History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.


     Building a road involved simple technology and heavy labor. The first task, to clear the road, was usually the most difficult. Stumps, boulders, brush and trees had to be cleared. Usually, this was done entirely by hand or with the help of horses. It was not until the construction of the Erie Canal that an ingenious workman invented a stump-puller; using this device, seven men and a team of horses could pull forty stumps in a day. Considering the density of forest through which many roads ran, even this was slow progress indeed.

     Once debris was cleared, leveling began. This was the distinguishing mark of an improved road, separating it from paths for foot travel or animal migration. Using hand-held rakes, hoes or sometimes horse-drawn scrapers, farmers and rural laborers supervised by township officials created a surface amenable to wagon and stage travel.

     The land also had to be surveyed by a professional to determine the most efficient route between two points. Distance, direction, and elevation all had to be measured. Distance, up through the early nineteenth century, was measured with an iron chain 66 feet long known as Gunter's Chain. Eighty chains equaled one mile; ten square chains equaled an acre. To calculate distance, Gunter's Chain was simply stretched between two points as many times as necessary. Direction was measured with a magnetic compass or a vernier, an instrument that measured horizontal angles; it allowed a surveyor to determine how much a sight line diverged from magnetic north- south. Most elevation measurement was done with a simple level, a flat device containing an glass cylinder of water with a small air bubble. Elevation changes changes were determined by attaching the level to a sight, placing a vertical measuring rod some distance away, and then reading through the sight the relative height of the second location. Changes in elevation were extremely important in roadbuilding; in the interest of efficient travel, it was followed that a wagon pulled by horses could only traverse a grade of five degrees (a vertical rise of 462 feet per mile).

     Cleared, flattened and graded, a road could be finished at this point. However, builders found that these sorts of roads eroded quickly. Drainage ditches were added to stay the erosion process and avoid wheel ruts, but a permanent road badly needed a top cover of stone. In 1799, an anonymous roadbuilder published "Directions for Making Roads" in the Philadelphia Magazine and Review. Here is his advice on laying stone:

     "The stones should be spread equally over the surface, and settled with a light sledge [hammer]; in this operation, such stones as are too large, must must either be broken or carried away; over this a layer of small stones, not larger than eggs, should be scattered, and settled with hammers between the interstices of the largest. Over this a small quantity of any hard clay, just sufficient to cover the stones, should be spread; if mixed with gravel it will be better...In a month or two [of traffic], the clay and gravel will be worn away, and the corners of the large stones will appear--men should now be employed to break the stone with hammers, weighing about two pounds and an half...After another months or six weeks, the road must be broken, with care, in the same manner; and, with proper intervals, it should be broken from time to time, as often as may be necessary-- four times is, in general, sufficient."

     Often the responsibility for building a road was passed from the state and federal government to private turnpike companies. Hence, the "turnpike" or toll road: once a company had bid for and built a road, it owned the rights of passage on it. Thus, toll roads were common throughout early America. The name turnpike refers to a large log ("pike") that crossed the roadway at a tollhouse. When the toll was properly paid, the pike would be lifted, or if mounted centrally, turned, to allow the passage of traffic.


     Very heavy loads were transported on the early turnpikes. The freight wagons were very heavy, awkward vehicles. These wagons had tires, three or four inches wide. The wagon beds were not built on a straight line, but were curved and lowest in the middle. White covers were stretched over bows bent into semicircles. With the great length and weight of the wagon and a team of six horses, managing was not easy. The harness and other appliances of the horses were enough to burden the strongest drivers.

     Tonnage hauled on these freight wagons was unlimited. As much as seven tons was distributed on these vehicles. Complaints were made concerning these extra heavy loads. The toll charge was established by the number of horses pulling the loads rather than by the tonnage. Thus, a team of six horses pulling an empty load was charged the same as a team of six horses pull- ing a heavy load.


     The covered wagon was used mostly in transporting families to the great unexplored western states. However, it was also used in Tennessee but not in great excess.

     An early writer of this period describes one of these wagons outfits as follows:

     "Imagine a boxlike cart nearly as long as an or- dinary bedroom and so wide that I could stretch myself out full length across the body. The top and sides were covered with Osnaburg sheeting, which is cloth made of flax or tow...It makes excellent wagon covers for the rain cannot soak through the cloth, and it is so cheap that one can well afford to use its double thickness, which serves to keep out the wind as well as the rain. The front of the wagon and a small window-like space at the end are left open, but could be securely closed with curtains that buttoned at the side.

     "Underneath the cart were hung buckets, the churn, lanterns, water kegs, and farming tools...Around the inside of the wagon were hung such things as we might need on the journey. There were pots and pans, towels, clothing, baskets, and two rifles...Our beds were laid in the bottom of the wagon and covered with bed-clothes to save them from being badly soiled, as would be likely if we slept upon them at night and cooked and ate and did the housework on them during the daytime. Our cook stove was set up at the rear end of the wagon where it could be pushed out on a small shelf fastened to the rear axle when we wanted to use it...We did not carry many dishes, and nearly everything of the kind was of metal such as tin or iron. We carried plates, cups, and basins of tinware."

     The "horseless carriage" was, at the turn of the century, a new revelation. The condition of the roads were not specifically set up for this manner of travel. The particulars of this venture was automobile versus nature. With the ruts, dips and the uneven road condition the automobile was more or less confined to the locality of the owner. The cities had their own form of government concerning this system. 

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