A difficult journey required desperate measures
The old adage that “you just can’t get there from here” seems to apply to travel through Iowa in the 1830s. At the time, Burlington aspired to become a transportation hub , but the reality of impassable roads continued to be felt.
Basically, roads only existed on maps. The reality of overland travel west of Burlington was a series of rugged clearings marked by fires on the trees. Once the open grassland was reached, the trees disappeared and the road was marked with stakes 1,100 meters apart.
As many travelers were to discover, it’s relatively easy to get disoriented when your trail markings are sticks driven into the ground every five hundred yards.
Muddy swamps, snow and cold made travel unthinkable at certain times of the year, and transport to the fast-growing prairie villages of New London and Mount Pleasant was often limited to saddling your horse and heading to the west.
By the late 1840s, Burlington’s drive west was becoming a scandal as thousands of covered wagons now crossed the river, drove through town, and quickly sank on their axles in the mud.
Communities such as Davenport and Dubuque worked to improve their road systems and eventually the merchants of Burlington realized they had to face this competition or lose the lucrative immigrant trade.
Their answer was to be a privately built toll road stretching from Burlington to Mount Pleasant that would not only serve the traveler, but also bring a good profit to the road investors.
The road was envisioned to be the super highway of its day. It would be largely leveled and hard-surfaced. But because few rocks were available and concrete roads were in the future, the road would have to be made of wooden planks.
Critics of the project argued that the real answer should be a railroad. But Burlington’s money class argued that railroads were just a passing fancy, and in 1848 the Burlington-Mount Pleasant Plank Road Company was formed.
As soon as sufficient funds were pledged, survey work began with the route closely following today’s old US 34 to New London. At this point the road has moved north along high ground and traces of the pavement are still visible.
These traces show that the road was built at the top when the level rose two feet above the surface of the adjacent land, the causeway being 30 feet wide.
Sawn stringers 4 inches by 6 inches were placed on part of the raised surface, then sawn white oak boards 3 inches thick and 8 feet long were nailed to the stringers to create the surface of the road. The road was 8 feet wide and ran along the northern edge of the raised strip.
The boards came from the sawmills built along the road and much of the raw timber was transported from the timbers along the Skunk River. An estimated 5 million board feet of oak were needed to complete the 32-mile route.
When the road finally opened up, it initially prospered. The tolls were collected at Jobe’s Hotel in Mount Pleasant, Billy’s Toll Hose in New London and other offices in Danville and Middletown.
Plank route travelers could also stop for refreshments at the many taverns that sprang up along the route. There was the Eight Mile House in Middletown and Boak’s Hotel in New London. But the most famous of these stops was the Duke Hill Hotel in Jimtown. Today, Jimtown is remembered only as a bold engraved sitting along a country road.
Jimtown, named for its friendly innkeeper Hoosier, was a scattering of rough buildings, with dirt trails branching off toward Iowa City and south toward Lowell and Denmark.
But what was best remembered was as a legendary watering hole that attracted truckers and travellers. At all hours of the day, the hotel bar was filled with customers fortifying themselves against the demands of the road.
However, the real artistry in creating the road was not in its construction and support system, but rather in its funding. Local moneymen were well connected to the Burlington city government and were successful in convincing the city to pick up the bulk of the funding.
In a complicated arrangement, with a lot of sleight of hand, the city borrowed the then astronomical amount of $20,000 from eastern bankers, then that money was in turn loaned to the Plank Road Company. When the company finally defaulted, the series of lawsuits that were generated went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and took 50 years to resolve.
It is estimated that these lawsuits, penalties, interest, and principal ultimately cost the city $500,000 and seriously eroded its borrowing capacity while the founders of Plank Road escaped personal liability.
This defect was caused by the inevitable arrival of the railroad which expedited travelers and freight westward at a cost far below what the Plank Road Company could match. Travelers now speed along the long abandoned road on ribbons of cement heedless of the old road paved with native oak and the local scandal.