Journal of Proceedings, Senate of Wisconsin, 1917(2):60-61 (1848)


Your committee thought they would not be transcending the range of inquiry with which they were charged, by embracing within their researches facts and estimates with regard to the construction of charcoal roads.—This mode of improving public thoroughfares has, within a very few years past, attracted much attention in the newly settled districts of the northern portion of the United States, and the neighboring provinces pertaining to the crown of England. Charcoal roads appear to be well adapted to a heavily timbered country, and more especially to low, wet, and swampy regions. The facility of constructing them, as well as the economy and expedition with which the whole work can be accomplished, are considerations which have impressed many practical as well as scientific men with the belief, that they are preferable, in such localities, to every other kind of improvement. All experiments that have yet been made in charcoal roads, are said to have fully equalled the anticipations of their most enthusiastic advocates. They certainly possess one very obvious advantage in a thickly wooded region—that is, the simplicity of their structure, requiring neither the science of an engineer nor the skill of a mechanic to build them: Any good wood-chopper could make about as rapid progress in laying down a charcoal road, as the most experienced turnpike-maker.


The method first adopted was, to char the wood in "pits," after the fashion of preparing coal for furnaces and for smithing, and then to spread it on the roadway to a sufficient depth. Further experience, however, very soon suggested a greatly improved method of laying down this kind of road, which we find thus described in Professor Gillespie’s "Manual on Road Making":

"Timber from 9 to 18 inches through is cut 24 feet long, and piled up lengthwise in the center of the road about 5 feet high, being about nine feet wide at the bottom and two at the top, and then covered with straw and earth in the manner of coal pits: The earth required to cover the pile, taken from each side, leaves two good sized ditches; in this position, the timber, though not split, is easily charred—and, when charred, the earth is removed to the side of the ditches, the coal raked down to a width of 15 feet, leaving it two feet thick at the center and one at the sides—and the road is completed."

About 70 rods of a charcoal road was thus made in the Cotton Wood Swamp in the town of Blissfield. Lenawee county, Michigan, and completed in 1845, which cost at the rate of only $600 per mile: It is represented as being very compact and solid, and free from mud and dust."

In connection with this last named fact, however, a member of your committee must remark, that or a short piece of charcoal road at the south, over a "slough," (or mud-hole) he found the coal-dust very annoying in dry hot weather, smutting the garments and complexions of all who might happen to "kick up a dust" in passing over the road.

Mr. Whittlesey, and Mr. Newton, (quoted in the patent office report,) who passed over this coal road in Michigan immediately after a rain, remark, that

"At each end of the different sections of the coal road, the mud on the causeway was felloe-deep where there was that depth of earth, and nearly or quite half axle-tree deep where the logs of the causeway were broken; when, on the coal-road, there was neither water or mud; and the impress of the feet of a horse passing rapidly over it, was like that on hard washed sand, as the surf recedes, on the shore of the lake. The water is not drained from the ditches, and yet there are no ruts or inequalities in the surface of the coal road, except what is produced by more compact packing on the line of travel."

In the timbered regions on the lake border, where the roads are really perilous during wet seasons and at the breaking up of the foundations of the frost in the spring. (more especially between Racine and Milwaukee, and from the latter city on most of the routes northwardly and westwardly towards the interior) charcoal roads certainly recommend themselves to the serious consideration of the friends of road improvements, and to all public spirited and philanthropic citizens.

Respectfully submitted,
One of the committee.