May 1, 2008

But first, Sixth Street was our historic Plank Road

There's a phone line down at the bottom...

Like an archaeological dig, Racine's Sixth Street utility work and repaving project is exposing the city's history. Unlike archaeologists, however, the construction crews are destroying what they find.

Not that there is much to save, beyond some rotting planks and brick pavers upon which the city's commercial reputation was built; even a hollowed piece of wooden water pipe here and there. All have been uncovered by the Sixth Street road construction crews -- and for the most part unceremoniously hauled away to the landfill to be crushed and buried.

Sixth Street, layer by layer...

Some of the bricks have been recovered by adjoining storefront owners. Alongside the construction path today, a few small piles of rotting planks -- four or five feet long, maybe 6" by 8" in dimension -- lay by the sidewalk.

Kate Remington, whose concrete art studio overlooks -- and shortly will become part of the reconstruction project -- brought it to our attention Thursday morning. She took a portion of a plank to the mayor, suggesting that a cross-section of the road would make an interesting historical marker along the street.

Kate Remington, with a plank road remnant

Indeed, a glance deep into a 15-ft. pit, at the bottom of which workers this morning had uncovered a working telephone line -- normally, all utilities are buried no more than three feet deep -- clearly showed the street's evolution. There were remnants of the old wooden plank highway, the brick paving stones above that, railroad tracks on top of the brick, and then the cement we're used to.

Yes, we said wooden plank highway.

Kate Remington directed our attention to an Historic Sixth Street Business District Walking Tour Guide, a slim pamphlet published in 1990 by the Racine Landmarks Preservation Commission. It described how Congress appropriated funds in 1838 for a "military highway" from Racine to Janesville, and how the Racine-Rock River Plank Road was constructed in 1848, "the year Wisconsin became a state and Racine became a city."

The following material comes from that pamphlet. It was written by Don Rintz.

"In 1834 Gilbert Knapp laid claim to about 140 acres of land lying both north and south of the Root River and the western shore of Lake Michigan. These lands were platted in 1836 as the Village of Racine...

"Much of Racine was then a forest. A few log cabins and even fewer frame houses might be seen here and there in the woods, but most of the early buildings were in a clearing south of the river at the foot of Main Street. Thea area around Sixth or Seventh Streets was 'way out of town.'

"But it became a way into town when, in 1838,Congress appropriated money for a military highway from Racine to Janesville and onward to Sinipee on the Mississippi River. The easterly section of the government road ran along the route of what is now Washington Avenue an connected at Campbell Street (now Grand Avenue) with Sixth and Seventh. They became principal routes into Racine and out again on the west. Sixth Street became very nearly as important as Main, and commercial development, rather than continuing south on Main Street, turned the corner along the south side of the public square and ran west along Sixth.

"The Historic Sixth Street Business district, as a result, was the second area of the city to develop commercially...

" 'As an inducement for neighboring towns to trade' in the city, the first county history explained, 'Racine took an advanced and liberal position in relation to road improvements.' The Racine-Rock River Plank Road Company was organized by a number of the city's leading citizens on March 6, 1848 -- in the year Wisconsin became a state and Racine became a city.

All that's left from 1848's commercial thoroughfare

"The highway came to be known as the Janesville Plank Road, and it is said to have been the first roadway constructed of planks to be laid westward from the shores of Lake Michigan. It began at Main Street and ran from the square along Sixth and out the government road. The plank pavement was considered a great improvement, a boon to travel and shipping. Stagecoaches used it daily, carrying passengers and mail on a regular schedule, and farmers drove their wagons in to the city filled with sacks of grain or piled high with hay, to be dumped for sale in the public square.

"The plank road was responsible in no small part for the growth of the City of Racine and, most particularly, of the Sixth Street business district...

"The Historic Sixth Street Business District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 24, 1988."


  1. Wow, this is really interesting, what a great story, I love hearing about stuff in Racine's history. I like the historical marker idea too, I think Racinians would like to be able to check it out.

  2. This is so interesting, thanks for the pictures and the history, awesome!

  3. Very cool! I hope that the city does decide to use some material for a historical marker along with a plaque of some sort describing exactly what was written in this story.
    Thanks for posting your find!

  4. Great piece of journalism. Much better than the competition in Racine could ever write. Thank you for providing original local stories!