Courtesy of Dunklin County Museum
Pole and Plank Roads
Imagine a pristine emerald swamp. Katydids and blue jays sing in the background as leaves rustle a melody in the humid August breeze. In the distance, there’s a dull thumping noise creating rhythm. The beat comes from mule hooves pulling a wagon, but the rhythm you hear is not mule hooves alone. Additional percussion is courtesy of wagon wheels on a corduroy road.
A “corduroy” road sounds odd today, but they were real and had a profound impact on the history of the Bootheel region of Missouri. Traveling through these swamps was not fun or easy. A wagonload of supplies would quickly dig into the mud and get stuck. A map of the 1821 Trail of Tears demonstrates how difficult travel was. One route forced the Cherokee tribe north from North Carolina, then west to Cape Girardeau, then down south, and west to Oklahoma. Those extra harsh miles on an already miserable trip were not for sightseeing; they were to avoid the swamps.
Corduroy roads, also known as pole roads, were a pioneer solution for horses, mules, wagons, and foot travelers through the swamp. They allowed for fewer trips because a heavier load was possible with less hassle and drier feet. Early pioneers cut poles from nearby forests to lay down in a neat row, like Venetian blinds unrolled, over the mushy path. The ride was bumpy as well as rhythmic. Early European settlers got around the lowlands in one of two ways: on a ridge or by boat. The lowland definition of a ridge requires some explaining to Ozark hill folk who are used to sixty- and seventy-foot elevated ridges. In “swampeast” Missouri, all you need is five to ten feet of higher ground to call it a ridge. And those few feet make a huge difference.
Otto Kochtitzky moved to New Madrid County in 1875 and was an engineer who eventually surveyed the southeast lowlands so a drainage plan could be drafted. Kochtitzky had a smidgen of historian mixed in with his surveying talents, and his family published his memoirs in 1957, The Story of a Busy Life. He indicated that, “Just prior to the Civil War two rough roads, crosslaid with poles and rails in the boggy places, had been built across the swamps. One of these roads, known locally as ‘The Pole Road,’ extended from the [Mississippi] river just about ten miles below New Madrid. … It led through the settled land along the dry, upbuilt bank of a bayou known as Portage Bay, to Little River.”
The lower areas of the Bootheel were wet up to 50 percent of the year or more. Those small five- to ten-foot ridges were beneficial because they flooded infrequently and provided easier travel. The only difficulty with running a ridge was crossing a slough, river, or swamp to get to the next ridge. Paul Corbin of Advance has seen a lot of changes and remembers the pole roads in Bollinger County during the early 1900s.
Corbin says that those corduroy roads were “not very long in most places, just long enough to get to the next ridge. No need to build a pole road on dry ground.”
Long time Stoddard County resident and World War II veteran Joe Brown also knows about these roads firsthand. He not only grew up with pole roads but spent time after the war interviewing original Missouri swamp dwellers about life before drainage. “If larger poles were used to make a corduroy road, then smaller poles were cut and placed in the dips created between each log to smooth the bumps,” he says, “… well, a little.”
Poles were four to eight inches in diameter and six feet long. They were often made of oak, catalpa, cypress, and ash, which provided better wear and longer life than soft woods, such as silver maple, box elder, and cottonwood. However, anything straight would do in a pinch. Although pole roads were an improvement to slogging through a muddy swamp, they weren’t perfect, and they created other hazards.
Rising floodwater made the road rise if the poles were fresh. Poles could wash off or simply stay wedged in place. If the wood had been in place awhile, it might become water-logged and get covered in mud when the waters receded. A flooded corduroy road would give a wobbly ride made with caution, but it was still better than a mired wagon. As if the bumpy ride wasn’t enough frustration, a pole would occasionally rotate when stepped on, causing a hazard to horses and mules and their riders and drivers.
Despite those hazards, pole roads were cheap and easy to build. Kochtitzky wrote that the first organized pole road was authorized by the Missouri legislature in 1855. The West Prairie road company began the work on a road from New Madrid to West Prairie (present-day Malden area). They cost about one-twelfth of what a railway would cost but were still pricey to make. Revenue had to be secured up front from pioneer investors who were as scarce as swamp dwellers in those days. The site had to be cleared and the road made with resources from the site. Pole roads were often built by entrepreneurs, who charged a toll. Road and town names naturally assumed the builder’s moniker. Even with a toll, such roads were lucrative for local loggers and farmers, who could carry larger loads without getting stuck. This also meant fewer trips, so paying a five- to ten-cent toll per wagon horse or even seventy-five cents per two-horse wagon was usually accepted without incident.
Not every pole road traveled a long route or had a toll. Joe recalls a number of corduroy roads that were “scattered all over the place.” Short, free pole roads dotted the lowlands, but some free pole roads, such as the one described by Kochtitzky, weren’t always desirable.
The road located between the Hickman, Kentucky, ferry across the Mississippi River and Crowley’s Ridge section of Stoddard County was “very poorly maintained at the time I came to New Madrid,” Kochtitzky wrote. But that assessment was not always true; some local landowners had a vested interest in maintaining portions of the roads to suit their needs.
Besides Stoddard County, corduroy roads were found in every county in southeast Missouri. The Dunklin County Museum has a 1900 photo of a train hauling logs on a line made not of hewn ties but poles. A sub-base can be seen that was made of larger logs to support the enormous weight. The days of the pole roads would sink forever into the mud as plank roads appeared.
The planks, also called slabs, were cut by local sawmills. The mill sawed out slabs, which made their material go further. Instead of using a log to make one pole, you could use the same tree for two to four slabs. These planks improved the ride as they eliminated the major bumps of the pole road. Plank roads were laid down in a similar fashion to pole roads, except that the racket generated had a gentler thump to it.
Plank roads had one drawback: The increased surface area allowed rot to set in faster, so replacement of the planks was more frequent. Instead of cutting new poles every five years, planks were replaced every two to three years. The plank roads that lasted the longest were the ones elevated above a slough or bayou. Builders made an elevated plank road, much like a boardwalk. Kochtitzky described elevated plank bridges as having a ten foot roadway in the middle of the swamp and bridges perhaps a quarter of a mile long.
In the 1910s, there was an elevated plank road near Cardwell in Dunklin County that crossed the St. Francis River to connect with Paragould, Arkansas, on its section of Crowley’s Ridge. Another went from Kennett, again across the St. Francis River, to Holly Island, Arkansas. In essence, when the water got too deep or fluctuated too much to permit a pole road, an elevated bridge or plank road was constructed if it was profitable.
Plank roads were not unique to the swamps. Residents and visitors of St. Francois and Ste. Genevieve counties will recognize local names like Plank Road Inn and Plank Road Restaurant, which identify with an Ozarks hill version of the plank road. Their purpose was not to overcome soggy basins but to smooth out rocky bumps. Pole and plank roads were also used in other wetlands states, such as Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Just like most of the swamps they crossed, these wooden roads went the way of the ivorybilled woodpecker into obscurity. The canal digging that drained the swamps and the eventual establishment of railroads made poles and planks unnecessary for travel.
Instead planks were used to make buildings, railroad beds, and specialty wood items. Through the 1910s and 1920s, canals made straight, non-meandering routes to the Mississippi River. By the 1960s, flooding was under control for the most part, and it eliminated the need for corduroy roads to cross over swampy spots.
Local names are still around, though, to intrigue the uninitiated and remind those in the know. Names, such as Old Pole Road in New Madrid County, The Slab Road south of East Prairie, and The Plank Road north and east of Dexter, hint to times seldom remembered. Four-mile Road, a section of present-day Route 62 from Clarkton to Arkansas’s portion of Crowley’s Ridge, was a pole road. The Bluff Road from Cape Girardeau to present day Scott City was a pole road. Poles and planks were a crucial part of the Spanish El Camino Royale, or Kingshighway, which would not have been very regal if a corduroy road had not been used to connect this highland trail from New Madrid to Cape Girardeau.
Until completing the eleventh grade in 1967, Sharon Henry of New Madrid County rode a school bus to and from school in each grade level. That bus route ran between Baderville (east of Risco on Route 62) and Lonestar (a small community near the Little River ditch). She recalls with a smile how a rainy period would make the dirt roadbed soft.
“You could feel that bumpity, bumpity, bumpity of the pole road sunk down beneath the mud. Only a good rain would make the dirt soft enough to let the tires sink down and touch the buried poles.” Sharon says. “I experienced those rhythmic bumps off and on through my years going to school.”
The poles and planks eventually gave way to advanced forms of transportation. But in their time, they underlaid the life and times of a unique part of the state. Imagine what it was like to travel with the rhythmic thumping of wagon wheels laying down a backbeat.
It was just one note from the symphony that played daily in the swamp.