Sturdy plank road serves area until trains arrive

Local laborers built the original Stage Road in Bartlett, a toll road made of fine oak planks for wagon wheels and a soft center earth path for the horses.
Local laborers built the original Stage Road in Bartlett, a toll road made of fine oak planks for wagon wheels and a soft center earth path for the horses.

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WEEditor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Even before Bartlett was incorporated, the town’s magnates focused on commerce and development.

Bartlett began as a community — families owning plots of land along the countryside. These ranged from large plantations to smaller farms — all profiting from their closeness to Memphis’s major trade route. A road was built for stagecoaches in 1829 that led from Nashville and served as a major resting station for coachmen and horses alike. As the Mid-South grew economically, it became clear that the road was not equipped for its demands. A new project would have to be undertaken, and the leaders of the Memphis and Bartlett communities worked to get it started. They banded together under an official charter, dubbed the Memphis Somerville Turnpike Co. by the state of Tennessee. Its mission was simple — build a road from Memphis to Somerville. Carrying out this mission was the hard part.

The concept for the turnpike was that of a plank road — so called for the style in which it was built. Planks would be laid for wheels to run upon with an open strip of soft ground in the middle of the roadway for the horses. Even so, horses were often unable to make it farther than the five-mile trek from stop to stop along the road, so the route had to be designed with multiple stops.

The company faced realities and revised its charter multiple times over the 10-year term. John Pope stepped up as the first president of the charter in 1946, and road work began four years later.

It was a fine April dayin 1850 when construction began. The workmen were granted use of Old Stage Road to transport lumber and equipment. Though the work crews may have temporarily inconvenienced local traffic, the project was certainly a boon to the economy of the Bartlett area. The construction of this massive plank road also served as valuable business for local laborers.

Because the surface would have to withstand the beatings of heavy stagecoach and wagon traffic, the new road called for fine oak. A local planter, Col. John Black-well, contracted resident lumber merchants and workers, who received pay and reaped the benefits of the road.

As seen in an 1851 Memphis newspaper, “John Trigg of LaGrange has sent a wagon to Memphis drawn by six horses and containing 15 bales of cotton. But for the facilities provided by the new plank road, at least two trips would have been required to bring such a load to market. Our planters and merchants alike should reflect on the practical and economic advantages of good roads.”

The route was designed to have tolling stations five miles apart. These stations included Springdale at Jackson, Raleigh cemetery, Bartlett and Eads, and the stations would allow drivers to exchange their horses at the gates and cross for a fee.

The Bartlett tollgate was on modern-day Stage Road where the railroad now intersects. By 1853, the road was complete enough to begin charging this toll.

Business was booming, or it seemed so until the railroad came to town.

The Memphis Ohio Railroad became a lifeline for “Union Depot,” as Bartlett was called at the time. It rapidly increased the amount of traffic through the area but killed the efficiency of the toll road. People no longer had a reason to pay the tolls when they could take the train. Only one year after its full completion, the tolls were removed, and Stage Road became free to use for the public.

Some of the old roads of that time, though not physically preserved, are still roughly followed today. Old Stage became U.S. 64, and parts of the plank road route are still used publicly.

The author, Emma Brick-Hezeau, is a Bartlett High School student. In addition to Gotten House files, her source materials included the 1989 book, Fayette County, written by Dorothy Rich Morton and edited by Charles Wann Crawford.