Plank Roads of Northern Florida
by Frank Howard
March 20, 1995
The first paved roads were usually near water and used to take loads to and from ships. The very first paved road was sometime around 2500 BC in Egypt to haul stones for the construction of the pyramids. The Assyrians also had paved roads. But the first extensive paved road systems were built by the Romans Around 300 to 200 BC the Romans built extensive systems throughout Europe and Britain. So well built were these roads, some are still in use!
In the Americas there were far more "roads" (Indian trails) than most folk realize. When the Spaniards came to our part of Florida they found a "road" wide enough for their own military column to march from Tallahassee to the coast near St. Marks.
In South America there were true paved roads. Since they had no wheeled vehicles, the bridges and roads over mountains were paved footpaths. Sometimes those mountain roads simply break out into stair steps cut into the rock! But so many of them still serve those people.
Here in Florida the paths could rarely be "paved" with stone. Perhaps logs, or loads of sandy clay, but very few stones.
In the United States our road systems began as colonists improved the indian trails by widening them and building bridges to accommodate loaded wagons. Again, seaports and river ports got the first pavements. These paving materials were usually from ships ballast stones. (Ships carried stone as a cheap way of topping off their load when carrying small or light weight cargoes. Recall sailing ships had to sink down in the water to a certain line on the hull in order to maintain their upright stance as they sailed!) In late sailing ship days paving bricks were being manufactured to sell to the sea captains for this purpose (ballast) as the bricks could be resold, when no longer needed as ballast, cheaply to seaport towns as street pavers. Recall some of Tallahassee's streets.
Paver bricks required a substrata of of something such as a gravel and sand mix or so. Put pavers down on most Florida soil and it would soon sink . So what is the least expensive usable paving material that would not quickly sink into the Florida muck.
The "corduroy" road in which logs are simply laid across the roadstead to provide a hard surface, although a very bumpy one, for wagon traffic has been known for centuries. It has been used right on down to modern times (recall the old Shell Point road). Its greatest limitation was shown by the difficulty that horses had walking on it.
In this area the plank road, already popular out west in the sandy areas, came up as a best compromise to quickly acquire hard, or all weather, surfaced roads. Daniel Ladd, wealthy shipper, began trying to implement construction of a plank road in about 1849. His reason was to connect the cotton planters of the Tallahassee are with a better method of getting their cotton bales to his shipping port, Newport. He and several of the planters obtained a state charter to build such a road in 1851. The contract to build the first 15 miles of the road was let to J. L. Tompkins. By mid 1852 the road existed from Newport to where it crossed the St. Augustine Road. Toll gates were up at each end. Although the road was chartered to the Georgia state line, it was never completed. Branch roads were completed to Tallahassee and to the Chaires crossing.
The plank roads smoothed the corduroy roads by laying planks across the roadstead and also placing planks lengthwise along the wagon ruts making a comparatively smooth road. Using sawed -faced logs instead of the round variety gave the horses a smoother walking surface. However, the road never made a profit for its investors.
The road did prove that both Georgia and Tallahassee plantation owners could still ship via Newport and the St. Marks River. The purchase of a major interest in the St. Marks railroad resulted in it changing from a mule drawn affair to a real railroad with a steam locomotive meant those cotton growers no longer needed to transport their own cotton over a toll road.