Many of New York State's original roads started as paths and trails. Eventually, public roads were built and maintained by towns located along the roads. These roads were built by the citizens, themselves; the state required men to work at least three days on roads. Over time, it became apparent that this system was impractical for maintaining an effective road system.
The first toll roads, or turnpikes, appeared in the United States in the late 1700s. By 1800, New York had granted charters to thirteen private companies to build and maintain roads in New York. Constructing roads was an expensive operation. Workers had to clear trees and rocks, create a level roadbed, build bridges, make steep hills passable, dig ditches for drainage, lay the road surface, and more. Consequently, the private companies charged tolls to recover the construction and maintenance costs.
Toll gates posted rates for vehicles, bicycles, and even livestock. Some Americans worried that turnpike companies would charge exorbitant tolls. State legislatures responded by putting restrictions on turnpike companies. New York's plank road law limited tolls to 1½ cents a mile for a vehicle drawn by two animals; ½ cent for every additional animal; ¾ cent a mile for every vehicle drawn by one animal; and ½ cent a mile for each horse and rider or horse that was led. Jurors, witnesses, troops, people who lived close to a toll gate, and people traveling to religious meetings, funerals, town meetings, or blacksmith shops did not have to pay. Despite these provisions and the fact that toll gate keepers were on duty round-the-clock, many people still tried avoid paying the toll by "shunpiking," or driving around the toll gate.
Although turnpikes made traveling more expensive, most people recognized that the turnpike system created more and better roads. Even so, road conditions were not ideal. Rain and snow often made dirt and gravel roads impassable. One promising solution seemed to be the plank road, which rapidly became popular after it was introduced in the late 1840s. Plank roads were constructed of hemlock, pine, or oak planks that were about eight feet long and three or four inches thick. Like a wooden sidewalk, these planks were laid across the road at a right angle to the direction the road traveled. More than 3,000 miles of plank roads were laid in New York in just ten years. While plank roads were smoother and more dependable than dirt or gravel roads, they had a much shorter life-span than expected and had to be replaced after only four or five years. Just a few years after the first plank road was built in America, most companies had returned to dirt and gravel roads.
How does the availability of transportation affect the economic and cultural aspects of a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the impact of this technology on the local community.
What was the first plank road built in New York State, and when was it completed?
Math: Create word problems to try to figure out how much a toll would have cost for vehicles carrying x number of animals, riders, etc.
Science: Investigate the differences in the various types of wood that were used to create the plank roads (hemlock, pine, oak).
English Language Arts: Write an essay explaining whether or not it was fair to allow jurors, witnesses, troops, and travelers attending religious meetings to be exempt from paying tolls.