Michelle Isenhoff

Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo Plank Road

In 1862, when Blood of Pioneers takes place, most of Michigan’s commercial centers were located along Lake Huron—within easy reach of Detroit by boat—or along the rail corridor that ran between Detroit and Chicago. Grand Rapids, you’ll note, was not close to either.

The settlement began as a trading post and blacksmith shop on the banks of the Grand River in 1826 near a village of Ottawa Indians. Thanks to growth caused mostly by gypsum and lumber, it incorprated as a city in 1850.

Kalamazoo Gazette spoke of Grand Rapids and its inexcessibility in 1851: “Everyone knows that there is a flourishing city fifty miles north of Kalamazoo, boasting massive blocks of brick and stone, three and four stories high, splendid churches, lumber trade, salt works, steamboats, and its wealthy, enterprising and shrewd business men. This city is locally isolated from the business part of the state by the horrible roads intervening between it and the Central and Southern Railroads. Everyone knows that a plank road would not only obviate the difficulties of this “middle passage” of mud and mire, but pay to the stockholders from 20-30 percent on their investments when the long train of loaded teams shall daily pass its toll gates.”

The Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo Plank Road, courtesy of the Allegan County Historical Society.

That plank road had become a reality by the time Blood of Pioneers takes place. Wayland, in which the book is set (and my own hometown), nestles right between the two cities, about 20 miles south of Grand Rapids and 30 miles north of Kalamazoo. In 1854, the plank road passed right up its main street.

Fashioned of 16’x3″ planks, many of which were sawn in Wayland’s local mill on the Rabbit River, the new road brought rapid growth. A toll booth was erected on the southwest of Wayland’s four corners, and passerbys were charged 2 cents per mile for a double team and 1 cent per mile for a single team. Seven stages visited Wayland each day—real Concord coaches, not the square-boxed, canvas-topped “mud wagons” that once provided arduous passage between cities. The increased traffic prompted town founder Nelson Chambers to built the Wayland House, the town’s first hotel, where travelers could procure a room or a meal. (Incidentally, the town was called Chamber’s Corners, and briefly Lomax City, before being incorporated as the village of Wayland in 1868, though I chose to call it by its modern name in my book.) 

The plank road made a dramatic improvement over the old mud tracks, but it came with its own travails. If a wagon’s wheel would accidentally drive off the road, the entire load would often topple. And very quickly, planks began to rot, warp, and splinter, making for rough rides and requiring a good deal of maintenence. The expectation that a railroad line would soon be run between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, however, meant investors were loath to continue forking out money for the plank road. Without capital, repairs all but ceased. Toll collection left off in 1862. 

Alas, the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo Plank Road would only service West Michigan for 16 years. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad did open between Kalamazoon and Grand Rapids in 1870, passing through the same villages as the plank road. Overnight, traffic dropped off and the wooden planks became obsolete. The dilapidated road was abandoned.

In a sense, however, the old plank road is with us still. The advent of the automobile resurrected the road bed. Old US 131 (Division) follows the same route, meandering between communities exactly as it did 150 years ago.

“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, Cooper Township resident, taken from a 1930 interview

Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo Plank Road

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