© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Burlington Plank Road

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No sooner did Iowa become a full-fledged state in 1846 than Iowans began to dream big dreams. None was grander, more difficult, more extensive, more necessary than the Burlington Plank Road across the state to Mount Pleasant.

Even before the Black Hawk War of 1832, Iowa settlements had sprung up along the Mississippi River, but by 1846, the prairie itself had been settled by rural communities. Especially between Burlington on the river and Mount Pleasant to the west, there was a desperate need for a dependable, all weather road to serve a string of communities. A dependable road could make a handsome profit charging tolls.

Hence the formation, in the winter of 1848, of the Burlington and Mount Pleasant Plank Road Company. Prominent Iowa citizens invested heavily.

The company could have used logs to make a cheap corduroy road, but that was not good enough for Iowans. “This is a progressive age,” said one of the investors. “We are born in a hurry, educated in a hurry, live in a hurry.” Nothing would do but a fast, smooth plank road.

The plank road was a major undertaking. The road was built on a bed thirty feet wide and two feet high. On this bed, sawed white oak stringers four by six inches were laid down six feet apart. Then, three by six inch by eight-foot-long planks were laid across the stringers. It was a time consuming, hard job, but it was finished in the winter of 1851. Taverns, hotels and toll booths—an average of one every four miles—sprang up along the road, and everything seemed ready to propel Iowa into the future and make the investors wealthy.

Did I forget to mention that the Burlington Plank Road was a visionary project? No, I didn’t forget. Its heyday was the spring of 1852. By fall, farmers had begun cutting around the toll booths; the supply of immigrants coming to Iowa had dried up; a fierce winter played havoc with the wooden planks until parts of the road became impassable.

And there was something else the promoters had dismissed as a toy. Burlington’s visionaries had already formed their own company, the Burlington and Missouri Railroad Company, with plans to go all the way across Iowa to the Missouri River. Fortunately, a nice route had already been laid out for them by the plank road.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.