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History is ever unfolding.
Driving east on U.S. Route 140 toward Bluff City this past Wednesday, I was surprised and thrilled to see logs piled up near the bridge construction site along that road.
The squared logs were reminiscent of the hewn logs that had formed the plank road across what was known as the Okaw Bottoms more than 150 years ago. The logs, harvested from the virgin forest and squared with a woodcutter’s ax, were laid crosswise over the road with planks over the top to fit the wagon wheels.
Several years ago in the eastern part of the state, logs were unearthed during a construction project. Recognized by a nearby landowner for what they were, the logs were preserved and placed in museums along the National Road – including Vandalia’s National Road Interpretive Center.
The National Road, known as the "world’s longest straight road," was conceived in the mind of President George Washington, who thought a great national road to the West would provide political solidarity to the American people.
Although Vandalia was the western terminus of the National Road, plans were made for it to continue west, and the survey was completed to Jefferson City, Mo. The advent of the railroad put a stop to further construction of the road beyond Vandalia, however.
Further appropriations for the construction of the highway on into the West were vetoed in 1844 by President Martin VanBuren.
The federal government finally turned the National Road over to the states through which it passed, and there were arguments about this, too. Illinois did not want the care and cost of maintaining the road, so turned it over to the counties through which it passed.
In 1851, the state legislature granted a charter to the Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co. to operate the road “from the city of Vandalia to Bluff City…together with the bridges thereon built.” A number of citizens bought stock in the company, and a toll road was established across the river bottoms east of the city.
Reminiscences of George D. Steinhauer, who owned stock in the Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co., told in a Vandalia Union article that “it was a fairly good road, except when floods swept down through the bottoms.
“Then, the planks went floating merrily away to be collected from the timber south of the road when the floods went down.”
In the article, George told that two shares in the Plank Road Co. entitled a man to use the road free, otherwise the charge was 10 cents for a team and five cents for a horse or single rig.
“Then, the desire to make a good thing out of the road struck some of the stockholders, and they decided to make everyone pay the toll, and then pay a dividend at the end of the year.
“As soon as that plan was announced, the shareholders began selling their stock, and in a short time there remained but four men holding stock, D.M. Clark, Wilson Campbell, Charles Humpeler and myself.
“Clark bought up most of the stock, and put a toll gate at the west end of the bridge over the river.”
Steinhauer said that he had only the two shares with which he started, and felt that he was entitled to use the road without paying.
One day, he sent his man with a team to go to his farm east of the river. A heavy chain was stretched across the road at the toll gate, and the toll keeper would not let the team through. The driver reported this to Steinhauer, who seized an ax and returned to the bridge, chopping down one of the poles to which the chain was attached, so that his team could proceed.
This procedure was repeated one more time, and then a lawsuit was filed to force Clark to allow traffic to go through free of charge. The outcome of the matter was that the Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co. became extinct, and the road became a free road.
The deed showing this action was filed in Fayette County (Deed Book 87, page 521) and stated, “by virtue of a charter and franchise granted to said Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co. by the legislature of the State of Illinois in the year 1851 and the amendments thereto are hereby surrendered abandoned and rendered negatory.”
The plank road is an interesting part of Fayette County’s ever-unfolding history, and it is interesting to see an example of what the road could have looked like in bygone days.