Blast from the Past: Old Plank Roads of Fulton County

Historical marker reading 1849 Plank Road

A historical marker for the 1849 Plank Road is seen. (PHOTO COURTESY FULTON COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

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BLAST FROM THE PAST – In the mid-19th century, the country experienced the Plank Road Boom. George Geddes, an engineer from Syracuse, saw plank roads — which are exactly what they sound like, roads built from wooden planks — in Canada. They were popular in Ontario, the idea brought to North America from Russia. Geddes was impressed with the durability and convenience of the roads. Tolls were charged for usage, which helped to pay for maintenance and upkeep. 

When Geddes returned to New York, he constructed the first plank road in the US. The Syracuse-Central Square Road opened in July 1846. It was 16.5 miles long, built out of hemlock planks, and was used to transport salt and other goods in and out of the city. Geddes claimed the roads lasted for at least eight years and were much less expensive than macadam; he estimated that they could provide a return investment of 20%. And, he explained, if the road lasted less than eight years, it was because of increased traffic, which meant more toll profit.

Plank roads were promoted by newspapers and other proponents spreading the “plank road craze.” The Scientific American claimed they were “completely reforming the interior or rural transit trade of our country.” Hunt’s Merchants Magazine stated they were “of the class of canals and railways” and that “every section of the country should be lined with these roads.”

New York State alone had 3,500 miles of plank road — enough to go from Manhattan to California. They were mostly built in places where lumber was easily accessible and cheap, as wood was over 60% of the road’s cost. Fulton County, with its thick forests and thriving lumber industry, was a perfect place for these roads to be built. In 1847, the state legislature passed a general incorporation law that made it even easier for the construction of these roads, and almost immediately the county’s plank road network began. 

The first was the Fonda and Caroga Plank Road, chartered on November 5, 1847. The road ran from Fonda to Newkirk’s Mills. It was sold in 1855. The Fultonville and Johnstown road, chartered just a month later, was a five mile long road that ran from Fultonville to Johnstown. Part of the road from Fultonville to Fonda was abandoned in 1877. The road from Amsterdam to Fish House, chartered in March 1848, was 17 miles. It brought daily stagecoaches from Northville to Amsterdam and returned with mail and passengers. It provided easier access to the Erie Canal and a growing rail system. Another road went from Johnstown to Ephratah (called the Johnstown and Pleasant Valley Road). There were also plans for three other roads – Mayfield and Broadalbin, Mayfield and Vail Mills, and Palatine and Ephratah — that were never built. These were all toll roads.

Plank roads were typically built by companies that sold stock to fund their construction. The 1847 incorporation law stated that at least five people were needed to form one of these companies with the intent to build a plank road. They were required to circulate a notice in at least one newspaper in the county where the road would be built, advertising the sale of stock. The company needed to raise at least $500 per mile that was to be built, draw up articles of association, elect directors, name the company, and state the length of their charter (up to a maximum of 30 years). They were also required to provide in-depth information about where the road would go. Only then could they petition the NYS Department of State to get approval to form a company. There were about 330 companies in NY by the 1850s.

Toll booths were operated by the plank road companies. Travelers were required to pay a fee, not unlike our Thruway toll system today, except that the money was going to the company instead of to the state. This was supposed to be used for maintenance and upkeep, which included digging ditches on each side of the road to allow water drainage and keep mud from accumulating on and under the planks. Old planks were replaced; in 1892, the Cayadutta Plank Road Company advertised that they were looking to purchase planks about eight feet long, made of old growth birch, red beech, or maple. For many years, the toll gate on the Fultonville-Johnstown Plank Road was manned by Willard Brownell. One evening, he chased a group of toll gate jumpers who skipped paying. He caught a cold in the process and died not long after. 

By the mid-1850s, the Plank Road Boom was coming to a close. They failed to live up to their expectations of easy and inexpensive travel, especially as macadam became cheaper and advancements in technology made other forms of travel more efficient. Fulton County grappled with several of its roads for decades after this. For example, in February 1899, the county court heard Cayadutta Plank Road v. William Taylor. Taylor was a teamster who had worked 14 years hauling from Gloversville to Fonda and back. On his way up from Fonda, it was his custom to take the toll road until just before Townsend Ave. Here, before he passed the toll gate, he would leave the road and take Hillside, Bloomingdale, Harrison, and S. Main into the city. The Cayadutta Plank Road Co. felt he was getting away with using the road but skipping the toll, effectively costing them money. Taylor explained that it wasn’t his intention; Bloomingdale was just an easier route to his destination. The defense claimed that the road was a public highway and no privilege guaranteed by the plank road charter was violated. The court agreed: “The teamsters were victorious in their fight against the tolls,” the Daily Leader reported on February 24th.

Newspapers helped to promote the roads, and now Fulton County’s newspapers were being used to rail against them. Later in the same year, the Leader complained: “the plank road company once again makes its presence felt.” This time, the company was against the proposed brick paving of North Perry St. If the city proceeded with the project, the company would be required to pay for a portion of the work along the plank road – basically, replacing the planks with brick. The company’s charter was up in ten years and they felt it would be a waste of money for them to do so. The city could compel them to update the road with planks, but not with pavement, they said. The city retorted that like any other property owner, the company had to accept a valid petition to pave. 

In 1898, Assemblyman Richard Murphy of Montgomery County introduced an “Anti-Toll Gate Law.” The law would permit counties to purchase toll roads after voting to acquire rights and franchises of any individual or corporation, if the corporations chose to sell by majority vote of its stockholders. The law went into effect on May 18, 1899.

Most of the toll roads in Fulton County were gone by the turn of the 20th century, except for the Cayadutta Plank Road Company and the Fultonville-Johnstown Plank Road Company. In 1901, the newspaper published in bold font: “A FOND FAREWELL TO THE TOLL GATE.” The City of Johnstown’s insistence that the company pay for a share of the paving was the final nail in the coffin; rather than pay the $4,000 for paving, the company just decided to dissolve. It passed to receiver John G. Ferres, who would handle the final sale of the company’s assets and property. The paper gleefully wrote: “The people of Gloversville and Johnstown will take pleasure in learning that there is a prospect in the immediate future of the Cayadutta Plank Road Co. going out of business and the toll gate between the two cities, a relic of a past age, will be torn down and made away with.” On December 31, 1903, in their last session of the year, the Board of Supervisors voted to buy the plank road and abolish the tollgate, “which for years has been a source of annoyance for all travelers.” 

The Fultonville-Johnstown company’s charter expired in 1907. By that point, it was “practically out of business, excepting the settling up of its affairs and the sale of its planks and buildings.” The City of Johnstown debated buying the road, but determined it was cheaper to just build a new highway. The tollgate was thrown open, and plank roads in Fulton County were a thing of the past.

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