Follow the Plank Road

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My foray into the history of the City of Milwaukee is inherently a consequence of my interest in the City’s architectural fabric. Without context, a building is largely a misunderstood collaboration of bricks and mortar however pleasing its aesthetics may be. However, aside from the general context of a building, the history of the city—the events, people, politics, movements, infrastructure—these are the things that explain why the city looks the way that it does. These tidbits of information explain the lay of the land from unique, neighborhood specific architecture to the anomalies of abruptly ending streets and driveways that lead to grassy lots. The explanation of how the current image of the city came to be is one of the more fascinating aspects of historical research, like urban archeology, without the tedious brushing and labeling.

As such, my interest for Milwaukee’s collection of plank roads was sparked by my discovery of the A.F. Heuer & Sons Grocery building along Fond du Lac Avenue, a wonderful structure constructed along the thoroughfare in 1892. The former grocery struck me with an element of surprise, perhaps a product of its vibrant color scheme. However, much of Fond du Lac Avenue’s older buildings have disappeared and the original context of the avenue is largely skewed; the avenue is an interesting array of new construction and vacant grassy lots separating the scattered remnants of the thoroughfare before urban renewal and interstate construction. Nonetheless, a number of intriguing buildings remain hinting to Fond du Lac Avenue’s former hey day and origin as an old plank road and later a state highway.

Plank roads developed in the states after their success had been touted in numerous European cities. The early ancestor of Wisconsin’s highways, plank roads were thought to be a cost effective and efficient means to reach the outlying countryside and other burgeoning cities throughout the state. According to the pioneer history of James Buck, there was a so-called “plank road craze” that swept through Milwaukee between 1849 and 1851 preceding the subsequent railroad boom that would sweep through the state in the following decade.

In late 1849, The Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette claimed that no improvement was needed in the city of Milwaukee as a plank road connecting to Fond du Lac for its inherent advantages to trade and travel for the businessmen of Milwaukee. The Milwaukee and Fond du Lac Plank Road organized in the 1850’s.  Maps from the 1850s show the Fond du Lac Road originating at Walnut Street between 12th and 13th Streets at what is now referred to as 12th Lane. Presently, the freeway spur passes Fond du Lac Avenue over its former terminus connecting to the thoroughfare to the Fond du Lac-McKinley I-43 interchange.

Unfortunately, plank roads proved to be a short-lived craze as the wood planks began to show imperative need for repair or replacement giving way to rot and decay after only a few years. The early state legislature, which chartered these highways, mandated that these roads be funded by private interests; consequently, these companies often abandoned their plank road rather than grapple with the pending need for reconstruction. Despite the Fond du Lac road’s anticipated value, it was listed in an equity sale as early as 1855 amidst the railroad boom occurring throughout Milwaukee and Wisconsin. In 1869, the state legislature directed city and town supervisors to declare deteriorating and abandoned toll roads to be made public highways though it would not be until the 1890s that Wisconsin’s interests returned to improving the early highway system.

Though plank roads fell out of favor as the primary means to reach Milwaukee’s hinterland, they continued to grow as major arteries in the city particularly with the campaigns to improve roads and highways in the late nineteenth century leading up to the establishment of the State Trunk Highway System in 1917. Transecting the otherwise formulaic grid plan, streets such as Fond du Lac, Teutonia, Lisbon, Green Bay, and Forest Home offer views into the heart of neighborhoods and bustling five corner intersections in various locations through out the city.

The architectural development along many of these major arteries in the nineteenth century and continued growth in the early twentieth century is evidence of their importance to Milwaukee and to the neighboring cities through which they traveled. After the rail depots have been razed and the tracks removed, many of Milwaukee’s former plank roads remain as a testament to these times and their incorporation into county, state, and national highways in the 1920s.

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