Seagrove, Old Plank Rd. near Garner St.
The first experimental “plank road” was built in Canada in 1836. The Fayetteville and Western Plank Road company was organized in Fayetteville in 1849, and the 160-mile highway which resulted was North Carolina’s longest and best known. Although it ultimately terminated in the Moravian town of Bethania, its name shows that the original terminus was undecided, and at one time both Lexington and Salisbury were contestants. The road was built by contractors at various locations along the route, with most of the Randolph County sections built by local attorney Jonathan Worth and his brother Dr. John Milton Worth. They leased the first steam circular saw mill ever seen in Randolph County to begin cutting the timber needed for the road, and when that engine was destroyed by fire, they paid $3,000 to purchase a replacement.
The first step in building a section was the preparation of the road bed, which was graded and opened for travel so that it might settle before the planks were laid. Plank roads were usually eight-foot-wide single tracks, located on the right hand side of a twenty-foot right-of-way so that the heavily-laden in-bound wagons would not have to leave the planks when meeting wagons returning from town. The other side of the bed was graded, packed and drained so as to be passable for passing and turn-offs. The center of the road was elevated, with drainage ditches dug on each side.
Four large stringers were necessary to carry the heavy traffic expected on this road, embedded along its length to support the planks. These sill timbers, from 5 to 6 inches by eight inches in section and as long and straight as possible, were hand-hewn from trees along the road for durability. The butt joints were they met were lapped and broken to prevent the planks from sinking or sagging. Earth and gravel were used to fill between each timber so that the planks lay on a solid foundation level with the top of the sill. The boards making up the road surface were placed at right angles across these stringers. In the vicinity of Fayetteville pine planks were used, with the heart side facing the ground; in the Randolph section it is probable that oak was used instead of pine. These planks were eight feet long, three to four inches thick, and at least eight inches wide. To make it easier to regain the road without making ruts along the edges, the ends of the planks were staggered three to four inches on each side. After the planks were properly laid, they were covered with earth and sand. No nails or pegs were used to fasten them to the stringers, as the earth was packed tight around the ends of each plank. An inch of sand was raked across the surface so that the grit “soon penetrates into the grain of the wood, and combines with the fibres, and the droppings upon the road, to form a hard and tough covering, like felt, which greatly protects the wood from the wheels and horses’ shoes.”
The 120 miles from Fayetteville to Salem were under construction from the fall of 1849 until the spring of 1854. The first ninety miles of the road were built at the rate of 650 feet a day or almost one mile a week, and cost approximately $1700 per mile. It was completed by the time construction began on the North Carolina Railroad, though both were chartered by the legislature on the same day.
The tolls collected along the road provided the revenue which determined the success or failure of the company. The Fayetteville and Western company charged one-half cent per mile for a rider on horseback; one cent for a one-horse team; two cents for a two-horse team; three cents for a three-horse team; and four cents for a six-horse team. Toll houses and gates were built by the company about eleven miles apart. Each toll house cost approximately $300, and in 1851 each toll collector was paid $150. The company suffered from cheaters who traveled the planks between toll houses and detoured on dirt roads to avoid the toll collectors. The legislature of 1858-59 authorized the company to appoint traveling collectors who could act as spies to catch toll evaders.
Stage coaches adopted the plank road as their primary route, and became one of the most reliable sources of income. The novelty of “mudless highways” made the roads popular at first, as they saved considerable wear and tear on animals, vehicles and harness. But their convenience as market highways led to them being called the “Farmers’ Railroads” In 1854 the Salisbury newspaper reported that 20,000 wagons had passed over the Fayetteville and Western plank road over the previous 12 months, “laden with corn, bacon, four, hay, fodder, and provisions of all kinds.” Tobacco was transported over long distances in “rollers,” or horse-drawn wooden hogsheads with axles through the center. Perhaps the primary side-effect was the increase in value of previously inaccessible woodlands, as the road construction and its introduction of steam sawmilling created a new market for lumber.
The worst drawback of such plank roads was soon evident in the tremendous cost of upkeep. The Fayetteville and Western road failed to pay back the initial costs of construction before a general rebuilding of the road was necessary. As soon as 1854 it had become obvious that considerable sums would have to be spent on repairs to the road. For the year 1857 the cost of repairs was $20,388.72, while the tolls collected totaled only $15,966.69. Jonathan Worth, who acted as superintendent of the company that year, thought that twenty miles, or one-eighth of the road, should be reconstructed every year, with the entire road projected to last eight years. Worth even experimented with rebuilding sections of the road with stone and gravel, also known as “macadam” construction. Although the advent of the Civil War was responsible for a general business upheaval which discouraged reinvestment in the road, the success of the North Carolina Railroad effectively made the Fayetteville and Western Plan Road economically unviable.
The Randolph County section of the road had toll houses at Seagrove, Asheboro, and New Market. Although the 1852 deeds into the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road Company were never recorded, the company sold the Asheboro and Seagrove properties back into private ownership in 1866. The deed for the Asheboro toll houses shows that, while the entire tract contained three acres, the toll house was built on the western side of and immediately adjacent to the road, with a shed extending from the house over the road. The deed for what is now the Seagrove property contains no description of the toll house itself, but says the 3-acre tract was purchased from James Polk in January, 1852. The buyer, James Page, is an ancestor of the founders and owners of the P & P Chair Company in Asheboro, and his descendants have preserved in their possession the original toll collector’s box. It appears that James Page may have been employed as the toll collector for some years, as the Confederate Army unit which captured and executed Alpheus Gollihorn at the nearby Gollihorn Spring had their headquarters at “Page’s Toll Gate.” The building, which is now the kitchen wing of a late-nineteenth century house, is located on the western side of what is still called “the Old Plank Road” in Seagrove. It is difficult to determine much about the original appearance of the structure, although it is a one-story building approximately 12 by 15 feet in size. The roof appears to be a later re-working designed to match the attached dwelling. The porches are also late-nineteenth century, although the stumps of two 8×10″ mortised sills project from each end of the structure, underneath the present porch. These may be the remains of the “shed” mentioned as covering the roadbed adjoining the Asheboro toll house. Much more needs to be known about this important structure. Although local tradition identifies is as Page’s toll house, this has not yet been confirmed. A cursory examination of the structure indicates that it may well have been built before the Civil War. If it is indeed the original toll house, it may be the last surviving remnant of one of the most important private economic development projects undertaken in antebellum North Carolina.
(first written April 1998 for the Historical Society tour of southern Randolph)