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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Plank Road Fever in Antebellum America: New York State Origins


The story of how the Empire State ignited the transportation revolution has been told many times. The construction of the Erie Canal (completed in 1825 and still the subject of books and articles) propelled New York City and the rest of the state to economic supremacy, prompting commercial rivals such as Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore to reach westward with projects of their own. Within decades a network of canals and railroads connected the Trans-Appalachian West to the large seaport cities. Not so well known -- and certainly not so glorious -- was New York's role in promoting the plank road boom. From their New York beginnings in 1846, plank roads rapidly spread to all sections of the country. Hundreds of communities and a number of state legislatures and thousands of private citizens were caught up in the mania, which, in the manner of manias, lasted little more than a decade before it waned.

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