Roads in early America were very poor, and here in the Adirondacks almost non-existing. Of those that were many had their beginnings from the military roads built during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Later as the early settlers that began homesteading near these military sites, or along the connecting roads built to service these fortifications, were fortunate in that they did not have to hew roads from the primitive forests. As the settlements grew and economic activity increased, especially with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, there was a need to improve these early rough cut-outs routes, and to build new ones, to accommodate the transportation of the abundant timber, ores from the Adirondack mines and agricultural produce from the hinterlands to the shores of Lake Champlain for water borne transportation to new markets outside the region.
Early in the 1800s turnpikes and plank roads were two of the road designs to accommodate the growing interest to speed up the access into the Adirondacks. Growth brought the need for regulation and by the late 1840s New York State enacted laws related to their construction and regulation.
Henry G. Burleigh
In 1930, a book was discovered by men cleaning out an old paint mill on the west shore of Lake Champlain at Whitehall, NY. This book was manufactured by “Hart and Jones” of Troy, NY. It was 20 x 14 inches with covers made of heavy pressed cardboard. The 889 pages, some unused, were made of rags and were snowy white in appearance. On these pages were recorded in ink, the minutes and operations of the Moriah Plank Road Company. The writing although in several different hands, was clear and legible, but of a somewhat old style. It is supposed that this book found its way to the mill from the old office of Henry G. Burleigh, industrialist of Whitehall who had a connection to the Moriah Plank Road Company.
From this old ledger we would like to share some of its contents that we feel will have many points of interest to our readers.
“We, the undersigned severally subscribe the several sums set opposite our respective names toward the stock for the construction of a plank road from the vicinity of the ore beds in the Town of Moriah to a point near the shore of Lake Champlain: George Sherman, $1,000; A.J. Rosseau, per J.B. Sherman, agent, $1,000.; John A. Lee, $1,000.; N.S. Storrs, $250.; S.M. and J.G. Witherbee, $100.; J.B. Spencer, $100.; Cyrenus Reed, $50.; D.E. Sanford, $50.; Willis E. Foster, $50.; Reuben Whallon, $100.; A.B. Waldo, and L.P. Cheney, $50. — Dated August 30, 1850.”
The first public notice toward the formation of the company was published September 5, and read: ” Plank Road Notice”. Books for the subscription to the capital stock of a Plank Road company to construct a plank road in the Town of Moriah, Essex County, extending from the Ore Beds (‘the ore bed” former name of Mineville) in said Town to some point at or near Lake Champlain in the vicinity of Port Henry, are now opened at the store of S.M. and J. G. Witherbee in Port Henry, and will continue open until the 24th day of September instant on which day, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, there will be a meeting of subscribers to choose directors for said company at the store of S.M. and J.G. Witherbee. — Signed: J.B. Spencer, committee.
On September 24, as advertised, the subscribers met and their first official act was to name Reuben Whallon, chairman and Silas W. Witherbee , secretary. A.B. Waldo suggested and later made a motion that the company be called the Moriah Plank Road Company. S.M. Witherbee moved that the company extend for 30 years from September 24, 1850. The motion was made by J.B. Spencer, that the capital stock of the company be $10,000., and that the company shall consist of 200 shares at $50, peer share. John A. Lee moved that there be five directors and the first directors elected were: Reuben Whallon, Nathaniel S. Storrs, George Sherman, Silas M. Witherbee and John A. Lee.
At this same meeting, it was voted that the road commence in the vicinity of the New Bed, so called, situated in the Town of Moriah and terminate at or near the Pine Tree in the highway near the residence of James Donohue in Port Henry. After this decision had been made, the next move was that the notice of application to the board of supervisors in Essex County for authority to lay out and construct this plank road and to take the real estate necessary for such purpose be published in the Westport Courier, Essex County Republican and the Ausable River Gazette.
The articles of association which were formulated on the 24th of September 1850, show that this action was taken three years after a law had been enacted by the State Legislature for the purpose of incorporating companies to construct plank roads and turnpike roads.
The sixth article of incorporation reads: The said plank road shall commence at some point in the Town of Moriah near the New Bed, so-called, owned by A.J. Rosseau, George Sherman and John A. Lee; thence by the most direct and eligible route to some point at or near the shore of Lake Champlain in said Town of Moriah at or near the Pine Tree in the highway, being a distance of not exceeding six miles near the residence of James Donohue.
At this time the directors, their residences and number of shares were: A.J. Spencer, Port Henry, 2 shares; A.J. Rosseau, Troy, 20 shares; N.S. Storrs, Moriah, 5 shares; S.M. and J. G. Witherbee, Port Henry, 5 shares, D.C. Sheperd, Port Henry, 2 shares; George Sherman, Moriah, 20 shares; Reuben Whallon, Port Henry, 3 shares; Artemus B. Waldo, Port Henry, 1 share; Lucien P. Cheney, Port Henry, 1 share; George Pickering, Moriah, 1 share.
The following officers were chosen at a meeting on 26 October: George Sherman, president; John A. Lee, treasurer and Reuben Whallon, secretary. It was also voted to establish the office of the company in the store of Reuben Whallon in Port Henry.
After the directors had asked and received permission from the board of supervisors of Essex County, the board appointed W.S. Sherman, James A. Bosworth and I.A. Hasbrouk to serve as commissioners for the purpose of laying out the plank road. On December 3, 1850 these men appeared before Justice of the Peace, Philander Butler and subscribed to the Constitution of the United States and the State of New York.
Apparently the first duties of the commissioners came on December 4, 1850 when they chose the route of the plank road. In their own language the following is what they did: “The undersigned, appointed by the order of the Board of Supervisors of the County of Essex at the last meeting thereof as commissioners for the purpose of laying out the route for the road to be built by the Moriah Plank Road Company, do hereby certify that in pursuance of the Stature we met together for that purpose and after having taken the oath of office prescribed by the constitution and having examined the different routes proposed for said purpose and no person having appeared to us to be heard to the contrary have appointed and determined upon the following route as the route for the road to be built by said Moriah Plank Road Company, and as one which, in our opinion, will best promote the public interest commencing at a stake and stones some four rods east of the pit now worked by George Pickering for Sherman, Rosseau and Lee, called the New Ore Bed, established by the undersigned today, the same being in the Town of Moriah, Essex county, running thence south 42 degrees, east 12 rods, thence south 60 degrees, east 12 rods, thence south 73 degrees, east 10 rods to a hemlock tree marked, thence south 59 degrees, east 20 rods to a stake, thence south 75 degrees east 48 rods to a stake, thence south 81 degrees, west 55 rods to near the corner of lots numbered 21 and 23, Iron Ore Tract, and to the highway running from the Sanford Ore Bed easterly from thence along the said highway and in the same and on the line of said lots easterly to the center of the highway leading from Moriah Four Corners to Elizabethtown, one hundred and forty-four rods, from thence south in the center of the last mentioned highway as the road runs southerly towards Moriah Corners nine hundred and sixty-four rods to the center of the of the last mentioned highway as it runs from Moriah Corners to Port Henry seven hundred and thirty-one rods and seven lines to a Pine tree standing in and near the center of said highway in Port Henry and near the residence of James (Donald) in Port Henry aforesaid; we also further determine that road shall be four rods wide and that the line of the survey above described shall be the center of said road to be built by said company. The above is an a accurate survey and description of the land necessary to be taken by said Moriah Plank Road Company for the construction of such road and necessary buildings and gates ……. signed: 4th day of December, A.D., 1850, W.S. Merriam, I. a. Hasbrouck, Jas. A. Bosworth.”
Having laid out the route, the next move was on the part of the property owners adjoining the prosed highway, who on 20 November 1850, by their own act and without any apparent dissatisfaction, agreed to the taking of their lands or as much of them as needed for the construction of the plank road. Those lands affected and those who signed the agreement were: George Sherman, J.H. Haven, Reuben Whallon, H.S. Whelock, B.D. Foster, Robert Donnel, Joseph Douglass, H.N. Storrs, Riley Sherman, Fordis Deen, Jacob Tappen, O.T. Richmond, C.C. Allen, Hiram Foster, Jeremiah Cook, Milton Reed, Daniel Tarbell, C.W. Ensign, Calvin Fisher, Ester Ensign, Willis E. Foster, Elias Smith, James Beck, Levi Reed, Sr., Edwin Reed, Levi Reed, Dudley Everest, Cyrenus Ransom, James M. Sprague, D.C. Shepard, Appleton Rice, G.S. Everest, J.P. Butler, John A. Lee, Frederick Summer, Thomas N. Smith, Essa C. Smith, Jared Bishop, B.W. Duey, Charles Miller, N.S. Storrs, Amos Davis, Thomas Tobin, Ami Howe, Albert Witherill, George Pickering, A.J. Brewster, Susan Miller, Mary O’Brien, C.S. Rich, George B. Pease, J.C. Douglass, S.S. Willard and L.P. Cheney.
A meeting of the board of directors followed at which time by-laws were drawn up and adopted and the president and secretary were empowered and authorized to contract for 1,000,000 feet, board measure, 3 inch hemlock plank 8 feet long or 16 feet long, and hemlock stringer 3 x 6 not less than 13 feet long or for all the lumber necessary to build the road, to pay for the same, not to exceed $6.50 per thousand feet board measure, delivered on the line of the road as the board shall direct. (“Most of the planks used for the road were sawed at Sprague’s Mills in North Hudson, and it is a good guess that Bostwick Baldwin was the purveyor of millions of feet of “plank road plank” to the Witherbee and Sherman Company ” – History of Port Henry)
Also in April a meeting was held to make arrangements for the payment of stock and the method by which it could be paid, and the secretary was to notify all subscribers of this action. Three months later another meeting was called, appartently for one purpose, to find a way to collect the amount due on some stock.
Toll House – French Mt.
The record did not show that any construction was yet done, but on July 8, a motion was voted: “That we locate a gate near and west of Hiram McKnzie’s home, and the secretary notify the three plank road inspectors to be here (Moriah) on next Tuesday to inspect our road.” This would indicate that work had been progressing, in fact sometime during this period 3 miles had been completed for on the 12th of July, 1851, the inspectors, John C. Hammond, and I.A. Hasbrouck reported to the board of supervisors of Essex county — that 3 miles inspected had been built according to law.
The receipts received were applied on the debts of the company. A vote was made to charge the highest rate of toll allowed by law, however that rate was not identified.
February 1852 the directors met and a discussion about salaries for the company’s officials came up. It was then voted to pay the president $2.00 for his year’s work. Followed by a motion to pay the treasurer a similar sum – defeated. The secretary was most successful with an approved $7.50 for his service. It was stipulated that the president and secretary would be paid after all the debts of the company had been liquidated. At this same meeting it was stipulated that the president and treasurer were granted free use of the tool gate, going to or returning from meetings of the company.
Another interesting fact was in the connection to bonding the treasurer and the two men who bonded him, personal seals were used. Following the signature of John A. Lee, treasurer, on November 10, 1853 is found his personal seal which was about the size of a quarter. On it appears the English crown and the inscription “Imper 1786 Chrs. Regn.” Opposite the signature of George Sherman is his seal bearing a woman’s head with “Vitoria Dei Gratis 1844.” The seal opposite the signature of O.R. Richmond shows the figure of a man sitting on a large rock and holding a staff in his left hand with this inscription “Ionnes Baptista 1824.”
January 1854 finds the company still in trouble trying to collect the amounts due on subscriptions. The following is a letter dated 30 January 1854: “The directors of the Moriah Plank Road company passed a resolution at their last meeting requiring the payment by you ( a director) of the amount of your subscription to the stock of said company, which now remains unpaid, within ten days after service of this notice on you, you having failed to pay the same in accordance with a previous call of the directors of which you have had notice. The amount now unpaid is $62.50 and interest from the first day of August 1851, which the directors require to be paid within aforesaid them at the office of the company at Moriah 4 corners under penalty of forfeiture of what you have already paid, in case the directors so elect.”
If the toll rate on the plank road was high or not is not stated in the records, but it is presumed that because of the fee, trails were being used, again, and at the meeting of directors on June 1859, the fee of 35 cents was reduced to 31 cents for a single wagon team. Evidently the company found that the road was not used enough and tolls were driving some (people) to use trails again. This brought on the decision of April 29, 1864 to abandon one of the two toll gates and to continue to maintain that one near Hiram McKenzie’s residence.
It also appears that men were not overpaid in those days as it was voted at the April 19, 1864 meeting to engage James Burke to keep the road in repair, furnishing all material and tools from May 1 to November 30 for the sum of $600.
At a meeting held January 15, 1873, Mr. Henry G. Burleigh was elected a director, the other four being William E. Calkins, James Morrison, Thomas Coleman and Henry O. Lewis. This is the first mention of Mr. Burleigh of Whitehall where the record book was found.
On January 16, 1875, the last minutes of the Moriah Plank Road Company appear, and what happened after this meeting does not show in the book.
During 1857, a branch was added to the original Moriah Plank Road while in 1864 and 1875, 3 sections were abandoned and surrendered.
Selected photo credits – “History of Port Henry, NY – 1931”
Historical note — The Hancock House Library collection was used by Dr. Warner and C. Eleanor Hall in preparation for the 1931 publication: “The History of Port Henry, NY.
Edited from a published article in THS’s “Patches and Patterns – Extended. Vol, No 2, April 1990
Timber raft on Lake Champlain 1831
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1/24/16 – wgd