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From the Grayslake Historical Society Archives: Plank Roads

Do you know why plank roads were important?

With the spring thaws more than 150 years ago in Lake County, farmers and travelers alike dreaded the dirt paths and trails that would become a quagmire of mud and slow transportation throughout the area.

An answer to the problem was the building of wooden roads or plank roads to improve and speed transportation.

In Lake County, a plank road was announced in 1848 by three businessmen and civic leaders to build a toll road, or "turnpike" from Waukegan to McHenry using wooden planks. It was known as the Lake and McHenry Plank Road. The men—John Gage, Elmsley Sunderlin and John Tyrrell—were the first officers of the Lake and McHenry Plank Road Association.

The landowners were encouraged to donate their property for the road, which followed the current Route 120 (Belvidere Road) through Grayslake and Hainesville. After construction, property values were reported to be higher along the "turnpike."

The plank roads throughout the country were built using planks, or boards, that were laid over the road on log foundations, usually about eight feet long. Some were more than 12 feet wide and in downtown areas, the roads were even wider.

By 1851 the Waukegan to McHenry road was completed to Squaw Creek, west of Hainesville. There were three toll "booths" along the road. One was about a mile west of Waukegan, another in the residence of John Gage and the third in Hainesville, near the intersection of the present-day routes 120 and 134.

Tolls were: each four horses and coach wagon or sleigh, 3.5 cents per mile; each two horses or oxen and wagon or sleigh, 2.5 cents per mile; each horse and buggy and wagon or sleigh, 2 cents per mile; each head of cattle, .5 cents per mile; and each head of sheep or hogs, .25 cents per mile.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the cost of building a plank road was from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per mile, depending on the climate and terrain.

By 1877, the Lake and McHenry Plank Road operation ended  because of high maintenance costs. There was not enough toll revenue to pay for the repairs, maintenance and employees.

Repairs could be extensive and costly. As planks warped with the weight and moisture, they had to be replaced. The highway administration noted that maintenance included digging ditches on each side of the road for drainage and to keep mud and debris from accumulating under and over the planks.

As the planks warped and rotted away, gravel was used in the roadbed which made a slower and bumpier ride.

"Plank roads resembled a large set of train tracks in appearance, but felt and sounded much as boardwalks do today except most were wider than an average boardwalk," noted Rickie Longfellow from the highway administration.    Throughout the country, plank roads were a welcome sight into the 20th century by motorists driving the new Model T Fords who were looking for a smoother, less bumpy ride.

In 1918, as cars and trucks were  becoming more popular for transportation needs, concrete was laid over the Lake and McHenry Plank Road.

Many plank roads exist in the country today, but they are lying forgotten under paved roads, like perhaps the modern Route 120 in Lake County.

"The original plank roads of the 19th and 20th centuries had a prosperous impact on our economy and led to the need for the better, less costly roads we now enjoy," Longfellow commented. More information on the Lake and McHenry Plank Road is available in the Archives of the Grayslake Historical Society. 

The Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum, 164 Hawley St., Grayslake, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and during downtown community events.

—Submitted by the Grayslake Historical Society.

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