there has been abandoned. It like the Lagro road soon fell into decay, and the railroads coming there was no occasion to rebuild it.

About the same time a company was formed to guild the Wabash & Mount Vernon road south from Wabash to Old Vernon in the southern part of the county. While a considerable part of this road was built, yet it was never completed for the whole distance, though what was built was used for many years, and then finally like the others went to pieces, gnawed away by the tooth of time and not replaced.

A fourth plank road projected through Wabash county was from Lagro to Marion and Jonesboro. It left Lagro in a generally southwesterly direction to Marion and then on to Jonesboro. It was never fully completed, but parts of it were built and used, going to pieces in the end just as did the other roads. These plank roads in their day were to the wagon what the pavement is today to the automobile travel. People would drive for several miles out of their way to get to these roads, and then be repaid by the ease with which they could drive over the line. The roadway was generally eight feet wide, and of course at suitable points there had to be passing places.

Another plank road was built probably at a later date extending two miles north and two south from Urbana, but it must have been built by the county, for it was not a toll road. In those days there had been no drainage in that section, and the track through there was mostly marked by ruts through the swampy places and by marks where wagons had been pried out of the mud. That four miles of plank road was hailed as a life saver by the people who had occasion to travel that way. Then came the drainage systems that made of that swamp land the splendid farms of today, and with it the gravel roads.

No very definite information is at hand of what the toll was over these roads, or the system of determining the amount that should be paid. From the best information it seems that it must have been about a cent a mile for the ordinary grade of travel, though for heavy loads it was probably more. It was collected by the toll gate keepers, who lived by the roadside, and who would shut the toll gate in front of approaching drivers, and collect the required fee before allowing them to pass. One of these toll gates stood at the eastern edge of Liberty Mills, and the house in which the toll gate keeper lived still stands, being on the south side of the road at the extreme east side of the town.

Squire Abbott well remembers Mrs. Carson who as toll gate keeper would come out by day to shut the gate, or wave a red lantern at night to stop the traveler and collect the toll. He remembers, too, on one occasion when the road was getting old that he was driving with his uncle, Rev. George Abbott. The horse stepped on a piece of plank that had broken loose from the rest of the board and flew up, the sharp end striking the horse and killing it.