16 July 2014

Plank Roads and Wagon Roads -- many of the roads our ancestors used have disappeared ...




Roads now are quite different than they were when our ancestors lived – think relatively narrow dirt paths!  This came to mind since a couple of weeks ago I read two articles. The first was: Forging West; The Western Turnpike and the Western North Carolina Railroad Company

As droves of Tar Heels take to the road this summer in search of cool North Carolina mountain air, we are thinking about what this trip would have been like 150 years ago. As it turns out, it would have likely meant traveling on a plank road. Think of a plank road as a wooden highway for wagons and coaches. In the mid 1800s, North Carolina had a proliferation of plank road building.

This rang a bell for me since on Sunday as I drove along I-85 in southern VA, I came across Boydton Plank Road.  It took many trips and seeing its name before I realized that this meant that historically this road had literally been constructed of planks. 

Of course, this got me interested in Plank Roads in NC, where I live.  I came across these articles that tell us about a type of road which really no longer exists as we travel modern roads.

+ Plank Roads (NC) 
+ Back in Time, Plank Roads (US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration)
+ Plank Roads (Beaufort County)

To see how popular plank roads were in NC, just check out The Laws of North-Carolina, Enacted in the Year 1853 which lists almost 2 pages of incorporations by plank road companies such as the Ashboro’ and Salisbury Plank Road Company, Caswell Plank Road Company, Concord and Anson Plank Road Company, Duplin Plank Road Company, Haywood and Pittsboro Plank Road Company, and many more.


Do you know of any plank roads still in existence and used?


The Great Wagon Road served as the backbone to mold the history of North Carolina. What began as a hunting trail used by Native Americans expanded into one of the most widely used colonial highways in the nation. Taverns were also built along the primitive road to serve as rest stops for weary travelers and to provide food and shelter from the exhausting trip. The Great Wagon Road played a major role in the economic development of NC and paved the way for many modern towns and cities now known as Winston-Salem, Salisbury, & Charlotte.

Most of this road has been buried under concrete or disappeared from the landscape and yet it was such a critical pathway of travel into NC and beyond.  As is often said, many of our current roads are based on historic Native American hunting trails which themselves were based on animal paths.  We’ve just changed these small paths into large, wide, noisy and fast highways.

Both of these articles talked about key modes of travel for our ancestors that have all but disappeared today.  Understanding “how” our ancestors got from place to place, helps give us perspective on their lives.  

As you see travel the roads this summer, think of how your ancestors traveled.  When you see a descriptive road name, make a note to yourself to learn more about its history.  We know there has to be a story behind these interesting road names!



Editor’s Note:  Not directly related and on the same trip along I-85, I always see Squirrel Level Road in Colonial Heights VA.  I always wonder if the road was placed at “squirrel” level or what?!?!  Weird image and what else does one think of when driving!  On a more serious note, I do wonder at the “history” of the name as that has relevance to the history of the area and to those who lived there.  Without knowing history, we genealogists would often be “up a creek without a paddle,” in terms of correctly understanding records or even knowing where to look for them. 

BTW, if you happen to know the history of Squirrel Level Road, I would love to hear from you.


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