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Wisconsin’s Rudimentary Roads: Part I

Paving the way for the frontier

Aug. 18, 2010
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As the adage goes, there are two seasons in Wisconsin: winter and road construction. The noise, delays and labyrinthine detours can be inconvenient, but our road hassles are nothing compared to what our ancestors had to deal with back in the day.

The region’s American Indians relied on lakes, rivers and streams for transportation, coupled with overland routes that often followed earlier trails created by deer and other game. The thin trails typically transversed moderate grades, meandered around steep hills and obstructions, and offered advantageous views of surrounding areas in order to spot enemies. They often paralleled waterways, which provided drinking water and a means of escape if necessary.

Early European and Canadian explorers, fur traders and missionaries made frequent use of the natives’ extensive network of trails, and when settlers began arriving during the first decades of the 19th century, they widened many of the trails to accommodate their ox carts and wagons.

In 1835 the federal government issued an official order to develop a system of military roads to transport supplies and communication between forts that had been established for frontier defense.

According to a cooperative project developed by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation:

“Specifications called for the road to be 30 feet wide, with all trees less than 12inches wide to be cut to within 6 inches of the ground and those over 12inches wide to be cut to within 1 foot of the ground. These stumps were left in the ground to rot, rather than removed from the right-of-way, and posed a hazard to anyone on the road who might collide with them and tip their wagon. Bridges were to be constructed across substantial streams, and smaller streams would be filled in with heavy logs and topped with a handrail. Causeways constructed of poles and brush bundles (corduroy) were laid across the road in marshy and wet areas and then covered with dirt from the side ditches that had been dug.”

These early military roads were incredibly hazardous to travel on, not to mention uncomfortable. They were subject to frequent flooding, making them impassable in bad weather. Accidents were common because horses often were spooked and couldn’t be controlled, and with no lighting, travel during darkness wasn’t undertaken unless it was an absolute emergency.

If the Western frontier was going to be settled, something had to be done to improve transportation, so the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature authorized the creation of more than 240 territorial roads between 1836 and 1848.

To be continued with Wisconsin’s Rudimentary Roads: Part II


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