The Fortyniners

written by C.E. Carroll


[This essay was written ca. 1955 by one of the original members of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.]

Desplaines41849 was a significant year in many areas and for diverse reasons. Nationally, it marked the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill which touched off the great hegira that was more than national. Many young men from this area made the long journey to " El Dorado," taking, sometimes, six months for the distance we now fly in three hours. Some few of the local Argonauts did bring back modest fortunes, but others, after several years of hardship and danger, returned to their Lake County homes poorer than when they left.

Of a somewhat lesser import were the floods of that year, though Halsey's History [History of Lake County, Illinois by John Halsey, Philadelphia: R. S. Bates, 1912] says that Chicago suffered greatly from the flooded river which rose out of its banks and tore out bridges and docks and smashed boats. The city streets were, at that time, all sloped toward the river for drainage and were planked. The flood washed away the planks and made gullies of the streets. Thereafter, the streets were raised and a gutter, for drainage, was made down the middle.

Flood damage extended to many parts of the middle west and in our own area it was severe. The few bridges which then existed on the Des Plaines and Fox Rivers were washed out.

Lake County's first toll road was built in 1849 when a company was formed to plank Belvidere Road from Waukegan to McHenry. The roads of that era were not built up with gravel as they are today but were composed of the same loam and clay soil as the fields they traversed. Some were mere wagon tracks but others, more pretentious, had a ditch plowed along each side and the soil therefrom was scraped to a crown in the middle which did help the road to shed some water, but after the spring thaws and rains this soft and absorbent soil would become a river of mud, and travel was well nigh impossible.

Waukegan had been the county seat since 1841 and this fact together with its growing commerce as a lake port brought much traffic to its door from the interior. Several long piers extending into the lake made it possible for schooners to bring in Michigan lumber and to load Lake County wheat for Eastern ports, but the lack of hard roads between the lake and the rich farm lands to the west was a serious detriment to trade. This problem was encountered in many other places and one of the remedies tried was that of "planking" the roads.

Plank roads were new in the United States but had been tried some years earlier in Russia (we shall have to concede them a "first" on that one) and were introduced into Canada in 1839 by Governor General Sydenham. The first plank road in the U.S. was built in New York State in 1846. The first in Illinois was that from Chicago to Riverside in 1848 and planks were laid on some of Chicago's streets. Our Lake County plank road in 1849 followed and in that year planks were laid from Waukegan to Hainesville, a distance of about fifteen miles.

The usual construction of such a road was to first grade the roadbed flat and then to lay a "stringer" or sill beam along each side, the space between being a little less than eight feet. Hard wood planks, three inches thick and eight feet long, were laid across the road with their ends resting on the stringers. The planks were not nailed down but were kept in place by their own weight.

It was the custom to permit private corporations to improve public roads in this manner and to collect toll from the users in accordance with a schedule set up by the county or state for a given stretch of road. The ten mile road from Chicago to Riverside had cost $16,000.00 to build. The law permitted the builders to charge 37½ cents for a four horse team and wagon, 25 cents for a two horse team, 12½ cents for a horse and rider. These were the tariffs for the entire 10 miles and there were lesser rates for short trips. This road was quite popular at first and the gross receipts for the first month of its operation was $1,500.00.

Milwaukee Avenue was planked at the Chicago end for eight miles in 1849, and the law allowed a toll collection of 2½ cents per mile. By 1851 this planking was extended three miles beyond Dutchman's Point (present Touhy Avenue).

The incorporators of the Belvidere Plank Road Company were John Gage, who lived near the present intersection of Rtes 120 and 45, and John H. Tyrell and Elmsley Sunderlin of Waukegan. They sold stock in the project to many of the farmers along the route and established toll gates or pay stations at Waukegan city limits, Gage's Corners, and at Hainesville.

There was a vast amount of hard wood timber in the County at that time, mostly on the eastern side of the Des Plaines, in some places extending all the way to Lake Michigan. John Gage now proposed to set up a sawmill along the road east of the river, to saw planks from the oak timber of the vicinity, and in this he was joined by Alva Trowbridge, and thereby hangs another tale.

Alva Trowbridge was one of Lake County's three commissioners. We did not have supervisors then; we had three county commissioners elected from the county at large. The county had voted to purchase a County Farm on which to care for the poor, those who, for any reason, were unable to maintain themselves were to be sent there and cared for at County expense. The Commissioners were authorized to buy such a farm. Commissioner Trowbridge offered his 190 acres of good land adjoining the village of Libertyville, with a good house and other farm buildings and some items of personal pro­perty included, all for $2,025.00, which sounds like a real bargain. It seems he wanted to quit farming to go into the sawmill business with John Gage, but because the Commissioners had bought this land from one of their own number there was a hue and cry raised by some of the eagle-eyed constituents that there was something "fishy" about the deal, and there was clamor to have the farm sold. This was eventually done, all but forty acres and the buildings, but the County at a later date bought it back at a higher price.

At a referendum held in November 1849 the people of Lake County, by a vote of 1,692 to 3, adopted Township government. Colonel J. Moulton, Michael Dulanty, and Elijah M. Haines were appointed as Commissioners to divide the County into regular Congressional Townships, six miles square. This they did with one exception: fractional Township 46, range 9, was considered to be mostly lakes and swamps and thus practically worthless, so it was added to the Township on its east side ( Antioch). We think quite highly of that area today.

The Plank Road Company was not a financial success. While the planks were new they made a solid, fairly smooth road but they were of unseasoned lumber and they warped and twisted until it was dangerous to drive on them. The constant replacements and repairs ate up the profits, and the toll plank road was finally abandoned. The farmers drove through mud again until, in 1882, after a winter of unprecedented severity, the spring thaw and rains made the roads seem almost bottomless, and some forgotten genius suggested building the roads up with gravel. This was done, at first in Libertyville and Vernon, where the gravel was most accessible in the vast beds along the river and which had not been appreciated up to that time, but eventually in all of Lake County's towns.

It took a long time and a lot of gravel but Lake County, in later years, was noted for its fine roads.


Postcard images provided by the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.