As railroads expanded across the state of Michigan in the 1850s, those not adjacent to railroad lines still hoped to gain access to the new technology. The Michigan Central Railroad, connecting Kalamazoo to Chicago and Detroit by 1852, was of great interest to farmers and timber companies in Kalamazoo’s hinterland. The construction of railroad trunk-lines was costly and slow-moving, making the prospect of building branch lines into the country-side implausible. Sand covered timbers known as corduroy roads served as the primary routes into Kalamazoo, but these roads required constant maintenance and were hazardous to horse and wagon traffic.
Safe and Affordable
A more affordable and safer method of connecting Kalamazoo with outlying areas was the construction of plank roads. The Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road Company connected the two cities in 1853. The connection was of benefit to the gypsum mining and timber industries north of Kalamazoo which could now access the Michigan Central Railroad. A second plank road, opened in 1848, connected Kalamazoo with Three Rivers. Willis Dunbar has described the construction of these routes, “Planks from two to four inches in thickness were laid upon timbers placed horizontally with a graded roadway.”
Governor Epaphroditus Ransom
The most prominent local supporter of plank roads was Governor Epaphroditus Ransom. Ransom, a principal investor in the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road Company, presided over the passage of the General Plank Road Act of 1848. Following the act, Ransom received a flurry of plank road proposals which he quickly granted charter. The postmaster William DeYoe also invested heavily in plank roads. Public funding for plank roads was minimal. Instead, it was hoped that charging tolls would bring profits and finance maintenance.
A Railroad Connection
Plank roads were a remarkable improvement over the muddy and often impassable roads that existed in the earliest part of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, they had their own perils. If a wagon-wheel fell off the plank road, it was not uncommon for the entire load to tip over. Troubles also came in the form of maintenance; companies were constantly working to counteract warping, rotting, and splintering. Lastly, it was quickly becoming apparent to investors and area residents that railroads would soon be more affordable, durable, and accessible than plank roads. The need for constant maintenance and the looming threat of railroads did not entice a stream of investors, and plank road companies quickly ran out of capital. Once a railroad connection between Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Three Rivers was established in the 1870s, the dilapidated plank roads were virtually abandoned. By the 1920s the automobile had revived the routes established by plank roads, with the Grand Rapids route becoming Douglas Avenue (north of Kalamazoo it was known as U.S. 131) and the Three Rivers route becoming Portage Road.
Cooper Township resident Lucien H. Stoddard recounted the state of local plank roads in a 1930 interview:
“That highway had been a great acquisition in its earlier days, both for villagers and farmers along its line, used largely in transportation of lumber, especially pine, and farm produce from as far north as Martin to Kalamazoo… There was quite a heavy stage traffic between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, and also an occasional “prairie schooner” loaded with a family and the household goods on the way to pioneer homes in the northern wilds. By the time of our arrival, the planks were wearing out under the heavy traffic, and the company, seeing the prospect of a railroad to Grand Rapids in the near future, and knowing it would end their days as a money-making concern, were very loath to put expense on the road for repairs.”
—Lucien H. Stoddard, 1930
Written by Matthew Schuld, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2009.