And plank roads seemed like such a good idea, too…

Elon Musk and his Tesla autos have been in the news lately, and not all in a good way. Apparently there’s a self-driving feature on the newest Teslas that perhaps ought to be called a ‘self-driving’ feature, especially after a Tesla recently drove itself right under a semi, killing the Tesla driver.

Tesla’s now warning owners that “self-driving” isn’t exactly full auto-pilot, but rather that it’s probably helpful if drivers pay at least minimal attention to where their cars are going. Which sounds like the kind of advice adults really shouldn’t need to be given.

A lot of work is going into creating self-driving cars these days, and not just by Musk’s Tesla. But Duncan Black, one of my favorite bloggers, is skeptical, and I think he’s right to be.

The good thing about self-driving cars, of course, is that they’d use the same ground transportation foundation that manual driving cars use, with no need to create any new infrastructure for them to use. So in that way this latest bit of transportation technology growth somewhat mirrors the thinking behind the growth of plank roads back in the first half of the 19th Century.

Starting in the late 1840s, railroad companies were established to tap the huge northern Illinois agricultural market, with the eventual goal being to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River, a transcontinental rail line then only the vision of a few dreamers. But in order to get on the way to the Big Muddy, they first had to start by crossing northern Illinois’ Fox River.

Not that the railroad promoters looked at the Fox River Valley as simply an obstacle to be dealt with, of course. The area was then, as now, an extremely rich agricultural area. Livestock and grain flowed east to Chicago from the farms that dotted the prairies in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in a broad band stretching around the growing city on the lake to the west and south. And finished goods, lumber, and other items made the return trip west, all on the terrible, inadequate roads of the era.

What farmers wanted to do was get their livestock and grain to the lucrative, fast-growing market Chicago had become. Livestock could be driven to the stockyards (we think of cattle drives as western happenings, but they took place right here in Kendall County, too), but grain had to be hauled. Chicago was such a market draw that farmers as far west as Rockford, and even Iowa, drove horse-drawn wagon loads of corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the growing market. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done, though at a relatively high cost in both time and materials.

Because of the already heavy investment in horse-drawn transport, it made sense to a lot of the strongest boosters in the Fox and DuPage River valleys to improve the area’s roads instead of investing in a completely new form of transportation technology like railroads.

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

Like many companies in the early 19th Century, the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company issued their own currency. Using the stuff was chancy at best, but in an era when recovery from the contractionary policies of the Andrew Jackson administration had destroyed the nation’s economy, it was sometimes any port in a monetary storm.

The investment was not just in horses and wagons, either. Inns and taverns along the major roads in the area, blacksmith and farrier shops, wagon makers, wheelwrights, farms that raised draft horses, veterinary facilities, farmers who grew the fodder and oats needed to feed those thousands upon thousands of horses, and all the other myriad things that made the system work was woven into the very fabric of that period’s life.

As a result, when railroad entrepreneurs began seeking routes from Chicago to the west, they ran into opposition in more than one community as local businessmen tried to keep their personal financial apple carts from overturning.

The story of Oswego’s decision to forego participation in the railroad projected to extend from Turners Junction—West Chicago—south and west across the Fox River is well known, locally at least. Oswego’s city fathers said thanks but no thanks to the railroad, which crossed the river at Aurora instead. Why did they do something that seems to us to be such a silly thing? Because they firmly believed improved roads, not railroads, were the answer to the region’s transportation dilemma.

Plank road sketch

Plank roads were built by laying down logs spaced closely together, and then topping them with two stringers. Thick planks 10 to 12 feet long were then fastened to the stringers. Plank roads worked well when new, but deteriorated quickly in northern Illinois’ climate.

In those years, roads—which were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie—turned into long stretches of impassable sticky soup every spring and after every hard rain. The availability of timber, however, meant it was possible to pave with thick wooden planks to create an all-weather surface. Such plank roads quickly became popular ways of getting crops to market. Typically, plank road companies would be formed after being chartered by the state legislature. Stock would be sold to raise money and the road would be built, with tolls charged to use the all-weather surface.

One such plank road was projected to extend from Chicago to Naperville and then on to Oswego. Capt. Joseph Naper, founder and namesake of Naperville, was one of the major promoters of that plank road. He used his considerable influence to keep the railroad from passing through Naperville, and it’s not unlikely he also persuaded Oswego officials to oppose the rail line crossing the Fox River at Oswego. Naper, like other men of substance at that time, had interests in hotels and taverns, as well as in several other aspects of road transportation, including lots of plank road company stock.

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Then there was the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company, established in the late 1840s, with the aim of extending a plank road from Oswego to Joliet, and from there due east across Will County to Indiana. Promoters and officers of the plank toll road read like a roll call of early Joliet business and political leaders, including Illinois Governor-to-be Joel Matteson.

According to Joliet railroad historian, Bill Molony, the O&IPR Company’s survey for the road’s route was completed in May 1851 and the right-of-way was obtained. According to Molony, the section from Plainfield to Joliet was opened in 1852 or 1853. Travel on that stretch was heavy, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the road would quickly be extended west to Oswego. And, in fact, work started on the stretch west of Plainfield to Oswego, but funding quickly dried up as the newfangled railroad was proving to be not only feasible but also faster and more economical even than plank road traffic.

In the end, of course, the enthusiasm for plank roads turned out to be a blunder. Steam engines didn’t require oats or horseshoes and they didn’t get tired or die while working hard in hot Illinois summers. They could run all day and all night, rain or shine, winter or summer. Once the classic “I” shaped steel rail was perfected, maintenance on rail lines became a relatively minor part of the entire cost of transporting goods. Not so plank roads, which required constant maintenance and even then the surface often proved unreliable. Broken planks damaged wagons and often injured or even killed horses.

By the late 1850s, rails not roads were seen to be the transportation wave of the future. But the damage to local economies had already been done. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, an early settler writing under the pen name “Plow Boy,” reported that:

“In 1850, a [rail] road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That a plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads.”

As a result of this misplaced faith, Naperville didn’t get a rail link to Chicago until the mid-1860s, and Oswego and Yorkville didn’t get their rail links until 1870. At least Naperville’s rail line was a main line link; Oswego’s and Yorkville’s was a spur line.

To us, with the advantage of 20/20 historical hindsight, the decision to refuse participation in extending rail lines, but instead to champion plank roads seems crazy. But at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable and justified by the economic imperatives of the day. The challenge has never been to look back to see what we’ve done wrong; it’s always been to try to look ahead and figure out which of the available options is the right one.

 

 

 

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Filed under Aurora, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

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