Upper Washington Avenue in Rensselaer's North End was once a "Plank road". In the mid-1800's, the land was part of North Greenbush, an area "extensively engaged in supplying the markets of Troy and Albany with garden vegetables and milk.” An economy based on transporting perishable farm goods by wagon depended on good roads, but macadam surfaces were very expensive - a cheaper alternative was needed.
Then the “Plank Road Fever” swept across New York state. George Geddes introduced the plank road to the U.S. out near Syracuse, and the concept was widely published. Investors rushed to turn gravel turnpikes into wooden roads, and a speculative bubble led to formation of over 330 plank road corporations in NY, more than any other state.
In 1849, Rensselaer County's Eastern Turnpike became the “Albany and Sand Lake Plank Road”, and a thick wooden surface was laid on the 11 mile stretch between the ferry at Bath-on-the-Hudson and the glass factory village at Sand Lake (Averill Park). If you click to zoom in below, you can see the planks depicted with lines across the roadway in this 1854 L.C.G&M Land Ownership Map (NYS Library).
The plank road craze was short-lived. The planks had to be replaced every 3-5 years (not 8-12 years as promoted), and the toll revenue wasn't enough to fund such frequent repairs. By the 1880’s, our “Plank road” existed in name only, and its planks were gone. The toll gates still were manned in 1901, but were removed soon after, and the new city of Rensselaer was poised for residential expansion along this roadway.
Next: Anatomy of a Plank Road; Toll Gates and Shunpikes